U.S. commandos planned for the worst as they arrived in eastern Afghanistan to free Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after the Taliban agreed to release him as part of a prisoner exchange, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
U.S. special operations forces took custody of Bergdahl at about 10:30 a.m. New York time on May 31 as five Taliban detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were handed over to Qatari authorities, who negotiated the transfer. Captured outside a U.S. base in Afghanistan, he was the only remaining American prisoner of war in the country.
“This is a very happy day for the Bergdahl family,” Hagel told reporters yesterday on a military aircraft before arriving at the Bagram Airfield outside Kabul to meet with U.S. troops. “It’s a very important day for our troops and our country.”
Hagel’s visit to Afghanistan was the first by a senior U.S. official since President Barack Obama announced May 27 that he planned to station 9,800 American troops in the country starting early next year if the next Afghan president signs a bilateral security agreement that has been stalled for months. Almost all U.S. troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2016.
What was billed as a routine troop visit for Hagel about a week after Obama made a trip to Afghanistan took on added significance. Hagel personally thanked about a dozen of the special operations troops who were involved in recovering Bergdahl, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters.
Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, said a sense of excitement grew as the news spread of Bergdahl’s release.
“You almost got choked up,” Dunford said. “It was pretty extraordinary. It has been almost five years and he is home.”
Although details of the swap had been agreed upon, the U.S. commandos arriving to take Bergdahl from the site along the border with Pakistan came prepared to fight, Hagel said.
“Where there’s always danger, you prepare for all eventualities,” said Hagel, who headed to a NATO ministers’ meeting in Brussels after his stop at Bagram. He didn’t meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai or any other Afghan officials.
Bergdahl was brought to the site by a group of as many as 18 Taliban fighters, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on May 31. Bergdahl walked to the waiting U.S. helicopters and the operation was over quickly, according to the official, who asked not to be identified to discuss operations.
“No shots were fired, there was no violence,” Hagel said of the operation, declining to say which commando units were involved or what types of helicopters were used. “It went as well as we not only had expected and planned, but also as well as it could have.”
Bergdahl’s release was the culmination of a five-year effort since his capture. Although the Taliban broke off talks in 2012, the U.S. continued to explore ways to free him, Hagel said.
Fresh negotiations resumed recently when “we found some openings,” Hagel said, without elaborating. “We had the Emir of Qatar willing to take the lead. The timing was right and the pieces came together, and the consistent efforts we’ve been making paid off.”
Bergdahl, from Hailey, Idaho, had been missing from his base in Afghanistan since June 30, 2009. U.S. officials have said they suspected he was being held by the Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban. Ranked private first class when he was captured, Bergdahl was promoted twice while in detention.
Once retrieved, Bergdahl was initially taken to a forward operating base in Afghanistan and from there moved to Bagram Airfield before heading to an army medical center in Landstuhl, Germany. Bergdahl will reunite with his family when he’s ready and after doctors assess his health, Hagel said.
Secretary of State John Kerry informed Karzai of the prisoner swap only after Bergdahl was safely in U.S. custody because of high secrecy surrounding the operation, Hagel said.
“This was an operation that had to be very closely held and only very, very, few people knew about this operation,” he said. “We didn’t want to jeopardize any leaks anywhere for the obvious reasons.”
In exchange for Bergdahl, the U.S. agreed to release Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa, and Abdul Haq Wasiq. Fazl is a former deputy defense minister for the Taliban, Wasiq is a former deputy intelligence minister, and Norulla Noori and Khairkhwa were regional governors.
Some lawmakers, including Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services committee and Republican from California, have criticized the Obama administration for failing to provide Congress with a 30-day notification for the release of detainees from Guantanamo as required by law.
Obama as commander-in-chief had the authority under the U.S. constitution to order the release, Hagel said when asked about such criticism. Also, U.S. officials had intelligence information indicating that Bergdahl’s “safety and health were both in jeopardy and in particular his health was deteriorating,” Hagel said.
Bergdahl finds it difficult to speak English and speaks mostly Pashto, one of two major languages spoken in Afghanistan, according to his father. On boarding the helicopter, Bergdahl wrote on a paper plate “SF?” to ask if the U.S. troops who had freed him were from the special operations forces, the defense official said.
“Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time,” the U.S. commandos replied, shouting over the roar of the helicopter blades. Bergdahl then started crying, the official said.
Bergdahl is thought to have been held mostly in solitary confinement, said Hagel, who was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and suffered injuries while fighting in the Vietnam War. Senator John McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran and former Navy pilot, was captured after his plane was shot down and was held in solitary confinement.
Unlike war captives in Vietnam who took some comfort because other American prisoners of war were nearby, Bergdahl was “by himself, and that’s pretty remarkable,” Hagel said.
“I’m intensely happy and gratified as anybody is,” Hagel said, adding that Bergdahl’s family persisted in efforts to free their son. “They’ve not been bitter. They’ve never lost faith.”