HAILEY, Idaho – Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s hometown abruptly canceled plans Wednesday for a welcome-home celebration, citing security concerns over the prospect of big crowds – both for and against the soldier.
The town of 8,000 has been swamped with hate mail and angry calls over Bergdahl, whose release after five years of Taliban captivity in Afghanistan has touched off a debate over whether the 28-year-old should be given a hero’s welcome or punished as a deserter.
Meanwhile, the Taliban released a 17-minute video of his handover showing a thin, tense-looking Bergdahl being patted down for explosives by U.S. forces before climbing aboard an American helicopter in the dusty Afghanistan desert.
Just before he was turned over, one of his Taliban captors leaned in and warned him: “Don’t come back to Afghanistan. You won’t make it out alive next time.” His captors waved goodbye as he was led away.
In Hailey, organizers of a celebration that had been scheduled for June 28 issued a statement saying the town doesn’t have the means to handle such an event, given the prospect of big crowds on both sides of the debate.
“If you had 10,000 people, 5,000 on one side and 5,000 on the other, then just due to the national attention, we don’t know what to expect,” police Chief Jeff Gunter said.
The town has had an event called “Bring Bowe Back” for several years. When news broke over the weekend of Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay, organizers had announced it would be a welcome-home party instead.
Jane Drussel, Hailey Chamber of Commerce president, said she and the organization have received hate mail and calls from people lambasting the town and branding Bergdahl un-American and a traitor.
“The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful,” she said.
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban after walking away from his unit, unarmed, in 2009.
U.S. lawmakers and others also have complained that Congress should have been consulted about the prisoner exchange, that the deal will embolden the Taliban to snatch more American soldiers, and that the released Afghans will filter back to the battlefield.
In Washington, Rob Williams, the U.S. national intelligence officer for South Asia, told the Senate intelligence committee Tuesday that four of the men are expected to resume activities with the Taliban, according to two senior congressional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the session was classified.
The five include the former Taliban interior minister, who was described in a U.S. case file leaked by WikiLeaks as having had close ties to Osama bin Laden; the Taliban’s former deputy chief of intelligence; and a former member of a joint Taliban-al-Qaida cell.
The video of Bergdahl after five years in captivity shows a well-choreographed release, with the American sitting in a silver pickup truck while more than a dozen Taliban fighters with machine guns and faces largely covered by scarves stand guard nearby on a rocky hill overlooking the site.
Wearing traditional loose-fitting Afghan trousers and a long tunic, Bergdahl, his head shaved, blinks frequently and looks tense as he peers out of the truck. At one point, he wipes his eye as if to get rid of some dust.
A Black Hawk helicopter lands, kicking up a cloud of dust. Two Taliban fighters, one carrying a white flag tied to a long, crooked stick, lead Bergdahl, now carrying a plastic bag, halfway toward the chopper.
Three apparent members of U.S. special operations forces approach the group, shake hands with the two Taliban fighters and take Bergdahl toward the helicopter.
One of the three men pats down Bergdahl, while another takes the plastic bag from him and drops it on the ground. Then they all climb into the helicopter.
According to a voiceover on the video, the handover took place about 4 p.m. Saturday in rugged Khost province, near the Pakistani border.
Back in the U.S., Sue Martin, a friend of the Bergdahl family and owner of Zaney’s Coffee Shop in Hailey, said Bergdahl’s appearance in the video shocked her. She said he looked frail, tired and damaged.
“That’s not the Bowe who left here and lived here,” Martin said.
Bergdahl was reported to be in stable condition at a military hospital in Germany.
A Taliban statement, also distributed to the media, quoted leader Mullah Mohammad Omar as saying the release of the five Taliban was a significant achievement for the movement.
President Barack Obama has defended the swap, citing a “sacred” obligation to not leave men and women in uniform behind.
On Capitol Hill, Obama’s goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba faced re-energized opposition from Republicans and increased questioning from fellow Democrats in reaction to the trade.
Hoping to ease mounting criticism, officials from the State Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies briefed senators behind closed doors Wednesday evening. They showed the lawmakers a 1 1/2-minute video provided by the Taliban that proved Bergdahl was alive and indicated to the administration that his deteriorating health required quick action.
“He didn’t look good,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Officials also gave a detailed description of the steps the administration took in the days leading up to the exchange, according to senators.
Some of Bergdahl’s former comrades have complained that U.S. soldiers died during the search for him after he walked away. The military has not confirmed such a link.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday the Army will review the case, and he cautioned against drawing conclusions until then.
“We don’t do that in the United States. We rely on facts,” he said at a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.
Lee Ann Ferris, a neighbor of the Bergdahls in Hailey, said the town is trying not to pay attention to the criticism of the soldier and the talk about how he fell into Taliban hands.
“It’s like a modern-day lynching. He hasn’t even been able to give his side of the story yet. This community will welcome him back no matter what,” she said.
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