American soldier freed by Taliban in swap for Guantanamo detainees
The only American prisoner of war has been freed by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five detainees from Guantanamo, Obama administration officials announced on Saturday.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to special operations forces by the Taliban that evening, local time, in an area of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. Officials said the exchange was not violent and that the 28-year-old was in good condition and able to walk.
“While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten,” President Obama said in the White House Rose Garden, where he was joined by Bergdahl’s parents. “The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
Bergdahl’s handover was made possible by indirect negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, with the government of Qatar serving as the go-between. Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees.
Several dozen U.S. commandos, backed by helicopters and surveillance aircraft, flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with the approximately 18 Taliban members. Officials said the special ops team was on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Bergdahl.
According to a senior Defense official, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter, he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate: “SF?” — asking the troops if they were special forces.
“Yes!” they shouted back over the rotors’ roar. “We’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
Then, according to the official, Bergdahl wept. He had been held captive for nearly five years.
How Bergdahl fell into the hands of the Taliban remains something of a mystery. He disappeared on June 30, 2009, after leaving his base in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan.
Within days, a Taliban commander crowed that his group had captured a drunken American soldier outside his base.
Two weeks later, they released a video in which Bergdahl said he had been captured when he fell behind on a routine foot patrol.
Soldiers from his base, however, told reporters that he had wandered into the scrub-covered mountains on his own with his journal and a supply of water, leaving his weapons and body armor behind.
In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine quoted emails Bergdahl is said to have sent to his parents that suggest he was disillusioned with America’s mission in Afghanistan. He told his parents that he was “ashamed to even be American.”
Bergdahl is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally that operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to American troops in the war.
Officials said he was first transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluation, and then in the evening was en route to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Bergdahl is tentatively scheduled to go to the San Antonio Military Medical Center, where he would be reunited with his family.
His parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, have worked tirelessly for their son’s release and had been in Washington on a scheduled visit when they received a morning call from Obama informing them of the good news.
As they stood with the president in the Rose Garden hours later, Bob Bergdahl said his son was having trouble speaking English. So Bergdahl, who had learned Pashto, the language of his son’s captors, delivered him a message in that language: “I’m your father, Bowe.”
Switching back to English, he thanked the American government for recovering his son.
Amid the jubilation, though, senior Republicans on Capitol Hill said they were troubled by the means by which Bergdahl’s release was accomplished.
Top Republicans on the Senate and House armed services committees accused Obama of breaking the law, which requires the administration to notify Congress before any transfers from Gitmo are carried out.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged to The Washington Post that the law was not followed.
“Due to a near-term opportunity to save Sgt. Bergdahl’s life, we moved as quickly as possible,” the official said. “The administration determined that given these unique and exigent circumstances, such a transfer should go forward notwithstanding the notice requirement.”