President Obama Saturday night defended his decision to negotiate indirectly with the Taliban, trading five terrorism suspects in U.S. custody to gain the release of the only American soldier held as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
The president said the deal is part America’s “iron-clad commitment to bringing our prisoners home.”
“That’s who we are as Americans,” Mr. Obama said in the White House Rose Garden, with the parents of released U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl at his side.
Mr. Obama briefly gave the details of the deal with the Taliban, but did not address directly the negotiations in which the government of Qatar served as a go-between.
“The United States is transferring five detainees from the prison in Guantanamo Bay to Qatar,” Mr. Obama said. “The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security.”
Sgt. Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban Saturday in an area of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. Officials said the exchange was not violent and the 28-year-old Sgt. Bergdahl was in good condition and able to walk.
The handover followed secret and indirect negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees that had been held the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Top Republicans on the Senate and House Armed Services Committee criticized Mr. Obama for negotiating with the Taliban.
“Trading five senior Taliban leaders from detention in Guantanamo Bay for Berghdal’s release may have consequences for the rest of our forces and all Americans,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, and Rep. Buck McKeon, California Republican, in a joint statement.
Mr. Obama, who is under a storm of criticism for his administration’s neglect of veterans’ health care, hugged the parents of Sgt. Bergdahl, Bob and Jani Bergdahl of Idaho, at the end of his comments.
“While Bo was gone, he was never forgotten,” Mr. Obama said. “His parents thought about him and prayed for him every single day. He wasn’t forgotten by his country.”
The president also said his administration is “deeply committed” to bringing back other Americans detained unjustly abroad.
Mrs. Bergdahl thanked “everyone who supported Bo.” The soldier’s father said his son was having trouble speaking English after so long in captivity.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he informed Congress Saturday of the decision “to transfer five detainees from Guantánamo Bay to Qatar.”
“The United States has coordinated closely with Qatar to ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised,” Mr. Hagel said. “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.”
Mr. Obama called the parents of Sgt. Bergdahl Saturday morning to inform them of his release.
“On behalf of the American people, I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return, mindful of their courage and sacrifice throughout this ordeal,” Mr. Obama said. “Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.”
Army Sgt. Bergdhal was captured under unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.
Mr. Obama thanked the Emir of Qatar for his help in aiding the soldier’s release.
The five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo were still at the base as of Saturday morning, but were being transferred into the custody of Qatari officials. Under the conditions of their release, the detainees will be banned from traveling outside of Qatar for at least one year.
The detainees are believed to be the most senior Afghans still held at the prison. They are believed to be:
—Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence.
—Mullah Norullah Nori, a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001.
—Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taliban positions including interior minister and had direct ties to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.
—Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan, and later worked as a radio operator for the Taliban’s communications office in Kabul.
—Mohammad Fazl, whom Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for presiding over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 as the Taliban sought to consolidate their control over the country.
— This article is based in part on wire-service reports.