The U.S. has a “sacred rule” that it does not leave any prisoners behind in warfare, regardless of circumstances, President Barack Obama claimed in a June 3 press conference in Poland.
Obama’s “sacred rule” is an important new principle in U.S. national security strategy, because it elevates the fate of any individual soldier — and their parents — above the needs of national security for 310 million Americans.
“We don’t condition” those prisoner trades, Obama said. “That’s what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over to a war theater should expect.”
Obama also claimed that the prisoner, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, was held by the Taliban, even though he was captured by the Haqqani network, which is a group that Obama declared to be terrorists in 2012.
U.S. officials have not explained what the Haqqani network got when it released Bergdahl in exchange for the release of five top ranking members of another organization, the Taliban.
Obama punted when asked about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture.
“Let me make a very simple point, and that is, regardless of the circumstances [of the soldier’s capture], whatever those circumstances turn out to be —- we still got an American soldier back…. period, stop,” Obama said, when he was asked to explain his decision to trade five top Taliban commanders for one American deserter.
Bergdahl walked away from his camp in 2009, and was immediately captured by gunmen working for the Haqqani network.
Also, Obama suggested that he did not violate federal law by releasing the top Taliban commanders — including the former commander of the Taliban’s army — without notifying Congress.
Instead, he simply said he was short of time to make the trade.
“The process was truncated because we wanted make sure we did not miss that window” of opportunity for a prisoner swap, he said.
Congress already knew he would do a deal, he said. “We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sergeant [Bowe] Bergdahl,” he said.
Also, there was a medical reason to ignore the 30-day requirement, he suggested. “We were concerned about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health… and we seized that opportunity,” Obama said.
However, Bergdahl’s health was good enough for him to walk to the helicopter that picked him up, and the administration has not presented any evidence that the prisoner swap could have waited a month or two.
In his press conference, Obama also shifted U.S. policy by choosing to describe the Taliban as a legitimate fighting force.
Prisoner exchanges are “what happens at the end of wars,” Obama said, “That was true for George Washington, it was true for Abraham Lincoln, it was true for FDR. That’s been true for every combat situation.”
The award of legitimacy to the Taliban undermines the Afghan government, which has long maintained that Taliban is a illegitimate army. Before Obama, the U.S. had never recognized the Taliban as a legitimate army, even when it was the ruling power in Afghanistan.
Obama also downplayed the risk that the five Taliban commanders would rejoin the Taliban army.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it was contrary to American national security,” he said.