WASHINGTON — Taliban fighters released the sole remaining American military hostage Saturday morning to a team of U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, who quickly hustled him onto a helicopter. Once airborne, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl scribbled the letters “SF?” on a paper plate, seeking confirmation that he was with Special Operations forces.
“Yes!” one of the troops hollered back above the din of the aircraft’s blades, according to a defense official who described his first moments of freedom. “We’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
Bergdahl, 28, who had been held captive nearly five years, broke down in tears.
His release was secured after the Obama administration, working through Qatari government intermediaries, agreed to free five high-profile Afghan inmates held by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The influential commanders, including the former head of the Taliban’s army, were loaded onto a U.S. military aircraft bound for Doha in Qatar after U.S. officials got confirmation that Bergdahl had been freed.
President Barack Obama hailed Bergdahl’s recovery as a triumph of years of high-wire diplomatic efforts that reached a breakthrough in the waning months of the U.S. combat mission there.
“He wasn’t forgotten by his country,” Obama said Saturday evening in the Rose Garden, standing alongside Bergdahl’s parents, Robert and Jani. “The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
His father, who grew the type of scraggly beard favored by members of the Taliban, said a few words to his son in Pashto, saying that he understood his son is having trouble speaking English.
“I am your father, Bowe,” Robert Bergdahl said. “I look forward to continuing the recovery of our son which will be a considerable task for our family.”
While leaders across the political spectrum expressed relief at the news, prominent Republican lawmakers chided the White House for skirting a legal requirement to notify them about the planned release of Guantanamo inmates. Some criticized the president for breaking with longtime U.S. policy against negotiating with militant groups.
“This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take US hostages,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Bergdahl’s release at 10:30 a.m. in Khost province, which borders Pakistan, capped a week of intense, secret negotiations conducted through the Qataris. A team of dozens of Special Operations forces took custody of Bergdahl from a group of 18 Taliban fighters. The rare encounter on the battlefield between warriors that spent years killing one another lasted just a few minutes and was peaceful, U.S. officials said.
Bergdahl walked onto the aircraft, U.S. officials said, adding it was too early to know anything definitive about the mental state of a soldier who bewildered his comrades after he walked off base in volatile Paktika province on June 30, 2009.
Officials at the Pentagon, who had grown concerned the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of the year would dim the prospect of getting Bergdahl back alive, rejoiced.
“It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement. “Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.”
There was no indication the soldier would face any reprimand for the circumstances under which he was taken, which led some of his comrades to call him a deserter. While it is unclear whether he will remain on active duty, a senior military official said the Army plans to promote Bergdahl to staff sergeant next month.
Defense officials said they were working to get Bergdahl to the United States as soon as possible. After passing through Bagram air base in Afghanistan, Bergdahl was en route to the U.S military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, according to Pentagon officials traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. They said his first U.S. stop would likely be the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where after a thorough medical screening he will be debriefed by intelligence officials.
U.S. officials said that under a memorandum of understanding signed by Washington and Doha, the released men will be subject to a year-long travel ban in Qatar.
“The United States has coordinated closely with Qatar to ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised,” Hagel said. “Sgt. Bergdahl’s return is a powerful reminder of the enduring, sacred commitment our nation makes to all those who serve in uniform.”