TIME White House

Republicans Criticize White House Over Bergdahl Exchange

Ted Cruz, Mike Rogers and others say the terms of Bergdahl's release could put the U.S. in a dangerous position

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A day after the country celebrated U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s return to American custody after nearly five years in captivity, the White House found itself playing defense Sunday for failing to notify lawmakers in advance before transferring five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for Bergdahl’s freedom.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) accused President Barack Obama in a statement Saturday of breaking the law by failing to give Congress proper notice of the transfers. The law requires the White House to tell lawmakers about Guantanamo transfers 30 days in advance. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, however, told Congress about the five Bergdahl transfers Saturday morning, just hours before the prisoners were on a plane and headed to Qatar.

“In executing this transfer,” McKeon and Inhofe said, “the President … clearly violated laws which require him to notify Congress thirty days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated. Our joy at Sgt. Berghdal’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it.”

Obama himself signed the 30 days rule into law last year. He also wrote a controversial signing statement along with that law in which he said he believes the President is allowed to “act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.” The Bergdahl deal is the first in which he’s put this belief into practice. (It’s also worth noting Obama campaigned in 2008 against the use of signing statements to enhance the executive branch’s power).

Hagel, along with White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice, were out playing defense for the White House on Sunday. Hagel said while en route to Afghanistan Sunday that Bergdahl’s worsening health meant the White House needed to move quickly to make the exchange. And Rice, making the Sunday show rounds, told CNN’s Candy Crowley that the administration had previously told Congress a Bergdahl-style scenario was a possibility.

” … this opportunity is one that has been briefed to Congress when we had past potential to have this kind of arrangement,” said Rice on CNN’s State of the Union.

“So it wasn’t unknown to Congress,” Rice continued. “The Department of Defense consulted with the Department of Justice. And given the acute urgency of the — the health condition of Sgt. — Sgt. Bergdahl and given the president’s constitutional responsibilities, it was determined that it was necessary and appropriate not to adhere to the 30 day notification requirement, because it would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sgt. Bergdahl would have been lost.”

Other Republicans, meanwhile, knocked the White House over what they said was a move that will put U.S. troops at risk in the future. Republican Texas Senator and potential 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz pounded home that point Sunday on This Week, saying the administration paid a “dangerous price” to retrieve Bergdahl.

“How many soldiers lost their lives to capture those five Taliban terrorists that we just released?” Cruz asked ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “Ambassador [Susan] Rice basically said to you, yes, U.S. policy has changed. Now we make deals with terrorists. And the question going forward is, have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers? What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we’ve gone after?”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), meanwhile, said during Sunday State of the Union that “if you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every al-Qaeda group in the world — by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before.”

And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former P.O.W. himself, was also skeptical of the exchange. “I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan,” said McCain in a statement.

TIME Guantanamo

These Are the 5 Guantanamo Detainees Being Released in Exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Congress on Saturday that the United States would be transferring five detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Their release is in exchange for the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan nearly five years ago.

Though Hagel did not mention any names in his statement, TIME has confirmed their identities with a senior administration official.

Previous releases of terror suspects from Guantanamo have seen mixed results. Some have returned to private life, others have gone on to fight again in Afghanistan and now in Syria. That’s the case with Ibrahim bin Shakaran, a former Moroccan detainee who was recently killed while commanding an al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist group in Syria.

This time, the U.S. isn’t taking any chances. The five, high-ranking members of the Afghan Taliban — whose names were first floated as part of an exchange deal in 2012 — will be transferred to Qatar, where they will live under close observation in some form of house arrest.

A look at who will be released:

1. Mohammad Fazl

One of the first detainees captured in Afghanistan to be transferred to Guantanamo — in January 2002 — Fazl is the Taliban’s former deputy minister of defense. He was one of the Taliban’s founding members, rising through the ranks to become Taliban Chief of Army Staff when it ruled Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch accuses Fazl of presiding over the mass killings of Afghanistan’s Shi’ite Muslims in 2000 and 2001.

2. Mohammad Nabi

The former chief of Taliban security in Qalat, the capital of Afghanistan’s southern Zabul Province, Nabi was a latecomer to the Taliban, joining only in the late 1990s. After taking a few years away, he rejoined in 2000 to work as a radio operator for the Taliban’s communications office. He has claimed during U.S. military interrogations to have been working for the C.I.A. in the search for Taliban Chief Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda operatives. Those confessions may earn him difficulties upon his release.

3. Abdul Haq Wasiq

Also accused by Human Rights Watch of mass killings and torture during the Taliban’s time in power, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of intelligence is considered to have been at one time one of Mullah Omar’s closest confidants, with a direct line to the elusive leader.

4. Mullah Norullah Nori

Nori was the senior Taliban commander in the strategic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif when U.S. forces arrived in late 2001. A former governor of two northern provinces, he is considered to be one of the most high-ranking Taliban officials ever to be held in Guantanamo. He is also accused of being involved in the massacre of thousands Shi’ite Muslims in 2000 and 2001, when the Taliban attempted to purge Afghanistan of what it deemed a deviant form of Islam.

5. Khairullah Khairkhwa

The former Taliban governor of Heart Province, which borders Iran, Khairkhwa has also served as a military commander and a minister of the interior. He was close to Mullah Omar as well as current Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who briefly worked with the Taliban administration in the 1990s. According to the Associated Press, Khairkhwa’s U.S.-based lawyers have argued in court filings that by the time of his capture in 2002 he had already distanced himself from the Taliban.

TIME Afghanistan

America’s Only Prisoner Of War Released by the Talilban

Just shy of the fifth anniversary of his abduction from a military base in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American P.O.W. still in captivity, was released by his Taliban captors and is back in American custody Saturday. The news came via a statement released Saturday by the White House, in which U.S. President Barack Obama expressed gratitude to the Emir of Qatar for his efforts in securing Bergdahl’s freedom.

“On behalf of the American people I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return,” said Obama in the statement.

A separate statement from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that he told Congress earlier in the day that the U.S. would be transferring five detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. Though the names of the detainees were not mentioned, it is most likely that their transfer is linked to Bergdahl’s release: in March of 2012, a similar exchange, negotiated between the U.S., representatives of the Taliban, the Qataris and the Afghan government, collapsed. That deal fell apart likely due to Congressional foot dragging and a schism between the Taliban faction that wanted to negotiate and the group that held him captive.

How Bergdahl, 28, fell into the hands of the Taliban remains unclear. Within days of his disappearance on June 30, 2009, a Taliban commander crowed to the media that his group had captured a drunken American soldier outside his base. Two and a half weeks later, they released a video in which Bergdahl, dressed in local garb and showing the beginnings of a wispy beard, said he had been captured after falling behind on a routine foot patrol. Unnamed soldiers from his base, however, told international media outlets that he had wandered into the scrub-covered mountains on his own with his journal and a supply of water, leaving his weapons and armor behind. An unidentified U.S. official told the Associated Press at the time that he had “just walked off” after his guard shift was over.

As the months passed his captors released videos — proof of life, perhaps, but also propaganda. In one video, dating to April 2010, Bergdahl sports a thick beard and wears an army sweatshirt that looks fresh out of the package. Bergdahl says he is being treated well and is allowed to exercise. One of his captors, a commander with the Haqqani network that was holding him, told TIME in 2012 that at that point, Bergdahl, who was raised a devout Presbyterian, started talking about converting to Islam. Suspicious at first, his captors asked if it was out of fear or frustration that he wanted to convert.

“He told us, ‘Your way of life has impressed me, and I want to live like you,’” said the commander.

Bergdahl escaped a few months later, only to be recaptured several days afterwards and severely beaten.

In November of 2011, the U.S. government initiated talks with the Taliban in Qatar in the hope of bringing an end to the war. In the course of the discussions, the Taliban told the Americans that they wanted five senior Taliban officials released from Guantanamo, according to a senior Administration official. The U.S. then raised the possibility of including Bergdahl in the process. The two sides soon had a tentative agreement.

However, the talks fell apart on March 15, 2012. Discussions of an exchange then faded into the background as the U. S. started considering other ways to bring the war in Afghanistan to a close. The White House and the Pentagon, however, insist that Bergdahl had never been forgotten, and that efforts to secure his release continued non-stop. Today’s statements from Washington indicate that after a two-year delay, they finally met success — Bergdahl is on his way home.

For Bergdahl’s family in Hailey, Idaho, it will be the end of an agonizing journey.

“We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home! We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” Bob and Jani Bergdahl said in a statement Saturday.

But for Bergdahl, who has been criticized by many for the circumstances surrounding his capture and his appearance in propaganda videos, it will be just the start.

“He will always be separate from everyone else–not an outcast, but isolated,” Jere Van Dyk, a CBS news consultant who was captured and held for 45 days in 2008 by the same group, told TIME in 2012. “And it won’t be right, but he will be called a traitor. He has a long road ahead.”

TIME Afghanistan

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Lone American Still Held in Afghanistan, Safely Returned

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
President Barack Obama speaks with Jani Bergdahl, left, and Bob Bergdahl, right, the parents of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, after the announcement that Bowe Bergdahl has been released from captivity, May 31, 2014. Ngan Mandel—AFP/Getty Images

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier still in captivity in Afghanistan, was released and returned to U.S. special operations forces Saturday. Berghdal had been held since 2009, when he was captured in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province.

Berghdal was released in exchange for five Afghan Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, who have been delivered into Qatari custody, officials said.

“While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten. His parents thought about him and prayed for him every single day,” President Barack Obama said alongside Bergdahl’s parents at the White House Saturday. “And he wasn’t forgotten by his country, because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”

The five prisoners are Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq, an administration official confirmed.

According to a senior Defense official, the handover occurred at approximately 10:30 am Eastern time Saturday along the eastern Afghanistan border with Pakistan, and took place quickly without incident, peacefully and without violence. Berghdal was in the custody of about 18 Taliban fighters and was ushered onto a waiting helicopter by U.S. special operations forces. Once aboard, Berghdal wrote on a paper plate “SF?,” asking over the loud aircraft engines whether he was being rescued by special forces operators. The official said the troops replied loudly “yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.” Berghdal then broke down crying.

Bergdahl is currently being held at a U.S. forward operating base under the care of American doctors until he is cleared for further travel, at which point he will be transferred to Bagram Airfield.

A 23-year-old private first class at the time of his capture on June 30, 2009, Bergdahl, a native of Hailey, Idaho, was promoted twice during his captivity to the rank of sergeant and is now 28 years old. American officials believe he spent much of his captivity in Pakistan and are not sure when he was moved to Afghanistan for the transfer. The last video showing proof that Berghdal was still alive was seen in January of this year.

Bowe Bergdahl
This file image provided by IntelCenter on Dec. 8, 2010, shows a frame grab from a video released by the Taliban containing footage of a man believed to be Bowe Bergdahl, left. IntelCenter/AP

President Barack Obama called Berghdal’s parents Saturday morning to inform them of their son’s release. “We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home! We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” the Bergdahl family said in a statement. “Today, we are ecstatic!”

The U.S. began efforts to bring about Afghan reconciliation with the Taliban in late 2010, and since May 2011 Bergdahl’s release has “been a central element of our reconciliation efforts,” a senior administration official said Saturday. The transfer was not directly negotiated with the Taliban, but through the Amir of Qatar, officials said, whose help is being called “instrumental” to the agreement. Talks to bring about Berghdal’s release resumed only in the last several weeks, after the Taliban showed interest in resuming dialogue regarding Berghdal and its prisoners being held at Guantanamo. Obama called the Amir Tuesday to confirm the transfers, and the Qataris facilitated the handing over of Bergdahl.

The announcement comes days after President Obama announced that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will end this year, pending a complete withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2016.

“Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years,” Obama said in a statement Saturday. “Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Qatar is taking security precautions with the former Guantanamo prisoners to ensure U.S. safety is not compromised. “The United States government never forgot Sgt. Bergdahl, nor did we stop working to bring him back,” Hagel said in a statement. The former detainees will be under a travel ban for a year, and will be subjects to other restrictions on their movement and activities, official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to brief him on the agreement Saturday, he said in a statement.

American officials indicated they believe the transfer will ease the way for reconciliation with the Taliban. “By conducting successful indirect talks with the Taliban’s political commission, this transfer was a part of a broader reconciliation framework,” a senior administration official said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Vietnam war P.O.W., said in a statement Saturday that “all Americans share in the joy that the Bergdahl family feels today and for which they have waited so long.” However, he also expressed skepticism about the future of the five prisoners transferred from Guantanamo.

“I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan,” added McCain.

TIME Religion

Pacifism Does Not Honor Veterans

It’s easy to fire rhetorical darts at wars. It’s much more complicated to pursue the best policies that will ensure security for our nation.

What is the best way to remember America’s veterans, OUR veterans, and the wars in which they served?

In his Memorial Day column “The Questions We Don’t Ask on Memorial Day,” Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a prominent liberal religious advocacy group, reflects on the anguish of Americans who have lost loved ones to war. He adds: “I also wonder why nobody raises the questions about why all these sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, dads and moms–all these best of friends–had to die in those wars.” And he asks: “So why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from the wars? What was gained or lost? Who decided to go to war? And why do their families often bear the least consequences for the war decisions?”

Wallis admits these questions anger some and imply disrespect for veterans. But he insists that “to raise the hard questions of why wars were decided and who decided them is actually a way to respect those who paid such a heavy price and perhaps would prevent more such horrible human costs.” He recalls the Vietnam War as the “war in my youth,” which “was based on lies and was exposed as a political and moral mistake, but went on even after we knew it was wrong and destined for disaster,” and “violated our nation’s best values and religious convictions.”

Iraq was another war “based on lies,” Wallis asserts, and “morally compounded by being a war over oil.” And he describes the Afghanistan War as having been launched to “bring those who attacked us to justice, became the longest war in our history, again without honest answers to what we really have accomplished.” He laments that “war has become such a business in America, whose beneficiaries are not the people we remember on Memorial Day,” and whose “victims,” i.e. those who served in the armed forces, are disproportionately the poor.

What Wallis does not mention is that he is a pacifist who opposes all war. Pacifism has a long, reputable history within Christianity, although it has always been a small minority view. He does not mention veterans from the Korean War or World War II, although he must similarly disapprove of those wars.

But pacifists, especially if they are Christians, in their faithful witness, should not distort history or malign the traditional majority of their faith who affirm the justice of some wars. What was the “lie” behind the Iraq War? Lies are deliberate untruths, but almost no one doubted that Saddam Hussein had deployable chemical weapons. Opponents of that war like Wallis never explained their own alternative to handling the murderous Saddam, nor how the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as hosts to the al Qaeda, could be displaced peacefully.

As to Vietnam, more died in the subsequent “peace” of Communist conquest in Southeast Asia than during the previous 20 years of war. Many war opponents glamorized those conquerors without acknowledging their murder and repression.

All wars illustrate humanity’s intrinsic sinfulness, for which religion ideally offers redemption and moral uplift. But in our fallen world, with its dictators, aspiring conquerors and terrorists, every lawful government is divinely ordained, as Christians and most people of faith agree, to defend the innocent and to pursue approximate justice, however imperfectly. It’s easy to fire rhetorical darts at wars and the always flawed leaders who lead our nation into them. For those with real responsibility, it’s much more complicated to pursue the best policies that will ensure security for our nation and an at least incrementally more just world.

The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Vietnam, Korea, World War II and others across history had noble intent and, like all wars, had their share of tragic consequences. Even “good” wars are filled with suffering by the innocent. Wars are morally justified only when the alternatives are even worse.

Veterans in America’s wars, whether the volunteers of the last 40 years, or the draftees of earlier decades, were not “victims.” They were and are Americans who sacrificially served their country. They should be honored, not romanticized, nor condescended to.

Wallis suggests Memorial Day as a time for asking “hard questions about our wars, what we have learned, and whether such painful losses are truly worth the terrible cost.” Perhaps those questions should also include asking what the world might look like absent the service of America’s veterans and the willingness of America to resist aggression and tyranny.

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. He is author of Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century.

TIME

Pictures of the Week: May 23 – May 30

From the Santa Barbara drive-by shootings and Ukrainian presidential elections, to martial law in Thailand and Kim and Kanye’s wedding extravaganza, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

 

 

TIME Military

5,565 Days: Why Declare When U.S. Troops Will Leave Afghanistan?

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Afghan youngsters head home near Kandahar, just as U.S. troops will be doing. Nathan Derrick / Getty Images / Moment RF

Commanders fear Taliban, al-Qaeda resurgence after GIs head home

The timing of the launch of the war in Afghanistan was a well-kept secret until just before it began on Oct. 7, 2001. That preserved the precious element of surprise, and gave U.S. troops every possible edge once the war began.

But we now know when it will end: Dec. 31, 2016, 5,565 days after it began and more than 30 months from now. That gives U.S. troops—and the enemy—a calendar for action.

Time is an element on the battlefield, as vital—perhaps moreso—than troop numbers or ground covered. But President Barack Obama, backed by the U.S. public, has concluded that by the end of 2016—after more than 15 years of the nation’s longest war—it will be time to furl the colors and come home.

Why make such a declaration so early? Is the President that confident that whatever progress has been made will stick? That it’s time for Afghans to tend to their own security? Or are the American people simply so tired of war they want the troops brought home as soon as possible?

No, it’s not that the U.S. is tired, insists Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It would be a mistake to decide that we are politically exhausted or weary militarily,” Dempsey said Wednesday. Facing budget pressures, he said, it’s time for the U.S. to partner with other nations in grappling with the long-term challenges posed by al-Qaeda and other terror groups.

But the decision poses a risk, the Army’s former No. 2 officer warns. “By ending the war in 2016 with no residual force whatsoever, [Obama's] creating a relatively high-risk situation that could squander the gains that we have made,” retired four-star Army general John Keane says of Obama’s troop-withdrawal timetable. “What I fear—and I can see it coming—is that al-Qaeda has always coveted Afghanistan,” he says. “They will want to make their way back into Afghanistan and we will not have a capability to deal with them.”

Then there are the history books to think about, a former top U.S commander in Afghanistan notes. “The President probably wasn’t talking as much to the audience in Afghanistan as the audience in the United States,” says David Barno, a retired three-star Army officer who commanded all U.S. and allied troops there from 2003 to 2005. “My speculation would be that the President feels strongly that part of his legacy is to have ended both of the wars [in Afghanistan and Iraq] that were in full-bore when he took the job.”

It’s silly to suggest the U.S. is “rushing” to leave after it has been in Afghanistan for nearly 13 years and sacrificed 2,223 troops (74% of which under Obama) in its effort to oust the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and rebuild the country. “We believe it’s necessary for planning purposes to be clear to our own government, and to our allies and partners, about the commitments that the United States is prepared to make in 2015 and then through 2016—that’s prudent planning,” a senior Administration official said. “We never signed up to be a permanent security force in Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban.”

But while some military veterans agree that a “residual force” of 9,800 U.S. troops may be adequate post-2014—assuming expected Afghan agreement—they are bemused at the President’s insistence on declaring such a deadline. “The military command definitely desired a residual force to stay without time constraints based on the conditions on the ground,” Keane says. The U.S. troop presence will drop to about 4,900 in 2016, and vanish—except for traditional embassy and arms-sales billets—by 2017.

Barno fears that the $4 billion the U.S. is pumping into Afghanistan each year will stop flowing shortly after the U.S. troops come home from what he calls an “inconclusive” war. “My biggest worry is we’re setting the stage for a post-2016 cutoff of financial aid to the Afghan military that will cause it to come apart at the seams,” he says. “Then you’ve put your entire 15-year enterprise at risk.”

TIME White House

White House Proposes $5 Billion Global Anti-Terrorism Fund

U.S. soldiers walks along a ridgeline during a patrol up a mountainside near Forward Operating Base Shank on March 31, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan.
U.S. soldier walks along a ridgeline during a patrol up a mountainside near Forward Operating Base Shank on March 31, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan. Scott Olson—Getty Images

President Obama announced plans for a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) during a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday

Updated 11:35am E.T.

President Barack Obama unveiled a proposed $5-billion “terrorism partnership fund” Wednesday to aid other countries in fighting extremists and other radical groups.

The President said he would ask Congress to support the establishment of a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) during a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“These resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions,” Obama said, “including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaeda; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali.”

The fund would add vital resources to help tackle fallout from the ongoing conflict in Syria, he said, where fighting between the regime of President Bashar Assad and opposition forces has attracted extremist Islamist groups seeking to take advantage of a power vacuum. “With the additional resources I’m announcing today, we will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors—Jordan and Lebanon; Turkey and Iraq—as they host refugees, and confront terrorists working across Syrian borders,” Obama said.

The fund would allow the Department of Defense to improve and expand counterterrorism training, assist other countries’ efforts, and collaborate with the State Department to support stable governments around the world in their “efforts to counter violent extremism and terrorist ideology,” the White House said.

During television appearances on Wednesday morning, Secretary of State John Kerry defended Obama’s plans to reduce U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

“This is not an abandonment of Afghanistan,” Kerry said on NBC’s Today show. “This is an emboldenment. This is an empowerment of Afghanistan.”

While appearing on CBS This Morning, Kerry said that withdrawing from Afghanistan will allow the U.S. to devote more resources to fighting terrorism around the word. The nation’s foreign policy, he said, should be updated to reflect the “rapidly changing, more complex world where terrorism is the principal challenge.”

Kerry also told Good Morning America on ABC that the U.S. has “people on the ground” and is “working hand in hand with Nigerians” to recover the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Islamic radicals.

TIME Religion

The Questions We Don’t Ask on Memorial Day

Why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from them?

Monday was Memorial Day, full of family trips and events, lots of picnics and barbecues with friends and neighbors, and a national day off from school and work. For us it was the Northwest Little League All Star game here at Friendship Field in Washington D.C., a family tradition for many years. My wife Joy, the Commissioner, organized the game day, including a wonderful picnic on a glorious baseball day for players, parents, relatives, and many fans–with 300 hotdogs!

It was also a day to remember all the people who have died in America’s wars. For the families of those war victims and so many of their fellow veterans it was a day of remembering and mourning. In the quiet moments of listening to the national anthem while looking at the American flag, our little baseball crowd with hats off might have been thinking about the meaning of the national holiday. But right afterward it was “Play Ball.”

On Memorial Days I always end up listening to the many stories from the families who lost their most beloved ones and from the veterans whose eyes still tear up when they recall their dearest buddies lost on battlefields far away. The emotion and pain always moves me. And watching all the messages of veterans’ organizations, you also see the incredible pain of those who came back from war with injuries and memories that still afflict their bodies, minds, and hearts. But I also wonder why nobody raises the questions about why all these sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, dads and moms–all these best of friends–had to die in those wars.

So why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from the wars? What was gained or lost? Who decided to go to war? And why do their families often bear the least consequences for the war decisions?

These are very hard questions, and people get angry when they are raised as some already are in reading this. Some will say it disrespects those who have suffered and died. But to raise the hard questions of why wars were decided and who decided them is actually a way to respect those who paid such a heavy price and perhaps would prevent more such horrible human costs.

I almost never hear veterans speak about the merits of their war, or its cause or purpose, or the strategies and ideologies behind the decisions to go to war. They talk about their friends, their brothers and sisters, their “family” who they lost on the battlefield. And the families of lost servicemen and women talk about how their loss was so devastating and life-changing. Hardly any of the Memorial Day testimonies are to the war; they are to the war victims.

The war in my youth was the Vietnam War and I still hardly ever go to the Vietnam Memorial. The few times I’ve gone there, I felt enormous pain. My generation’s names are etched on that long black wall, and when I read and touch them I feel overwhelmed with grief.

The Vietnam War was based on lies and was exposed as a political and moral mistake, but went on even after we knew it was wrong and destined for disaster. Vietnam’s American casualties were disproportionately lower-income and racial minorities. This war sank into tactics that killed many innocents while damaging the souls of our own soldiers. Vietnam violated our nation’s best values and religious convictions, but even then many were angry when leaders like Dr. King asked hard questions about war.

Iraq was another war based on lies, and morally compounded by being a war over oil. Was this a war of necessity or choice? Again, the casualties were significantly lower-income people and racial minorities who volunteered for the military hoping for future opportunities they didn’t have. Only some brave souls questioned why so few were asked to bear the terrible costs while the rest of the nation went on with life as usual. Afghanistan, begun to bring those who attacked us to justice, became the longest war in our history, again without honest answers to what we really have accomplished.

War has become such a business in America, whose beneficiaries are not the people we remember on Memorial Day. The veterans we honored yesterday are not even receiving adequate care when they come home and are being used as political pawns, as the latest Veterans Administration scandal reveals.

As we remember those who died serving our country, Memorial Day should also be a day when we ask the hard questions about our wars, what we have learned, and whether such painful losses are truly worth the terrible cost.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

TIME Foreign Policy

Why Obama Is Leaving 10,000 Troops in Afghanistan

Jake Beaudoin, a U.S. Army Private of 82nd Airborne Division, takes cover during a controlled detonation to clear an area for setting up a check point in Zahri district of Kandahar province
Shamil Zhumatov—Reuters

A clean break like the U.S. made from Iraq is tempting. But it's not a risk Obama is ready to take—yet

By choosing to leave almost 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the formal end of American combat operations later this year, President Barack Obama made a choice between two imperatives.

One was to make a clean break with a war that has lasted more than 12 years, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, with inconclusive results. Obama was happy to take that path in Iraq, from which he pulled out the last U.S. soldier in December 2011. (There’s some dispute as to whether Obama preferred to leave a small residual force but was denied by the Iraqi government; suffice to say Obama wasn’t hell-bent on staying.)

The other imperative was to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become like a horror movie killer who springs up the moment the you think he’s dead and turn your back. Afghanistan’s security forces probably aren’t yet ready to defend their government against the Taliban, a weakened but hardly defeated enemy. A residual American force can aid the Afghans with everything from intelligence to logistics to medical assistance. (The Afghans have paltry Medevac capabilities, for instance—hardly a morale booster for their troops.) Obama may rightfully doubt that maintaining tens of thousands of U.S. forces can remake Afghanistan into a tidy success story. But neither does he want to preside over a slide back into a 1990s-style civil war.

That civil war, of course, produced a Taliban government which harbored al-Qaeda and made the Sept, 11, 2001 terror attacks possible—the reason we invaded Afghanistan in the first place. Obama never promised to make Afghanistan a functioning democracy, or even to defeat the Taliban. His repeated vow has been to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda” in the region and prevent the terror group’s ability to threaten the U.S. and its allies. A residual U.S. force in Afghanistan will be crucial to achieving that goal.

Even with most al-Qaeda figures killed or driven from the country, a senior U.S. official told TIME in December, “it’s likely there would be some residual al-Qaeda or or related affiliates that persist beyond [the end of 2014]. And we would retain the requirement to disrupt any threats. The preferred way for us to do that is in a partnership with the Afghans.”

Americans are much more able to conduct counterterrorism operations than the Afghan security forces. Perhaps just as important, the residual U.S. troops will be right across the border from Pakistan’s notorious tribal areas, where the most dangerous al-Qaeda-affiliated operatives are still based. Since the U.S. has no military presence in Pakistan, the ability to continue drone missions from Afghanistan will be enormously valuable.

A continued U.S. presence will also have symbolic and diplomatic value, as the former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, told TIME in February. At a moment when there was talk of a residual force numbering in the very low thousands—or even none at all, given that Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a post-2014 military agreement with the U.S. (his successor is expected to do so)—Crocker said a robust American force was a valuable way of “signaling to friends and foes alike that we’re in this for the long run” in a region that America has abandoned before.

But wait: Obama is also announcing that all U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. That would seem to undermine the message of support and engagement—and risk allowing al-Qaeda and the Taliban to bide their time for just a bit longer, right?

Possibly. But it’s also possible that that America’s troop presence could be extended by a future agreement in the final days of Obama’s term, especially if the Afghan government feels vulnerable and Washington sees signs of a local al-Qaeda resurgence.

An Iraq-style clean break from Afghanistan may be tempting. But recent history suggests it’s risky.

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