Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier held captive in Afghanistan, was released Saturday by Taliban captors, an announcement that has Americans rejoicing but also is raising questions on Capitol Hill and beyond about “negotiating with terrorists.”
Bergdahl was released from captivity after nearly five years, in exchange for five Taliban members being held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bergdahl was taken prisoner after leaving his base in east Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. Why he left and whether he’ll face any consequences for his actions remains unclear.
U.S. officials said the deal was reached after a week of intense negotiations that were mediated by the Qatar government, which will take custody of the Taliban detainees.
They said efforts to negotiate Bergdahl’s release began in November 2010, that his return has been a top priority since May 2011 and that the opportunity to resume diplomatic efforts emerged several weeks ago.
“We ...made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home. It's who we are as Americans,” President Obama said Saturday evening in a Rose Garden ceremony flanked by Bergdahl's parents. “Today, at least in this instance, it's a promise we've been able to keep."
The announcement was welcome news to Americans around the country but resulted in strong skepticism among congressional Republicans, particularly those involved in military and foreign affairs.
“Like all Americans, we celebrate the release of Sergeant Bergdahl,” California Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a joint statement.
“However, we must carefully examine the means by which we secured his freedom. America has maintained a prohibition on negotiating with terrorists for good reason. Trading five senior Taliban leaders from detention in Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl’s release may have consequences for the rest of our forces and all Americans.”
They also argued that Obama “clearly violated laws” that require him to notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated.
The Defense Department promptly responded to the accusations, saying key members were notified about the transfer but that officials had to act swiftly to secure Bergdahl’s release.”
A department official also gave Fox News the names of the detainees: Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa, and Abdul Haq Wasiq.
They are believed to be the top five Taliban leaders at the prison and were selected in 2012 by Taliban leaders as part of initial negotiations.
Officials said about 18 Taliban members released the 28-year-old Bergdahl on Saturday evening, local time, in Afghanistan.
He was picked up in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, by a Navy SEAL team, composed of a few dozen men and supported by multiple helicopters and overhead drones, another Defense official said.
An official said that Bergdahl when safely aboard a helicopter wrote on a paper plate, because it was too loud to talk,"SF?" -- meaning are you special forces?
The operators sitting with Bergdahl responded loudly, saying, "Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time." Bergdahl then broke down crying, the official said.
Bergdahl is reportedly in good condition and able to walk. He was taken first to Bagram Air Base, in Afghanistan, then to Landstuhl, German, and will likely go to Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
The Hailey, Idaho, native is thought to have been captured by members of the Haqqani network, which 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.
The announcement of Bergdahl’s release comes as the United States winds down its military operation in Afghanistan.
The Bergdahls spoke briefly after President Obama delivered his remarks, expressing their joy and thanking those who secured their son’s release.
Bob Bergdahl, the father, spoke briefly in what experts think was Pashtu. He suggested his son will need an extensive recovery period and is having trouble understanding English after five years.
In the foreign language, Bergdahl thanked the Afghan people and told his son, “I am your father.”
U.S. officials earlier emphasized the administration has repeatedly made clear that no Guantanamo detainees will be transferred unless the threat they pose the U.S. can be mitigated and that their release is consistent with the country’s humane treatment policy.
The detainees from Guantanamo were still at the base as of Saturday and are being transferred into the custody of Qatar officials. Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from traveling outside of Qatar for at least one year.
They are being transferred via a U.S. Air Force C-17 plane.
“The responsibility to make sure all of our men and women in uniform return from battle, especially those taken prisoner and held during war, is deeply personal to me, as someone who has worn the uniform of my country and as someone who was deeply involved in those efforts with respect to the unfinished business of the war in which I fought." said Secretary of State John Kerry, who with Obama thanked Qatar officials.
Fox News' Justin Fishel, Jennifer Griffin, Catherine Herridge, Chad Pergram, Kara Rowland and Wes Barrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.