White House press secretary Jen Psaki dodged a question from a Fox News correspondent on Tuesday regarding how President Joe Biden is responding to reports that the current Taliban spokesman, Khairullah Khairkhwa, was being detained by the United States at one time but then was exchanged for U.S. Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl during the Obama administration in what became an extremely controversial prisoner swap.
Bergdahl, who deserted his post in 2009 and was captured, was held until he was exchanged in 2014, when Biden was vice president, for five top Taliban commanders who had been held captive by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Khairkhwa was among those five; eventually, they all returned to work in the militant group’s satellite political office in Qatar.
The decision by the Obama administration to make the deal was heavily criticized at the time.
At Tuesday’s White House briefing on the evolving situation in Afghanistan following the U.S. pullout, Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich asked Psaki about the Bergdahl swap and how Biden feels now that Khairkhwa is a principal player in the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
(Video: Fox News)
“If the administration is left to negotiate with the Taliban, including one of the commandos who was released from Guantanamo Bay as part of the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap when President Biden was vice president, how does he feel about that? Does he have any regrets, and how is he digesting that?” Heinrich asked.
In response, Psaki first questioned whether, in fact, Khairkhwa is part of the Taliban negotiating team, suggesting that the U.S. intelligence community may not yet have determined that for certain. But then she pivoted to “thousands” of Taliban prisoners who were released during former President Donald Trump’s administration.
“I’d point to the intelligence community to assess the identity of the individual. I know there’s been reporting on it, but that’s not my position to do from here,” noted Psaki.
“I would also note that in prior negotiations and commitments made during the Trump administration, there were thousands of individuals who were released, so our focus right now is on, again, not taking the Taliban’s word for it,” she added.
“We are assessing, we are closely watching, we are being very clear about the capacities and the capabilities we have at hand should they be needed,” Psaki continued. “Of course, that’s not our objective.”
As part of his plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, Trump authorized the Afghan government to release some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, some of whom returned to the battlefield.
But last week, one man involved in those negotiations — former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — explained to “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace that the Trump administration also never trusted the Taliban, and that during negotiations Trump and Pompeo made it clear that if the Taliban violated any terms of the orderly withdrawal agreement, they would face harsh penalties.
As for Psaki, she defended the Bergdahl prisoner exchange at the time as the State Department spokeswoman, saying it was “absolutely” worth it.
“Was it worth it? Absolutely,” Psaki told then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly. “We have a commitment to our men and women serving overseas, or in our military, defending our national security every day, that we will do everything we can to bring them home, and that’s what we did in this case.”
“This was about bringing home an individual who served his country,” Psaki added.
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