WASHINGTON -- The only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan has been freed by the Taliban 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 an address Saturday night, President Obama stood with Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, outside the White House.
“While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten," Obama said. “This morning, I called Bob and Jani Bergdahl and told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son, Bowe, is coming home.”
In an emotional statement, Bob Bergdahl said his son was having a difficult time speaking English, and addressed his son directly.
"I'm your father, Bowe," he said in Pashto, the language of his son's captors, then repeated it in English.
"The complicated nature of this will never really be comprehended," Bob said. "We look forward to continuing the recovery of our son, which is going to be a considerable task for our family."
Jani thanked everyone across the world who supported her son, and vowed to "continue to stay strong for Bowe while he recovers."
In a statement earlier Saturday, President Barack Obama said Bergdahl's recovery "is a reminder of America's unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.”
The handover followed indirect negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, with the government of Qatar serving as the go-between. Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees who were held at Guantanamo.
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.
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 Afghan Taliban, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.
Officials said Bergdahl was expected to be transferred to Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations, then on to the United States.
Several dozen U.S. special operations forces flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with the approximately 18 Taliban members. The official said the commandos were on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Bergdahl.
The official added that the U.S. 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.
All the officials insisted on anonymity in order to discuss details of Bergdahl's transfer.
Officials said Obama spoke with Bergdahl's parents Saturday, shortly after their son had been taken into U.S. custody. Bergdahl's family was in Washington on a previously scheduled visit when they received the news.
Bob and Jani Bergdahl, said in a statement that they were "joyful and relieved.”
"We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son," they said.
The U.S. has long been seeking Bergdahl's release, but efforts have intensified as Obama finalized plans to pull nearly all American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Officials said the Taliban signaled to the U.S. in November that they were ready to start new talks on the issue of detainees. After the U.S. received proof that Bergdahl was still alive, indirect talks began, with Qatar sending messages back and forth between the two parties.
The talks intensified about a week ago, officials said, resulting in Bergdahl's release and the transfer of the Afghan detainees.
The five Guantanamo detainees 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 of Qatar for at least one year.
Obama and the emir of Qatar spoke last week about the conditions of the release, which have been codified in a memorandum of understanding between the two countries, officials said.
The detainees are believed to be the most senior Afghans still held at the prison. They are believed to be:
- Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence
- 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
- Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taliban positions including interior minister and had direct ties to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden
- 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
- 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.
Taliban and Afghan officials could not be reached for comment. In Pakistan, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said her government was "not aware of" Bergdahl's release or the negotiations leading up to it. She declined to comment further.
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 (AWOL) or desertion.
Baldor reported from Singapore. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.
Statement by the President on Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years. 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. Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield. And as we find relief in Bowe’s recovery, our thoughts and prayers are with those other Americans whose release we continue to pursue.
For his assistance in helping to secure our soldier's return, I extend my deepest appreciation to the Amir of Qatar. The Amir’s personal commitment to this effort is a testament to the partnership between our two countries. The United States is also grateful for the support of the Government of Afghanistan throughout our efforts to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release.
This week the United States renewed its commitment to the Afghan people and made clear that we will continue to support them as their chart their own future. The United States also remains committed to supporting an Afghan-led reconciliation process as the surest way to achieve a stable, secure, sovereign, and unified Afghanistan. While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.