WASHINGTON (AFP) ― The lone U.S. soldier held captive in Afghanistan was freed Saturday in exchange for five senior Taliban figures detained at Guantanamo Bay, in a dramatic deal brokered by Qatar.
U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl ― who was captured nearly five years ago ― was in “good” condition after Taliban fighters handed him over to “a few dozen” U.S. special operations forces backed up by helicopters at an undisclosed location in eastern Afghanistan, defense officials said.
The five Guantanamo Bay detainees were in turn transferred to Qatar, where restrictions were to be placed on their movements and activities, a U.S. official said.
“Sergeant Bergdahl has missed birthdays and holidays, and the simple moments with family and friends which all of us take for granted,” President Barack Obama said in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by the soldier’s parents Bob and Jani.
“But while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten.”
Obama thanked Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and the government in Kabul for helping to bring home the 28-year-old Bergdahl.
“The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security,” Obama said, referring to the conditions under which the Taliban figures ― all seen as influential ― were transferred.
Bergdahl‘s release comes as the United States prepares to scale back its presence in Afghanistan, 13 years into America’s longest war.
Previous attempts to free the army sergeant through a swap with the Taliban had failed. But this time, Qatar was able to secure an agreement.
An opportunity arose several weeks ago to resume talks on Bergdahl‘s release, a senior U.S. administration official said earlier, “and we seized it.”
Bergdahl disappeared in June 2009 from a base in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province near the Pakistan border, with the Taliban later saying the militants had captured him.
At one time, he was believed to have been held by members of the Haqqani network, the militant outfit that is allied with the Taliban and has ties to al-Qaida.
Bergdahl‘s parents said they were “joyful and relieved” to hear that their son was a free man.
“We will continue to stay strong for Bowe while he recovers,” Jani Bergdahl said at the White House.
Her husband Bob said a few words that appeared to be in the Pashto language of his son’s captors before repeating them in English: “I‘m your father, Bowe.”
He indicated his son might have trouble speaking English after years in captivity and asked the media to grant the family space as they undertake the “considerable task” of Bergdahl’s recovery.
Pentagon officials said Bergdahl was freed in the evening and brought to the Bagram air base north of Kabul, where he was receiving medical treatment.
From there, he will be taken to the U.S. military medical facility at Landstuhl, Germany for further treatment and evaluation, before a reunion with his family in the United States.
Soon after the news broke, Obama faced criticism over the transfer of the inmates from the U.S. military prison in Cuba, over both the individuals released and the possible precedent set.
Influential Republican Senator John McCain ― while welcoming Bergdahl‘s release ― called the transferred detainees “hardened terrorists.”
The senator demanded to know what steps were being taken to “ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to fight against the United States and our partners.”
Republican Congressman Mike Rogers chimed in: “This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages.”
According to a State Department official, the five transferred detainees are Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq.
A Taliban source in the Pakistani city of Quetta told AFP that the men had all been officials in the Taliban regime driven out of power in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and that they were influential among the Taliban ranks.
News of their transfer was welcomed with “great happiness” by the militants, who had long sought their release from Guantanamo Bay as a condition for launching peace talks.
Their transfer leaves 149 detainees in the U.S. military prison in Cuba, including 12 Afghan nationals, four of whom have been approved for transfer.
During his time in captivity, Bergdahl appeared in several Taliban videos.
In January, the United States obtained a “proof of life” video of the soldier ― the first concrete evidence in more than three years that he was still alive.
Secretary of State John Kerry said he had spoken with outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to brief him on the exchange.
Word of Bergdahl’s release came just days after Obama unveiled plans to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, ending America‘s longest war 15 years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Obama confirmed that the 32,000-strong U.S. contingent in Afghanistan would be scaled back to about 9,800 troops by the start of next year.
The drawdown relies on Afghanistan signing a long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement laying out the terms of the U.S. military presence in the country after this year.