'New opening' for US-Taleban talks possible: US defence chief Chuck Hagel

United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to members of the military during his visit to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on June 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to members of the military during his visit to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on June 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

WASHINGTON (AFP) - United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed hope Sunday the release of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl would lead to direct US talks with the Taleban, as the US defended its decision to transfer five Taleban detainees to Qatar in a prisoner swop.

"It could, it might and we hope it will present an opening," Mr Hagel said in an interview from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan with NBC's Meet The Press programme.

Mr Hagel noted that the United States had engaged in talks with the Taleban before, until they were broken off in 2012, and that it strongly supported an Afghan-led effort to reach a peace agreement with the Taleban. "So maybe this will be a new opening that can produce an agreement," he said.

Sgt Bergdahl, 28, was released Saturday near the Afghan-Pakistani border after nearly five years in Taleban captivity, in a surprise development that came as the United States days is winding down its 13-year intervention in Afghanistan.

Mr Hagel credited Qatar and its emir with Sgt Bergdahl's release in a trade for five high-level Taleban militants held at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Mr Hagel denied that the United States had negotiated with terrorists, as Republican critics are charging, and defended the trade as an effort to save Sgt Bergdahl's life.

He insisted: "We didn't negotiate with terrorists."

"This is a guy who probably went through hell for the last five years," he said. "And let's focus on getting him well and getting him back with his family."

Mr Hagel arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit on Sunday, a US defence official said.

He arrived at Bagram Airfield, a US-controlled vast military base north of Kabul, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The United States on Sunday defended its decision to allow five Taleban detainees to be transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar to secure the release of Sgt Bergdahl, saying time was running short.

Republican lawmakers have sharply criticised the move to send the five senior Taleban figures to Qatar to facilitate the release of Sgt Bergdahl, saying it sets a bad precedent and endangers US soldiers still in Afghanistan.

Some have even suggested that the administration of President Barack Obama may have broken the law by failing to notify Congress 30 days before the Guantanamo detainees were transferred.

But National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Sgt Bergdahl's health was deteriorating, and Washington had no choice but to do whatever was necessary to bring the 28-year-old army sergeant home.

"When we are in battles with terrorists and terrorists take an American prisoner, that prisoner still is a US serviceman or woman. We still have an obligation to bring that person back," Ms Rice told CNN.

"Because it was the Taleban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back."

Ms Rice said the US government acted on the chance to gain Sgt Bergdahl's freedom - with the help of the Qatari government as an intermediary - in part due to mounting concerns about his health.

"He had lost a good bit of weight and we were very concerned that time was not something we could play with, that we needed to act when we had the opportunity," she said.

On the issue of congressional notification, Ms Rice said Sgt Bergdahl's failing health had created an "acute urgency" to act, which made it "necessary and appropriate" not to adhere to the 30-day notification requirement.

Following that requirement "would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sgt Bergdahl would have been lost", she said, adding that Congress was notified before the detainees were transferred.

"We could not take the risk of losing the opportunity to bring him back safely."

Ms Rice refused to provide specifics about the security arrangements made with Qatar about the five Taleban figures, reiterating only that their movements and activities would be restricted.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.