US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – captured and held prisoner for nearly five years by the Taliban in Afghanistan – was released Saturday in return for the transfer of five detainees from the US facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
The handover of Sgt. Bergdahl was made to US Special Forces, apparently without incident.
In a White House statement, President Obama said, “On behalf of the American people, I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return, mindful of their courage and sacrifice throughout this ordeal.”
“Today we also remember the many troops held captive and whom remain missing or unaccounted for in America’s past wars,” Mr. Obama said. “Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.”
In separate statements, Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel both thanked the Amir of Qatar for helping bring about Bergdahl’s release.
“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,” Secretary Hagel said. “I appreciate the efforts of the Emir of Qatar to put these measures in place, and I want to thank him for his instrumental role in facilitating the return of Sgt. Bergdahl.”
Other senior military and diplomatic officials weighed in as well.
"It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. “Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome home SGT Bowe Bergdahl."
“The responsibility to make sure all of our men and women in uniform return from battle, especially those taken prisoner and held during war, is deeply personal to me as someone who has worn the uniform of my country – and as someone who was deeply involved in those efforts with respect to the unfinished business of the war in which I fought,” said Secretary of State John Kerry.
Secretary Kerry is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. Along with Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for more than five years, then-Sen. Kerry worked to achieve an accounting of American servicemen listed as missing.
The handover of Bergdahl followed secret and indirect negotiations between the US and the Taliban, with the government of Qatar serving as the go-between. Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees that had been held at Guantanamo Bay.
Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, had been held by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. He is thought to have been captured by members of 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.
According to a senior defense official traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate, the "SF?" – asking the troops if they were special operations forces.
They shouted back at him over the roar of the rotors: "Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time."
Then, according to the official, Bergdahl broke down.
The official added that the US still believes that Bergdahl was being held for the bulk of the time in Pakistan, but it was not clear when he was transported to eastern Afghanistan.
In a background statement from the White House Saturday, the National Security Council said: “U.S. efforts to facilitate reconciliation with the Taliban began in November 2010, and since May 2011 the recovery of Sgt. Bergdahl has been a central element of our reconciliation efforts. For all that time, our efforts have been coordinated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”
Regarding five detainees sought by the Taliban in return for negotiations, the New York Times last year reported:
“Two were senior Taliban commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. When asked about the alleged war crimes by an interrogator, they ‘did not express any regret and stated they did what they needed to do in their struggle to establish their ideal state,’ according to their interrogators.
“There is also a former deputy director of Taliban intelligence, a former senior Taliban official said to have ‘strong operational ties’ to various extremist militias, and a former Taliban minister accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking American forces.”
Under the conditions of their release, the five Guantánamo detainees will be banned from traveling outside of Qatar for at least one year. They have yet to be officially identified.
"We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home!” Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl said in a statement Saturday. “We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.