Bowe Bergdahl's first hours of freedom: Now the questions begin

The release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in return for five Taliban helps fulfill two of President Obama’s goals: Bringing US combat activity in Afghanistan to an end and reducing the number of detainees at Guantánamo.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama speaks with Jani Bergdahl and Bob Bergdahl, the parents of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, at the White House Saturday after the announcement that Bowe Bergdahl has been released from captivity. Sgt. Bergdahl had been held prisoner by the Taliban since June, 2009.

US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, five years a prisoner of the Taliban, wasn’t sure who the armed men hustling him into a helicopter somewhere in eastern Afghanistan were.

“SF?” he wrote on a paper plate, asking whether they were US Special Forces.

"Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time,” they shouted back at him over the roar of the rotors, at which point Sgt. Bergdahl broke down.

After months of sporadic negotiation involving US officials, other countries in the region, and Bergdahl’s parents, the young soldier was exchanged for five Taliban detainees from the US facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to be sent to Qatar.

Bergdahl was taken first to a forward operating base in Afghanistan, then to the military hospital at Bagram Air Base for initial medical evaluation and his first night of freedom. From there, he will be flown to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas for debriefing and treatment.

Many questions remain about Bergdahl’s capture and years of captivity. Why had he gone on his own “outside the wire?” Was he taken over the border into Pakistan, where it might have been harder for rescue teams to find him? How well was he treated? What did he learn from and about his captors?

And perhaps the most politically potent question: Who are the five detainees sent to Qatar, and will they now pose any threat to Americans or US interest?

Political figures – especially Republicans – were quick to respond to the news that Sgt. Bergdahl had been released.

Sen. John McCain, shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, tortured, and held prisoner for more than five years, said, “All Americans share in the joy that the Bergdahl family feels today and for which they have waited so long.”

But he also expressed deep skepticism about the prisoner swap involving five mid- to high-level Taliban.

“These particular individuals are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Under the agreement, the five will not be able to leave Qatar for one year.

Rep. Howard McKeon of California and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said in a statement that President Obama is required by law to notify Congress 30 days before any terrorists are transferred from the US facility at Guantánamo. They said Obama also is required to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated.

"Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans,” they said. “That incentive will put our forces in Afghanistan and around the world at even greater risk.”

Rep. McKeon is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Sen. Inhofe is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee said he is “extremely troubled” by the circumstances surrounding the prisoner exchange.

“This fundamental shift in US policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take US hostages,” Rep. Rogers said in a statement. “Further, I have little confidence in the security assurances regarding the movement and activities of the now released Taliban leaders and I have even less confidence in this Administration’s willingness to ensure they are enforced. I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.”

A senior administration official, agreeing to speak on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the law regarding congressional notification had not been followed, according to the Washington Post

“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.”

In any case, Saturday’s events help fulfill two of Obama’s goals: Bringing US combat activity in Afghanistan to an end without any American POWs still being held; and reducing the population of detainees at Guantánamo.

In a White House Rose Garden appearance late Saturday afternoon, Obama was joined by Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents, Jani Bergdahl and Bob Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, both of whom spoke movingly.

As they stood with the President just hours after their son's release, Mr. Bergdahl, who grew a long, thick beard to honor his son, said Bowe Bergdahl was having trouble speaking English after his rescue. The elder Bergdahl had worked to learn Pashto, the language spoken by his son's captors, and delivered him a message in that language.

Switching back to English, he said "the complicated nature of this recovery will never really be comprehended."

Sgt. Bergdahl is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network, which operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to US troops in the war. The network, which the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.

As described by CNN, the New York Times, and other news sources, the five men sent to Qatar in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl are:

Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa, former Afghan minister of interior during Taliban rule, governor of Herat, and a military commander.

Mullah Mohammad Fazl, deputy minister of defense under the Taliban, senior military commander who was chief of staff of the Afghan army, and commander of the Taliban's 10th Division. 

Mullah Norullah Nori, senior Taliban commander during hostilities with US and its allies in Mazar-e Sharif in late 2001, and the Taliban governor of two provinces.

Abdul Haq Wasiq, formerly deputy director of Taliban intelligence.

Mohammad Nabi Omari, a member of the Taliban and associated with both al Qaeda and another militant group Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin. He was the Taliban's chief of communications and helped al Qaeda members to escape from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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