Afghan Taliban Release U.S. Soldier Taken Hostage In 2009
By Eyder Peralta
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the final remaining captured American soldier from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been released after almost five years of being held captive by the Afghan Taliban, The White House reported Satuday.
In exchange for Bergdahl's release, the U.S. will transfer five detainees at the Guantánamo Bay prison to Qatar.
In a statement, President Obama said he was "honored to call [Bergdahl's] parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return."
Obama thanked the Amir of Qatar for his help in the negotiations.
"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.
According to a Pentagon official, the transfer happened at about 10:30 a.m. ET. somewhere in a field in eastern Afghanistan. A team of U.S. special forces met up with 18 armed Taliban fighters. Without incident, Bergdahl was allowed to walk over to the Americans and he was flown to Bagram Airfield. He'll eventually be flown to Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
"We will give him all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal, and we are grateful that he will soon be reunited with his family," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon official said, the transfer of Taliban prisoners to Qatar is happening now.
Hagel added that the U.S. coordinated with Qatar to "ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised."
A senior administration official said the five detainees will face restrictions on their movements and activities.
The United States had in the past tried to broker a deal with the Afghan Taliban, but, as we reported, the Taliban broke off those talks in February.
Bergdahl was seized after finishing his guard shift in an outpost in the southeastern Paktika province on June 30, 2009. He was 23 at the time. He is 28, now. The details surrounding his capture are unclear: Some accounts have him captured during an attack on his post, others put him walking off his outpost during a counterinsurgency mission. An account in Rolling Stone implies that Bergdahl was "ashamed to even be American" and was defecting when he was captured.
Leaked WikiLeaks documents detail the intense search that took place in the hours and days following his capture.
Hagel said the U.S. never forgot Bergdahl, "nor did we stop working to bring him back."
In a statement, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said: "It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade. Welcome home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl."
Speaking from the Rose Garden Saturday afternoon, President Obama, flanked by Bowe Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, thanked those involved in Bergdahl's recovery and said that while he was gone, "he was never forgotten" by his community and country.
"Right now our top priority is that Bowe gets the care and support that he needs and that he can be reunited with his family as soon as possible," the president said.
Bergdahl's father thanked all those who took part in his son's recovery, saying it was difficult to put his feelings into words.
Update at 2:02 p.m. ET. A Central Part Of Reconciliation Efforts:
The release of Bergdahl was always seen as part of the larger U.S. effort toward the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, a senior administration official said.
The efforts — to reach a peace deal between the Taliban and Afghan government — began in 2010, but Bergdahl has been a piece of the puzzle since 2011.
"For all that time, our efforts have been coordinated at the highest levels of the U.S. government," the official said.
The official added that several weeks ago, another opportunity for negotiations arose and "we seized it."
"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," the official said.
But this also marks a success of indirect talks between the U.S. and the Taliban's political arm in Qatar. The prisoner swap, the official said, "was a part of a broader reconciliation framework."
This is significant because, as you might remember, even the opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar has been a diplomatic tightrope, with plenty of fits of starts.