HAILEY, Idaho >> There will be no hero’s welcome for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in his hometown, no fanfare of parades, music or picnics in the park.
A planned celebration for the end of June marking his return after five years of Taliban captivity in Afghanistan has been scrapped, largely due to security concerns as his release has touched off a nationwide debate. Was he an American prisoner of war who should be welcomed home after years in the enemy’s hands or a deserter who abandoned his unit who should be punished accordingly?
For those who knew Bergdahl and his family in this small central Idaho town surrounded by forests and mountains, the politics of war have no place. They just want Bergdahl back home.
“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,” said Lee Ann Ferris, who lives next door to the Bergdahl family and watched Bowe grow up. “He’s a hometown kid and he’s already suffered enough.”
The town of 8,000 has been swamped with hate mail and angry calls, labeling the 28-year-old Bergdahl un-American and a traitor. Given the prospect of large crowds on both sides of the debate, organizers abruptly canceled their welcome home celebration.
“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.
Hailey Chamber of Commerce President Jane Drussel said she and the organization have gotten angry mail and calls from people lambasting the town’s plans.
“The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban released a 17-minute video of his weekend handover, an exchange for the U.S releasing five Taliban detainees. The footage shows 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.
Bergdahl was captured after walking away from his unit, unarmed, in 2009. He’s currently at a military hospital in Germany, where he was reported in stable condition.
His parents have spoken publicly only briefly since his release. Several cars were parked outside their modest home Wednesday behind a closed gate with signs that read, “Guard dog on duty” and “No Trespassing.”
U.S. lawmakers and others 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.
A Taliban statement quoted leader Mullah Mohammad Omar as saying the release of the five Taliban was a significant achievement. President Barack Obama has defended the swap, citing a “sacred” obligation to not leave men and women in uniform behind.
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.
U.S. negotiations with the Taliban to secure Bergdahl’s release have gathered steam since April. Besides the chance that his health was in decline, administration officials also wanted to make a deal because they knew that the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would decrease resources on the ground and reduce the amount and quality of intelligence from the area.
The administration is required to notify Congress 30 days before transferring Guantanamo detainees, but the White House thought waiting was too risky — that too much could go wrong in a month so they went forward with the fast-moving negotiations.
In an interview that aired Thursday on the BBC, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said: “Can you imagine if we would have waited or taken the chance of leaks? Over a 30 day period? … That would have seriously imperiled us ever getting him out.”
Bergdahl was released less than 30 days after the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar that gave the White House assurances that the detainees, after being transferred to Doha, the capital of Qatar, would adhere to a one-year travel ban and other restrictions. Bergdahl was freed just one day after the White House received a green light from the military that the operation was a go — and less than an hour passed between the time the U.S. learned the transfer was about to happen and Bergdahl walked to freedom.
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.
Hagel said the Army will review the case, and cautioned against drawing conclusions.
Faiez reported from Kabul. Associated Press writers Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, Lolita Baldor in Brussels, Donna Cassata, Ken Dilanian and Bradley Klapper in Washington, and Kim Gamel in Cairo contributed to this report.