U.S. swaps 5 Taliban prisoners at Guantánamo for long-held POW

In this handout photo from the Department of Defense, U.S. troops watch suspected Taliban and al-Qaida detainees in orange jumpsuits at Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing to the temporary detention facility on Jan. 11, 2002.
In this handout photo from the Department of Defense, U.S. troops watch suspected Taliban and al-Qaida detainees in orange jumpsuits at Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing to the temporary detention facility on Jan. 11, 2002. US NAVY PETTY OFFICER

The United States on Saturday swapped five Taliban captives for U.S. prisoner-of-war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in a deal that delivered the Afghans to the custody of Qatar at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — ending the nearly five-year ordeal of the American soldier.

Several dozen U.S. commandos scooped up Bergdahl, an Idaho native, in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan in a choreographed prisoner exchange, according to senior U.S. officials who briefed reporters by telephone.

“The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind,” President Barack Obama said Saturday evening from the White House Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents.

Hours earlier, U.S. forces handed over the five Afghan prisoners of the United States to Qatari diplomats at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba where the Taliban leaders had been held since 2002. Their status at the time of their release was “indefinite detainee” — or, colloquially, forever prisoners.

They departed in a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster, reducing the number of captives at Guantánamo to 149 in a secret operation that was certain to stir political debate. Unlike in the instance of the last prisoner released, an Algerian sent home in March, the White House did not provide Congress with its statutory 30-day notice. Instead, the Obama administration notified Congress as the swap was occurring.

“This is a case of the commander-in-chief exercising his prerogative to get one of his soldiers back,” said a U.S. official who spoke to the Miami Herald on the condition that he not be identified because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the politics of it. Another official said that the Qataris agreed to prevent the five Afghans from traveling outside the Arab emirate for a year.

Republican Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam War POW, welcomed the release but in a statement described the five men traded as “vicious and violent Taliban extremists” with “the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands” — and questioned what security precautions had been made.

Bergdahl, 28, was the lone U.S. military prisoner of war in Afghanistan. He was captured June 30, 2009, after mysteriously disappearing from his forward operating base. He was receiving medical treatment Saturday at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said, and would be moved to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for more treatment, debriefing, and phone and video calls with his family — once he was deemed “fit to fly.”

The five Afghans who were released to Qatari custody Saturday departed more than a decade after they were brought to Guantánamo as Taliban figures, not members of al-Qaida, a U.S. official said.

Leaked Pentagon records show that all five were captured during the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Three of them arrived on the day the Guantánamo prison camp opened, Jan. 11, 2002, and their images were captured by a Pentagon photographer in a pen at Camp X-Ray, shackled and kneeling. The other two arrived later that year.

They were identified as Mohammad Fazl, about 47, Mullah Norullah Noori, about 47, Mohammed Nabi, about 48, Khairullah Khairkhwa, about 47, and Abdul Haq Wasiq, about 43.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that Obama had called Bergdahl’s parents to inform them that their son had been released and was “now under the care of the U.S. military.”

Hagel also said that Qatar had agreed “to ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised” by the release of the five men, all of whom had been placed on a list of terrorist suspects that the United States felt were too dangerous to release.

“I appreciate the efforts of the Emir of Qatar to put these measures in place, and I want to thank him for his instrumental role in facilitating the return of Sgt. Bergdahl,” the statement said.

“The United States government never forgot Sgt. Bergdahl, nor did we stop working to bring him back,” Hagel added.

The transfer of the Taliban detainees comes nearly one year after peace talks between the Taliban and the United States collapsed in Doha, Qatar’s capital, after the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai refused to send a delegation to the talks. The government said it had been misled by the United States over the nature of the official office Qatar had allowed the Taliban to establish in Doha.

The prisoner swap is likely to be a boost to U.S.-Qatar relations, which have been tested recently by disagreements over the political crisis in Egypt and the civil war in Syria.

The Obama administration has complained about Doha’s support for militant groups across the Middle East, but never too strenuously, according to analysts, because of Qatar’s strategic importance. The Gulf state is home to the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations for the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia.

In a statement Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the government of Qatar — and its monarch, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, by name — for playing “such an instrumental role” in Bergdahl’s release.

“We work every day with Qatar on a range of critical foreign policy priorities,” Kerry said. “This effort — one that was personally so close to our hearts here — exemplifies how vital our partnership with Qatar is and will remain.”

McClatchy reporter Hannah Allam of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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