WASHINGTON — The only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed from Taliban captivity in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said Saturday.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. Special Forces by the Taliban Saturday evening, local time, in an area of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. Officials said the exchange was not violent and the 28-year-old Bergdahl was in good condition and able to walk.
In a statement, President Obama said Bergdahl’s return “is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.”
The handover followed secret and 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 Afghans that had been held at Guantanamo Bay.
According to a senior official traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter to be evacuated, he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate, “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.
Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009. Haqqani operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war. The network, which the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, claims allegiance to the Taliban militia, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.
Officials said Bergdahl was expected to be transferred to Bagram Airfield, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations, then on to the United States.
Several dozen Special Forces soldiers flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with the approximately 18 Taliban militia members. The official said the commandos were on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Bergdahl.
The official added that the United States 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.
Officials said Obama spoke with Bergdahl’s parents Saturday, shortly after their son had been handed over to his fellow soldiers. Bergdahl’s family was in Washington on a previously scheduled visit when they received the news.
The parents of the freed soldier, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, said in a statement that they are “joyful and relieved.”
“We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” they said.
The five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo were still at the base as of Saturday morning, but were being transferred into the custody of Qatari officials. Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from traveling outside Qatar for at least one year.
The detainees are believed to be the most senior Afghans still held at the prison. They are believed to be:
n Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence
n Mullah Norullah Nori, a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001
n Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taliban positions, including interior minister, and had direct ties to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and top al-Qaida terrorist Osama bin Laden
n Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan, and later worked as a radio operator for the Taliban’s communications office in Kabul
n Mohammad Fazl, whom Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for presiding over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 as the Taliban sought to consolidate their control over the country.
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.