Five years a captive from the Afghanistan War, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is back in American hands, freed for five Guantanamo terrorism detainees in a swap stirring sharp debate in Washington over whether the United States should have negotiated with the Taliban over prisoners.
U.S. officials said Sunday that Bergdahl's health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release. In comments on Sunday morning news programs, Republicans said the deal could place U.S. troops in danger, especially if the freed detainees return to the fight — one called it "shocking." Arizona Sen. John McCain said of the five detainees, "These are the hardest of the hard core."
Visiting troops in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stepped forward at Bagram Air Field to thank the special operations forces who retrieved Bergdahl, who officials said was the only American prisoner of war still held by insurgents in that conflict. Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke of the excitement that spread through U.S. ranks when the sergeant's release was confirmed Saturday. "You almost got choked up," he said. "It was pretty extraordinary."
Tireless campaigners for their son's freedom, Bob and Jani Bergdahl thanked all who were behind the effort to retrieve him. "You were not left behind," Bob Bergdahl told reporters, as if speaking to his son. "We are so proud of the way this was carried out." Bob Bergdahl, who has grown the type of scraggly beard favored by members of the Taliban, spoke in Boise, Idaho, as residents in the sergeant's hometown of Hailey prepared for a homecoming celebration.
Hagel was met with silence when he told troops in a Bagram hangar: "This is a happy day. We got one of our own back." It was unclear whether the absence of cheers and applause came from a reluctance to display emotion in front of the Pentagon chief or from any doubts among the troops about Bergdahl.
In a statement, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar credited "the sacrifice of our mujahedin" for leading to the release of "our senior leaders from the hands of the enemy" and called for the release of "all those who have been imprisoned for defending the honor and freedom of their country."
Qatar, the Persian Gulf emirate, helped broker the exchange.
U.S. officials who insisted on anonymity told the Associated Press that in weighing the swap they decided it could help the effort to reach reconciliation with the Taliban, which the United States sees as key to more security in Afghanistan. But they acknowledged the risk that the deal would embolden insurgents, perhaps encouraging them to grab U.S. troops or citizens as bargaining chips for the release of others in U.S. custody.
Republicans pressed that point. "Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?" asked Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?"
"I'm going to celebrate him coming home," said Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. But the release of "five mid- to high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially without coming to Congress."
Republicans also said the deal violated requirements that Congress be given 30 days' notice before any exchange of captives at Guantanamo.
White House national security adviser Susan Rice said "an urgent and an acute situation," which she did not specify, did not allow that time.
"We did not have 30 days to wait," she said. "And had we waited and lost him, I don't think anybody would have forgiven the United States government."
Bergdahl, 28, is being treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Rice said he had lost considerable weight. Yet she said he appeared to be "in good physical condition" and "is said to be walking."
The circumstances surrounding his capture remain murky. In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine quoted emails Bergdahl is said to have sent to his parents that suggest he was disillusioned with America's mission in Afghanistan, had lost faith in the Army and was considering desertion. Bergdahl told his parents he was "ashamed to even be American."
Hagel brushed aside such questions for now. "Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family," he said.
The United States has long sought Bergdahl's release, but there was renewed interest in his case as Obama completed plans to pull nearly all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
Officials said the Taliban signaled in November it was ready to renew talks on detainees.
Information from McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.