After nearly five years in captivity, the last service member unaccounted for from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been freed in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees who will be transferred to Qatar, a move that helped facilitate the deal.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, is now under the care of the U.S. military after being handed over by his captors in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement Saturday. The resident of Hailey, Idaho, was serving in a parachute infantry regiment of the Army's 25th Infantry Division when he was captured in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.
"On behalf of the American people I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return," President Obama said in a statement.
Hagel said the military will give Bergdahl "all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal."
The handover was the result of indirect talks between the United States and the Taliban's political leadership, with Qatar acting as a mediator, according to a senior administration official who provided information to reporters on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
U.S. efforts to obtain Bergdahl's release began in November 2010, but a break in the effort occurred several weeks ago, when an opportunity rose to resume talks, the official said. Bergdahl's release and the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Qatar is part of a broader reconciliation effort in Afghanistan, the official said.
U.S. officials hope that the transfer will build greater trust between the Taliban and the Afghan government so the two sides can negotiate a solution, the official said.
Qatar has agreed to ensure that security measures are in place and that the national security of the United States will not be compromised as a result of the detainee transfer, said Hagel, who informed Congress of the move.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed reservations about that part of the deal.
The Guantanamo detainees "are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands," McCain said. "I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan."
As of Saturday, the identity of the five detainees was unclear.
Of hundreds of terrorism suspects released from the U.S. military's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 30% — about 170 — have been confirmed by intelligence officials or media reports as having turned to terrorist activities after their release, according to research by Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Obama thanked the emir of Qatar, whose "personal commitment to this effort is a testament to the partnership between our two countries," and expressed hope Bergdahl's release would portend well on the prospects for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.
"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.
Bergdahl's release comes as the United States plans to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, ending a war that began after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the goal of ousting al-Qaeda and the Taliban Afghan regime that gave it refuge. The U.S. hopes to establish a peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which continues to fight an insurgency against U.S. and Afghan government troops.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military ethos is "that we never leave a fallen comrade."
"Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan," Dempsey said. "Welcome home, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl."
Secretary of State John Kerry said he briefed Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday on Bergdahl's release.
"As we look to the future in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to support steps that improve the climate for conversations between Afghans about how to end the bloodshed in their country through an Afghan-led reconciliation process," Kerry said.
According to a transcript of insurgent radio intercepts obtained by WikiLeaks, insurgents said he was sitting unarmed in a latrine at the time of his capture in eastern Afghanistan's Paktika province in 2009, CBS reported. Voices on the recording described an ongoing search by Americans, the Afghan National Army, helicopters and planes. "Can you guys make a video of him and announce it all over Afghanistan that we have one of the Americans?"
The Taliban later released multiple videos of Bergdahl, looking gaunt and anxious.
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.
News of Bergdahl's release spread quickly in his home town, where residents immediately started planning a welcome home celebration.
An annual event called "Bring Bowe Back" scheduled for June 28 was quickly renamed "Bowe Is Back." Stefanie O'Neill, who organized the event each year, including a tree planting, said she's glad a fifth tree will not be needed this time.
Contributing: The Associated Press