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Credit IntelCenter, via Associated Press
WASHINGTON â The lone American prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict, captured by insurgents nearly five years ago, has been released to American forces in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Obama administration officials said Saturday.
The soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed over to American Special Operations troops inside Afghanistan near the Pakistan border about 10:30 a.m. Saturday in a tense but uneventful exchange with 18 Taliban officials, American officials said. Moments later, Sergeant Bergdahl was whisked away by the helicopter-borne commandos, American officials said. He was found in good condition and able to walk.
The five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo, including two senior militant commanders said to be implicated in murdering thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan, were being transferred to the custody of officials from Qatar, who will accompany them back to that Persian Gulf state, where they will be subject to security restrictions, including a one-year travel ban.
Credit Uncredited/US Army, via Associated Press
All five Taliban members being released are considered to be among the most senior militants at Guantánamo and would otherwise be among the last to leave. Senior administration officials cautioned that the discussions over the prisoner swap, which were secretly restarted last fall after collapsing several months earlier, did not necessarily presage the resumption of the broader, on-again-off-again peace talks to end the 13-year war.
âThis is the only issue weâve discussed with the Taliban in recent months,â said one senior Obama administration official involved in the talks. âWe do hope that having succeeded in this narrow but important step, it will create the possibility of expanding the dialogue to other issues. But we donât have any promises to that effect.â
A Western official in Kabul said the Afghan government was not told ahead of time that the Taliban were going to hand over Sergeant Bergdahl or that the release of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay was proceeding, though the Afghans were broadly aware that the talks had been rekindled. American officials feared leaks could scuttle the deal.
President Obama personally called the soldierâs parents on Saturday, shortly after Sergeant Bergdahl was transferred to the American military; the Bergdahl family was in Washington after a visit here for Memorial Day, officials said.
âSergeant Bergdahlâs recovery is a reminder of Americaâs unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield,â Mr. Obama said in a statement.
Bob and Jani Bergdahl, the parents of Sergeant Bergdahl, who have waged a tireless campaign for their sonâs release, have sometimes criticized the Obama administration for lack of action. But in a statement from the family released Saturday, they praised the American and Qatari governments for their help. âWe cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,â they said. âToday, we are ecstatic!â
Negotiations and internal deliberations over the potential for a swap have waxed and waned for years, but they intensified in the past several weeks as an agreement appeared within reach, according to an official familiar with the matter.
Among other complications, there was a potential legal obstacle: Congress has imposed statutory restrictions on the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay. The statutes say the secretary of defense must determine that a transfer is in the interest of national security, that steps have been taken to substantially mitigate a future threat by a released detainee, and that the secretary notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of his determination.
In this case, the administration did not notify Congress ahead of time, officials said. They noted that Mr. Obama has claimed that the transfer restrictions are a potentially unconstitutional intrusion on his powers as the commander in chief. Last December, he issued a signing statement claiming that he could lawfully override them. An administration official said the circumstances of a fast-moving prisoner exchange deal made it appropriate to act outside the statutory framework for transfers.
The top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees, Representative Howard P. McKeon of California, and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said the release of the Taliban prisoners âclearly violated lawsâ governing the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay.
The transfer reduces the detainee population at Guantánamo to 149. They include 12 Afghan nationals â each of whom were deemed far less important and dangerous than the five who were included in the swap.
Sergeant Bergdahl was believed to have been held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistanâs northwest frontier, on the Afghan border. He was captured in Paktika Province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.
The circumstances of how he was separated from his unit and captured have remained a mystery.
Hopes for Sergeant Bergdahlâs release were lifted again last November when the Taliban signaled it was prepared to engage the United States on the limited issue of a prisoner swap, but not on wider issues including reconciliation with the government of Afghanistan, a senior administration official said Saturday.
The discussions resumed with the Qatari government acting as an intermediary for messages between the two sides, the official said.
The latest evidence indicating that Sergeant Bergdahl, who was promoted twice while being held as a prisoner, was still alive came in January, when a video was obtained by the American military showing him alert but also apparently in declining health.
In the past week, detailed negotiations culminated in an agreement for a Taliban delegation to bring Sergeant Bergdahl across the border to Afghanistan, where he would be retrieved by American Special Operations troops.
Mr. Obama called the emir of Qatar on Tuesday, and they gave each other assurances about the proposed transfers, an administration official said Saturday.
Sergeant Bergdahl was handed over about 7 p.m. local time without incident with the Special Operations troops spending only a few minutes on the ground, said American officials, who did not disclose the swapâs location inside Afghanistan.
The details of what the government believes it knows about the five former Taliban leaders were made public in classified military files given to WikiLeaks by Pfc. Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning.
Mohammad Nabi Omari is described in the files as âone of the most significant former Taliban leaders detainedâ at Guantánamo. He is said to have strong operational ties to anti-coalition militia groups, including Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani network.
A former Taliban provincial governor, Mullah Norullah Noori, is also âconsidered one of the most significant former Taliban officialsâ at the prison, according to the documents.
Both Mr. Noori and a third detainee being exchanged, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban deputy defense minister, are accused of having commanded forces that killed thousands of Shiite Muslims, a minority in Afghanistan, before the Taliban were toppled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The fourth detainee is Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former top Taliban intelligence official. The fifth prisoner, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, is a former minister of the interior and provincial governor.
The Western official in Kabul said the Afghan government was not told about the deal beforehand because there had been a number of false starts since the negotiations over the prisoner swap had picked up in the past few weeks.
One of the Americansâ chief concerns was that word of the plan would leak, and the Taliban would get cold feet or face pressure from harder line elements in the insurgency not to release Sergeant Bergdahl.
The Americans also feared the possibility of the exchange being upended by an outburst from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who might see the prisoner swap as an attempt to open peace talks with the Taliban behind his back.
He has previously claimed that the United States aimed to weaken the Afghan government by cutting a separate peace with the Taliban and its backers in Pakistan, and âno one wanted to deal with that kind of stuff right now,â the Western official said.
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