After nearly five years in captivity, the last unaccounted for service member from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been freed in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees who will be transferred to Qatar, which helped facilitate the deal.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, is now under the care of the U.S. military after being handed over by his captors in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement. The resident of Hailey, Idaho, was serving in a parachute infantry regiment of the the Army's 25th Infantry Division, when he was captured in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.
"On behalf of the American people I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return," President Obama said in a statement distributed by the White House.
Hagel said the military will give Bergahl "all the support he needs to help him recover to help him recover from this ordeal."
The handover was the result of indirect talks between the USA and the Taliban's political leadership, with Qatar acting as a mediator, according to a senior administration official who provided information to reporters on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
U.S. efforts to obtain Bergdahl's release began in November 2010, but a break in the effort occurred several weeks ago, when an opportunity arose to resume talks, the official said. Bergdahl's release and the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Qatar is part of a broader reconciliation effort in Afghanistan, the official said.
U.S. officials hope that the transfer will build greater trust between the Taliban and the Afghan government so the two sides can negotiate a solution, the official said.
The U.S. is transferring five detainees from Guantánamo Bay to Qatar, which has agreed to ensure that security measures are in place and that the national security of the United States will not be compromised, said Hagel, who informed Congress of the move.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed reservations about that part of the deal.
The Gauntanamo detainees "are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands," McCain said. "I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan."
Multiple former Guantanamo detainees have returned to terrorism after their release, including several who were later targeted in U.S. drone attacks.
Obama thanked the emir of Qatar, whose "personal commitment to this effort is a testament to the partnership between our two countries," and expressed hope Bergdahl's release would portend well on the prospects for peace and reconciliation in 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," Obama said.
Bergdahl's release comes as the USA plans to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, ending a war that began after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the goal of ousting al-Qaeda and the Taliban Afghan regime that gave it refuge. The USA hopes to establish a peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which continues to fight an insurgency against U.S. and Afghan government troops.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military ethos is "that we never leave a fallen comrade."
"Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan," Dempsey said. "Welcome home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl."
Secretary of State John Kerry said he briefed Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday on Bergdahl's release.
"As we look to the future in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to support steps that improve the climate for conversations between Afghans about how to end the bloodshed in their country through an Afghan-led reconciliation process," Kerry said.
According to a transcript of insurgent radio intercepts obtained by Wikileaks, insurgents said he was sitting unarmed in a latrine at the time of his capture in eastern Afghanistan's Paktika province in 2009, CBS reported. Voices on the recording described an ongoing search by Americans, the Afghan National Army, helicopters and planes. "Can you guys make a video of him and announce it all over Afghanistan that we have one of the Americans?"
The Taliban later released multiple videos of Bergdahl, looking gaunt and anxious.