Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special operations forces by the Taliban on Saturday evening local time, in an area of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. Officials said the exchange was peacful and the 28-year-old Bergdahl was in good condition and able to walk.
In a statement, President Barack Obama said Bergdahl’s recovery “is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.”
The handover followed indirect negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, with the government of Qatar serving as an intermediary. Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees who were held at Guantanamo.
According to a senior defense official traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter, he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate, the “SF?” — asking the troops if they were special operations forces.
They shouted back at him over the roar of the rotors: “Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
Then, according to the official, Bergdahl broke down.
Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009. Haqqani operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war.
The network, which the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.
Officials said Bergdahl was transferred to Bagram Air Field — the main U.S. base in Afghanistan — for medical evaluations. A defense official said he would be sent to Germany for additional care before eventually returning to the United States.
The defense official said Bergdhal was tentatively scheduled to go to the San Antonio Military Medical Center, where he would be reunited with his family. The military was working Saturday to connect Bergdahl with his family over the telephone or by video conference.
Several dozen U.S. special operations forces, backed by multiple helicopters and surveillance aircraft, flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with about 18 Taliban members. The official said the commandos were on the ground for a short time, before lifting off with Bergdahl.
The official added the U.S. still believes Bergdahl was being held for the bulk of the time in Pakistan, but it was not clear when he was transported to eastern Afghanistan.
All of the officials insisted on anonymity in order to discuss details of Bergdahl’s transfer.
Officials said Obama spoke with Bergdahl’s parents Saturday, shortly after their son had been taken into U.S. custody. Bergdahl’s family was in Washington on a previously scheduled visit when they received the news.
The parents of the freed soldier, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, said in a statement that they were “joyful and relieved.”
“We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” they said.
The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture remain something of a mystery. There has been some speculation he willingly walked away from his unit, raising the question of whether he could be charged with being absent without leave or desertion.
The U.S. has long been seeking Bergdahl’s release, but efforts have intensified as Obama finalized plans to pull nearly all American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016.