The United States on Saturday turned over custody of five former members of the Taliban who were being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center to Qatar in exchange for the release of a U.S. Army soldier who’d been held in Afghanistan by the Taliban for the past five years.
A Defense Department official, who declined to be further identified, identified the five prisoners as Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq.
A later statement from the Pentagon said the five detainees had been transferred to Qatari control in exchange for the freedom of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Sun Valley, Idaho, native who’d been held by the Taliban since June 30, 2009.
In the statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that President Barack Obama had called Bergdahl’s parents to inform them their son had been released and was “now under the care of the U.S. military.”
The statement 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 five 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 Sergeant Bergdahl,” the statement said.
“The United States government never forgot Sergeant Bergdahl nor did we stop working to bring him back,” Hagel’s statement added. “I am grateful to all the military and civilian professionals
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 possibility of exchange of the five Taliban detainees for Bergdahl had long been rumored, and is likely to prove controversial.
For one, the White House ordered the transfer of the Taliban detainees from the prison camp without giving Congress the 30 days notice required by law. A U.S. official, confirming that Congress was told of the exchange only after the detainees had been surrendered to Qatar, said Obama acted in his capacity of commander in chief.
“This is a case of the commander in chief exercising his prerogative to get one of his soldiers back,” the official said.
For another, the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance from his Afghan base have never been clear. Some military officials have suggested that he left the base voluntarily and may have deserted.
That was perhaps one reason for the muted tone to the official celebration of Bergdahl’s release. While Obama and senior administration officials said they were heartened by the news that the sergeant would be reunited with his family, there were no flourishes calling him a hero or thanking him for his service.
Published accounts, especially a Rolling Stone report on Bergdahl’s emails home, suggest that the soldier willingly walked away from his unit soon after arriving in Afghanistan.
Rolling Stone cited emails in which Bergdahl told his parents he was “ashamed to even be American” and had lost faith in the mission. He also hinted at desertion, according to the report, and mailed home boxes of personal belongings such as uniforms and books. Bergdahl reportedly wrote that the “future is too good to waste on lies.”
An Associated Press examination of the case quoted radio intercepts, released by Wikileaks, as indicating that he was later captured while sitting on a makeshift latrine.
While joy over Bergdahl’s release permeated military forums on social media, there was also an undercurrent of uncertainty _ and, at times, outright disdain _ over the cloudy circumstances of his capture.
“It’s called desertion, you don’t celebrate it,” went one tweet. Another said Bergdahlh should “stand trial for desertion, insubordination, and treason – men were killed searching for him.”
As for the controversy of the release, that will likely come because of the high-ranking nature of most of them _ senior government officials from the time when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
Fazl, for example, was the Taliban’s deputy defense minister when he was captured by U.S. forces. Norullah Noori was the Taliban’s governor of Balkh Province. Khairkhwa was the Taliban governor of Herat. Wasiq was the Taliban’s deputy minister of intelligence.
Fazl, Noori and Wasiq were among the first to arrive for detention at Guantanamo on January 11, 2002. Khairkhwa was transferred there months later on May 1, 2002.
Nabi, who is also known as Mohammed Nabi Omari, arrived at Guantanamo in October of 2002. He has denied being a senior member of the Taliban. According to a secret U.S. assessment, he told American interrogators that he had left the Taliban in early 2002 and had become an informant for a CIA operative he knew only as “Mark.” According to the assessment, which was part of a trove of documents released by the WikiLeaks website, Nabi Omari said he was arrested Sept. 14, 2002, by American troops when he arrived for a meeting with “Mark.”
The five men were turned over to Qatari diplomats shortly before noon Eastern Daylight Time at Guantanamo. They were put aboard a U.S. C-17 cargo aircraft, which departed, with the Qatari diplomats also aboard, shortly before 2 p.m. EDT, a U.S. official said.
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 CENTCOM, 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 priorites,” 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.”
Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.l