Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the prisoner of war held by the Taliban for nearly five years, has been released as part of a swap in which the U.S. will be sending five mid-level Taliban detainees held at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
Bergdahl, captured by militants near his U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009, was picked up Saturday by U.S. Special Forces there and flown to an undisclosed U.S. military base nearby. Bergdahl is expected to be transferred out of the country and brought to the large U.S. military medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany in the next day or so before being sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. By Saturday afternoon, the five detainees identified for transfer from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay had boarded an Air Force C-17 cargo jet bound for Qatar.
Obama celebrated Bergdahl's release, a rare bit of good news from Afghanistan, as a good omen of the potential for broader reconciliation talks with the Taliban.
"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," Obama said in a statement.
Discussions over a prisoner swap have been considered for months, if not years. After the euphoria of Bergdahl's return subsides, there will be questions about why the administration waited this long to make the transfer, and why the U.S. in effect gave up five detainees for one American prisoner. Other options for his rescue had been on the table for some time - including a "kinetic option" in which the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, would execute a potentially highly risky rescue of Bergdahl. But options in which military force would not be used were always more likely, and a prisoner swap was considered to be the one with the best chance for success.
The on-again, off-again talks with the Taliban had accelerated sharply in recent weeks. The militants signaled through the Qataris, who acted as intermediaries, that they had an interest in resuming discussions of a swap: Bergdahl for a small group of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. On Tuesday, Obama called the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and received assurances that U.S. national security "would not be compromised" if the swap went through, according to an administration official. Obama then agreed to the swap of the five detainees, who include two senior Taliban commanders that have been implicated in the murders of thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan.
"We have viewed Sgt. Bergdahl's release through diplomatic means as a vital goal in its own right because of our historic commitment to leave no soldier behind on the battlefield," said a senior administration official.
Bergdahl was picked up in eastern Afghanistan by about three dozen Special Forces troops, who landed in helicopters and were met by about 18 armed Taliban forces as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, provided the military with reconnaissance support overhead. Bergdahl was able to walk on his own to the helicopters and speak with the Special Forces units in what amounted to a significant but otherwise uneventful transfer, a defense official said.
According to reports, amid all the noise at the meeting site, Bergdahl wrote "SF?" on a paper plate, in effect asking if his rescuers were from Special Forces units. When he was told that they were, and that they had been looking for him for a long time, Bergdahl apparently broke down and cried.
"We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home," Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, who live in Idaho, said in a statement. "We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son," adding: "today, we are ecstatic."
Not everyone within the military will be sharing their joy. Senior commanders will instead have to ask hard questions about what will become of Bergdahl, who is thought to have wandered off his U.S. military base in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan voluntarily before being taken by the Taliban. He was thought to have been held by the militant group known as the Haqqani network in Pakistan. Now that he has been released, the military will conduct a more thorough investigation into what led to his capture in the first place.
A "proof of life" video released earlier this year had provided evidence that Bergdahl was alive and reasonably healthy at about the same time the U.S., Qatar and the Taliban reopened discussions about his release. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had appointed Michael Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, as the Pentagon's point man during the talks.
People familiar with the matter said Hagel's appointment of Lumpkin helped to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of securing Bergdahl's release, which had been slowed by tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who opposed the talks because he believes his government should be the only entity involved in direct negotiations with the Taliban. But as Karzai prepares to leave office and a runoff election will determine his successor in June, it's possible an opportunity, coupled with security assurances from the Qataris, presented itself to the administration.
"Sgt. Bergdahl's return is a powerful reminder of the enduring, sacred commitment our nation makes to all those who serve in uniform," Hagel, traveling in Asia, said in a statement. "The United States government never forgot Sgt. Bergdahl, nor did we stop working to bring him back."