BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — The sole American prisoner of war held in Afghanistan was flown to a U.S. military hospital in Germany on Sunday after being freed in a swap deal for five Taliban militants who were released from the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been held for nearly five years and his release, after years of negotiations, suddenly became possible after harder-line factions of the Afghan Taliban shifted course and agreed to back it, U.S. officials said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he hoped the exchange might lead to breakthroughs in reconciliation with the militants.
He denied accusations from some Republicans that the swap resulted from U.S. negotiations with terrorists, saying it had been worked out by the government of Qatar.
“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Hagel said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “As I said and explained before, Sgt. Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. That’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back.”
Bergdahl, 28, was handed over at about 6 p.m. local time Saturday, a senior official said. The U.S. forces, who had flown in by helicopter, were on the ground very briefly, said the official, who would not specify the precise location.
The Afghan Taliban said earlier they had released Bergdahl near the border with Pakistan in eastern Afghanistan.
A U.S. defense official said Bergdahl became emotional on his way to freedom, after being handed over to U.S. special forces.
“Once he was on the helicopter, he wrote on a paper plate, ‘SF?’” the official said, referring to the abbreviation for special forces. “The operators replied loudly, ‘Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.’ And at this point, Sgt. Bergdahl broke down.”
President Barack Obama hailed the release in an appearance with Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, in the White House Rose Garden, saying that “while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten.”
Defense officials said Bergdahl had arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and after receiving care would be transferred to another military medical facility in San Antonio, Texas.
Bergdahl, from Idaho, was the only known missing U.S. soldier in the Afghan war that began soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to force the Taliban — accused of sheltering al-Qaida militants — from power.
He was captured in unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.
In exchange for Bergdahl’s freedom, the U.S. released five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo. A senior gulf source confirmed they had arrived Sunday in Doha, the capital of Qatar, the gulf emirate that acted as intermediary in the negotiations.
They would not be permitted to leave Qatar for a year, the source said, adding that their families had been flown from Afghanistan.
Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said Qatar got involved in the case because it was a “humanitarian cause.”
U.S. officials referred to the release of the Taliban detainees as a transfer and said the restrictions placed on them included monitoring of their activities.
Those assurances were greeted with skepticism by Republicans and some Afghan officials, who voiced concerns that the men, described as senior Taliban figures, would rejoin the insurgency against the government in Kabul.
“They will be very dangerous people, because they have connections with regional and international terror organizations around the world,” a senior Afghan intelligence official said.
That view was echoed on the streets of Kabul. “It will strengthen the insurgency,” said Sayed Najibullah, a tailor. “President Obama showed that his soldier’s life was more important than a country’s national interest.”
There was no immediate comment from the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who Hagel said had not been told in advance of the prisoner exchange.
In Washington some Republicans said the prisoner swap amounted to a negotiation with terrorists. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called it a “dangerous price” to pay.
“Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers? What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we’ve gone after,” Cruz said on the ABC news program “This Week.”
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said on “Meet the Press,” “The release of five mid- to high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially without coming to Congress. It says in the law you have to notify Congress.”
Bergdahl’s release comes after Obama outlined a plan Tuesday to withdraw all but 9,800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and the remainder by 2016, ending more than a decade of U.S. military engagement.