WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama said Friday that the controversial prisoner swap that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from five years of captivity in Afghanistan is “something that I would do again.”
“We have released, both under my administration and previous administrations, a large number of former Taliban fighters, some of whom will return to the battlefield,” he said. “But by definition, you don’t do prisoner exchanges with your friends, you do ’em with your enemies.”
He said other tough choices lie ahead as the U.S. extricates its forces from Afghanistan over the next two years.
“It’s important for us to recognize that the transition process of ending a war is going to involve, on occasion, releasing folks who we may not trust but we can’t convict,” Obama said in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams.
“And I’ve been very clear about the fact that over time, we’re going to have to whittle away at the number of prisoners who were in Guantanamo as part of this transition out of the war in Afghanistan.”
About 150 detainees remain in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, most for more than a dozen years. None has been brought to trial. The facility, set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, held more than 750 detainees at one point.
The interview was the first time Obama has described the prisoner exchange in the context of his repeated vows to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Congress has made that impossible so far, and anger welled up this week because Obama didn’t consult Congress before transferring the five Taliban members to Qatar last Saturday as part of the swap for Bergdahl.
Under international law, countries typically release or repatriate prisoners of war at the end of hostilities.
An administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the White House doesn’t see the expected withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 as a legal tripwire, however.
According to a transcript of the interview with NBC, Obama made clear he is at least aware of 2016 as he considers ways to shrink the population at Guantanamo Bay.
“So, is this part of that Guantanamo drawdown?” Williams asked.
“It’s a specific circumstance involving a U.S. servicemember who we needed to get back,” Obama replied. “The point I’m making, though, that there are a number of individuals who’ve been released in the past in Guantanamo who are not the kind of people that you and I would consider friends of the United States of America.
“But by definition, if we, in fact, are ending a war,” he said, “then there’s going to be a process in which some of those individuals are going to be released.”
Obama did the interview while traveling in Europe, where on Friday he attended a ceremony honoring the U.S. and allied servicemen killed during the D-Day invasion 70 years ago.
Obama said being in Normandy reminded him of Stanley Dunham, his grandfather and primary father figure, who served in World War II.
Dunham wasn’t in the D-Day landings, Obama said, but participated in the “mop-up” work that followed.
“Very rarely do I think about the office that I hold in terms of what my family would think about it,” Obama said. “My grandfather passed away over 20 years ago. This is one of those days where I thought to myself, ‘It would have been nice to have him here.’
“I think he would’ve been proud to see that what he was part of so long ago was now being celebrated by a grandson who was the commander in chief of the greatest military on Earth,” Obama said. “I think he would have been pretty proud, and probably more than a little surprised.”