Taliban fighters released the sole remaining American military hostage Saturday morning to a team of U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, who quickly hustled him onto a helicopter. Once airborne, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl scribbled the letters SF? on a paper plate, seeking confirmation that he was with Special Operations forces.
Yes! one of the troops hollered back above the din of the aircraft’s blades, according to a defense official who described his first moments of freedom. We’ve been looking for you for a long time.
Bergdahl, 28, who had been held captive nearly five years, broke down in tears.
His release was secured after the Obama administration, working through Qatari government intermediaries, agreed to free five high-profile Afghan inmates held by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The influential commanders, including the former head of the Taliban’s army, were loaded onto a U.S. military aircraft bound for Doha in Qatar after U.S. officials got confirmation that Bergdahl had been freed.
President Barack Obama hailed Bergdahl’s recovery as a triumph of years of high-wire diplomatic efforts that reached a breakthrough in the waning months of the U.S. combat mission there.
He wasn’t forgotten by his country, Obama said Saturday evening in the Rose Garden, standing alongside Bergdahl’s parents, Robert and Jani. The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.
His father, who has grown the type of scraggly beard favored by members of the Taliban, said a few words to his son in Pashto, the language spoken in southern Afghanistan, saying that he understood his son is having trouble speaking English.
I am your father, Bowe, Robert Bergdahl said. I look forward to continuing the recovery of our son which will be a considerable task for our family.
While leaders across the political spectrum expressed relief at the news, prominent Republican lawmakers chided the White House for skirting a legal requirement to notify them about the planned release of Guantanamo inmates. Some criticized the president for breaking with longtime U.S. policy against negotiating with militant groups.
This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take US hostages, said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Questions of duty
Bergdahl’s release at 10:30 a.m. in Khost province, which borders Pakistan, capped a week of intense, secret negotiations conducted through the Qataris. A team of dozens of Special Operations forces took custody of Bergdahl from a group of 18 Taliban fighters. The rare encounter on the battlefield between warriors who have spent years killing one another lasted just a few minutes and was peaceful, U.S. officials said.
Bergdahl walked onto the aircraft, U.S. officials said, suggesting that he is in relatively stable health. Officials said it was too early to know anything definitive about the mental state of a soldier who bewildered his comrades after he walked off base in volatile Paktika province on June 30, 2009.
There was no indication that the soldier would face any reprimand for the circumstances under which he was taken, which led some of his comrades to call him a deserter. While it is unclear whether he will remain on active duty, a senior U.S. military official said the Army plans to promote Bergdahl to staff sergeant next month.
I can’t imagine there would be repercussions, said the official, who was among several who would speak about the case only on the condition of anonymity.
Defense officials said they were working to get Bergdahl to the United States as soon as possible. After passing through Bagram air base in Afghanistan, Bergdahl was en route to the U.S military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, according to Pentagon officials traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
They said his first U.S. stop will likely be the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for a thorough medical screening, after which he will likely be debriefed by intelligence officials.
The released inmates include Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban deputy defense minister. U.S. officials said that under a memorandum of understanding signed by Washington and Doha, the men will be subject to a yearlong travel ban in Qatar. They declined to offer more details about any restrictions the men would face but expressed confidence that their release would not put Americans in harm’s way.
The United States has coordinated closely with Qatar to ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised, Hagel said in a statement from Singapore, where he was attending a security conference.
Hagel informed members of Congress on Saturday about the prisoner swap deal. The administration is required by law to notify Congress about its intention to release Guantanamo detainees 30 days in advance.
Due to a near-term opportunity to save Sgt. Bergdahl’s life, we moved as quickly as possible, a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain the timing of the congressional notification.
The administration determined that given these unique and exigent circumstances, such a transfer should go forward notwithstanding the notice requirement in the law, the official said.
The Obama administration began seriously exploring the possibility of negotiating Bergdahl’s release in late 2011, when secret talks between U.S. diplomats and members of the Taliban appeared to be gaining traction.
The talks, part of a broader effort to explore a negotiated end of a conflict that had only become deadlier as the White House approved a surge of 30,000 troops in 2009, collapsed in March 2012 when the Taliban suspended them, arguing that the United States was not acting in good faith.
Unexpectedly, representatives of the Taliban conveyed to U.S. officials last fall that they were once again amenable to discussing the release of Bergdahl, but set as a condition that they would deal with Washington only through intermediaries, American officials said.
The Obama administration has sought to keep Bergdahl’s profile relatively low over the years, fearing that widespread publicity of his plight would boost his value in the eyes of the Taliban and strengthen the group’s negotiating hand. For a period, White House officials asked that several U.S. newspapers refrain from publishing his name in the context of peace talks.