WASHINGTON - Right up until the moment Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was freed, U.S. officials weren't sure the Taliban would really release the only American soldier held captive in Afghanistan in exchange for high-level militants detained at Guantanamo Bay.
It was touch and go. But then came the call at 5:12 p.m. Saturday on a secure phone line at the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar. U.S. negotiators learned that Bergdahl, a 28-year-old from Hailey, Idaho, held by the Taliban for nearly five years, was aboard a Delta Force helicopter bound for a U.S. base north of Kabul.
Bergdahl's release has hardly been a straightforward yellow-ribbon moment for the U.S. Bergdahl apparently was disillusioned with the war and left his post. He was found unarmed, wandering in Paktika province in Afghanistan, when the Taliban detained him in 2009, provincial police chief Nabi Jan Mhullhakhil said Monday. The decision to free him in exchange for five top Taliban officials who have been held in the U.S. detention center in Cuba has raised questions about whether such a swap was too big a concession to make.
According to a State Department official directly involved in the negotiations in Doha, U.S. officials who had holed up in the embassy for three straight days thought the final days of negotiations with the Taliban's political leadership, through Qatari intermediaries, had gone pretty smoothly. The U.S. had gotten the Taliban to agree that the five detainees would be prohibited from traveling outside Qatar for a year after their release - something the Taliban earlier had opposed. In return, the U.S. agreed to release all five detainees at once, not one or two at a time as previously offered, in an effort to get Bergdahl back more quickly.
Still, the negotiators weren't positive the deal would work until they got the call that U.S. forces had the Army sergeant, who broke down and cried during the flight. After the call, the negotiators were emotional, too, he said.
"Backslapping was not how I would describe it," he said. "It wasn't like New Year's Eve. It was emotional, but not a giddy moment."
It's still unclear what the exact breakthrough moment was, but over lengthy negotiations the official said the talks gelled. Both sides wanted it to happen immediately before it could fall apart.
Details of the secret negotiations were described by the State Department official. But other information on the state of diplomacy between the Taliban, the U.S. and others was described by other current and former U.S. officials. None was authorized to speak about the deal publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity. The negotiating team included two each from the State Department and the Pentagon, one from the White House national security staff and two from the U.S. Embassy in Doha.
Some Republicans in the U.S. said the deal for Bergdahl's release could set a troubling precedent. Others said the Obama administration gave up too much before exhausting other avenues that were being pursued to secure the soldier's release.
"Knowing that various lines of effort were presented and still under consideration, none of which involved a disproportionate prisoner exchange, I am concerned by the sudden urgency behind the prisoner swap, given other lines of effort," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has criticized the government effort to seek Bergdahl's release as disorganized.
Some Democrats aren't happy either. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California said Congress should have gotten advanced warning as a law on releasing Guantanamo detainees requires. She said her committee would have a closed briefing on the prisoner swap.
President Barack Obama, in Europe for meetings with several nations' leaders and NATO officials, said his administration had consulted with Congress about that possibility "for some time."
The prisoner swap idea had evolved in fits and starts since early 2011. The idea of an exchange was one of three confidence-building measures that were meant to open the door for the Afghan government to hold direct peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The goal was for the Taliban network to disassociate itself from international terrorism, which essentially required them to break ranks with al-Qaida, and open a political office in Qatar.