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Afghan Taliban Release U.S. Soldier Captured In 2009

(This post was last updated Sunday at 5:50 a.m. ET. on Sunday)

An image from a Taliban propaganda video released on Dec. 25, 2009, purportedly shows U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Anonymous / AP
An image from a Taliban propaganda video released on Dec. 25, 2009, purportedly shows U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the final remaining captured American soldier from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been released by the Afghan Taliban after almost five years of being held captive, the White House said on Saturday.

In exchange for Bergdahl's release, the U.S. will transfer five detainees at the Guantánamo Bay prison to Qatar.

In a statement, President Obama said he was "honored to call [Bergdahl's] parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return."

Obama thanked the Amir of Qatar for his help in the negotiations.

"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.

According to a Pentagon official, the transfer happened at about 10:30 a.m. ET. on Saturday somewhere in a field in eastern Afghanistan. A team of U.S. special forces met up with 18 armed Taliban fighters. Without incident, Bergdahl was allowed to walk over to the Americans and he was flown to Bagram Airfield. He'll eventually be flown to Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

"We will give him all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal, and we are grateful that he will soon be reunited with his family," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon official said, the transfer of Taliban prisoners to Qatar is happening now.

Hagel added that the U.S. coordinated with Qatar to "ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised."

A senior administration official said the five detainees will face restrictions on their movements and activities.

The United States had in the past tried to broker a deal with the Afghan Taliban, but, as we reported, the Taliban broke off those talks in February.

Bergdahl was seized after finishing his guard shift in an outpost in the southeastern Paktika province on June 30, 2009. He was 23 at the time; he is 28 now. The details surrounding his capture are unclear: Some accounts have him captured during an attack on his post, others put him walking off his outpost during a counterinsurgency mission. An account in Rolling Stone implies that Bergdahl was "ashamed to even be American" and was defecting when he was captured.

Leaked WikiLeaks documents detail the intense search that took place in the hours and days following his capture.

Hagel said the U.S. never forgot Bergdahl, "nor did we stop working to bring him back."

In a statement, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said: "It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade. Welcome home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl."

President Obama speaks in the White House Rose Garden Saturday with the parents of freed American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, Bob and Jani Bergdahl.
Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama speaks in the White House Rose Garden Saturday with the parents of freed American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, Bob and Jani Bergdahl.

Speaking from the Rose Garden Saturday afternoon, President Obama, flanked by Bowe Bergdahl's parents, Robert and Jani, thanked those involved in Bergdahl's recovery and said that while he was gone, "he was never forgotten" by his community and country.

"Right now our top priority is that Bowe gets the care and support that he needs and that he can be reunited with his family as soon as possible," the president said.

Bergdahl's father thanked all those who took part in his son's recovery, saying it was difficult to put his feelings into words.

Update Sunday at 5:50 a.m. ET. Hagel: U.S. Had To Move Quickly

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters on his way to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan that the U.S. had to move quickly because officials believed Bergdahl's life was in danger, AP reports.

"It was our judgment that if we could find an opening, and move very quickly with that opening, that we needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life," Hagel said.

Two Republican lawmakers say the Obama administration violated a law requiring 30-days notice for the release of detainees.

"He said it was the unanimous consensus of the National Security Council, and the president has the authority to order such a release under Article 2 of the Constitution," said AP.

He added that Bergdahl's health was deteriorating as well, AP reported.

Update at 2:02 p.m. ET. A Central Part Of Reconciliation Efforts:

The release of Bergdahl was always seen as part of the larger U.S. effort toward the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, a senior administration official said on background.

The efforts — to reach a peace deal between the Taliban and Afghan government — began in 2010, but Bergdahl has been a piece of the puzzle since 2011.

"For all that time, our efforts have been coordinated at the highest levels of the U.S. government," the official said.

The official added that several weeks ago, another opportunity for negotiations arose and "we seized it."

"We have viewed Sgt. Bergdahl's release through diplomatic means as a vital goal in its own right because of our historic commitment to leave no soldier behind on the battlefield," the official said.

But this also marks the success of indirect talks between the U.S. and the Taliban's political arm in Qatar. The prisoner swap, the official said, "was a part of a broader reconciliation framework."

This is significant because, as you might remember, even the opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar has been a diplomatic tightrope, with plenty of fits of starts.

Update at 1:20 p.m. ET. Special Forces:

Mark Knoller, who covers the White House for CBS News, has some details about the transfer.

Update at 1:14 p.m. ET. Some Background:

Back in June of 2013, NPR's Melissa Block spoke to Northwest News Network Jessica Robinson, who has followed Bergdahl's case extensively. She had this to say about his background:

BLOCK: Jessica, you have spent time over these years in Hailey, Idaho. What do people there tell you about the kind of young man Bowe Bergdahl is and what his interests have been?

ROBINSON: The word that comes to mind is unconventional. Bowe wasn't exactly the typical profile of someone who joins the military. He didn't come from a military family. He grew up down a dirt road in a canyon outside of Hailey, off the grid for part of his growing up. And he seemed to be interested in traveling. He rode his bike long distances.

He's described as very adventurous, but at the same time, also very quiet and thoughtful.

BLOCK: And also, I've read he was a ballet dancer.

ROBINSON: He was a ballet dancer. I believe he danced in "The Nutcracker" and two years ago, when I first came to Hailey to talk to people who know him, they were very reluctant to say much about him. I reached out to his dance teacher and she declined to comment because at that point, people in Hailey knew that anything they said could be possibly used against him. And they were reluctant to put it out there that he had danced because they didn't know how that would make him perceived by his captors.

Since then, Hailey has opened up a lot and they've followed the lead of the parents, who have been talking more about their son and trying to get his name out there more.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.