WASHINGTON – Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Taliban captive for nearly five years, was handed over Saturday to the U.S. military in Afghanistan in a negotiated exchange for the release of five senior Taliban detainees at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bergdahl, an Idaho native, was 23 when he disappeared on June 30, 2009, after completing guard duty at a U.S. base in the eastern Afghan province of Paktika, near the border with Pakistan.
He was the only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan, and his release comes days after President Barack Obama announced plans to withdraw nearly all U.S. soldiers from America’s longest war over the next two years.
Several dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, backed by three helicopters and overhead drones, took custody of Bergdahl from a group of Taliban fighters Saturday evening in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, a U.S. official said.
Officials said the exchange was over quickly and the 28-year-old American was in good condition and able to walk.
Once aboard one of the helicopters, Bergdahl wrote “SF?” on a paper plate, inquiring over the roar of the rotors whether the soldiers sitting with him were special forces, the official said.
He began to cry after a special operations soldier shouted back that they had been looking for him “for a long time,” the official said.
In an emotional ceremony, Obama stood with Bergdahl’s parents in the White House Rose Garden and said the “top priority” was making sure the freed soldier gets the “care and support he needs to be reunited with his family as soon as possible.”
His father, Bob Bergdahl, said Bowe was having difficulty speaking English after so long in captivity. Addressing his son in Pashto, he said, “I’m your father, Bowe.”
The elder Bergdahl had been learning Pashto, the language common to Taliban fighters, in hopes of communicating directly with his son’s captors.
The Bergdahls were visiting Washington, D.C., on a previously scheduled trip from their home in Hailey, Idaho, for Memorial Day, officials said. Obama telephoned them Saturday to tell them of his release.
Bergdahl is receiving treatment at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, but he is expected to be transferred to a U.S. military hospital in San Antonio for further treatment and help readjusting, officials said.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone who has supported Bowe,” said his mother, Jani Bergdahl.
The transfer followed a week of indirect negotiation between the U.S. and the Taliban, mediated by the government of Qatar, which will take custody of the five Afghan detainees.
The Taliban prisoners were flown from Guantanamo Bay on Saturday along with Qatari officials, who will accompany them to the Persian Gulf emirate, where they will be subject to security restrictions, including a one-year travel ban, the official said.
The five had been imprisoned since early 2002, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban from power in Kabul.
Bergdahl is believed to have been held captive by the Haqqani network. The militant group is based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has posed one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war.
The Haqqani network, which the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban yet operates with considerable autonomy.
U.S. officials, who requested anonymity to discuss details of Bergdahl’s transfer, said their previous efforts since early 2011 to secure Bergdahl’s release had come up empty because of U.S. reluctance to deal directly with the Taliban and repeated breakdowns in the talks.
White House officials said a new opening emerged several weeks ago, brokered by Qatar’s emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, who spoke with Obama about the possible exchange Tuesday.
By using Qatar as an intermediary, the U.S. was able to avoid direct negotiation with the Taliban, a long-standing policy meant to affirm that the U.S.-backed Afghan administration in Kabul is the country’s legitimate government.
Taliban officials have long linked Bergdahl’s release to the freeing of several high-ranking members captured by or turned over to U.S. forces after the American-led invasion in late 2001.
The detainees – Muhammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq – were mostly high-ranking officials during the decade before 2001 when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
Getting Bergdahl back has been a key objective for the Pentagon before it pulls out most of the 32,800 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.
“It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in a statement. “Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.”
Hope that Bergdahl was alive was renewed in January when U.S. officials confirmed the existence of a video in which he referred to recent events.
Still, that video raised concerns about his health, which appeared to be in decline. A month after he was taken, Bergdahl had said in another video that he was scared that he might never again see his family.
U.S. officials renewed calls for his release after the latest video.
The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture remain something of a mystery. There has been some speculation that he willingly walked away from his unit, raising the question of whether he could be charged with being absent without leave or desertion. A senior U.S. official told the Associated Press on Saturday that the Army would make the decision on any charges but that the feeling at the moment was that Bergdahl had suffered enough in his ordeal. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and requested anonymity.
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, had lost faith in the U.S. Army’s mission there and was considering desertion. Bergdahl told his parents he was “ashamed to even be American.”
The Associated Press could not independently authenticate the emails.
Were Bergdahl to be charged with desertion, the maximum penalty he would face is five years in prison and a dishonorable discharge, if it’s proven that he deserted with the intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service. A case of AWOL, ended by the U.S. apprehending him, would not require proof that he intended to remain away permanently. The maximum punishment for that would be a dishonorable discharge and 18 months’ confinement, according to military justice experts.