WASHINGTON — Weeks before a Black Hawk helicopter lifted off in the dying light of eastern Afghanistan, carrying with it an American soldier who had spent five years in the hands of the Taliban, American officials grew increasingly worried that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s life might be in jeopardy.
A video produced by his captors months earlier had shown him weak and dazed, and there was a growing fear that the Taliban — frustrated by the glacial pace of hostage negotiations — were beginning to rethink the value of continuing to hold an American prisoner.
Officials from Qatar, who had long been the middlemen in the deliberations for a deal that would free Sergeant Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners, were issuing warnings that the American prisoner’s days could be numbered, setting in motion a flurry of secret discussions on two continents about how to choreograph a battlefield exchange of prisoners.
Issues that had bitterly divided the Obama administration — about the wisdom of the prisoner swap and the risks of releasing a group of aging Taliban commanders from Guantánamo Bay — were swept aside in the rush to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release. At the same time, much of the fate of the administration’s strategy was now in the hands of Qatar, the tiny wealthy emirate that in recent years has used its riches to amass great influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. President Obama spoke by telephone with the emir of Qatar to finalize the terms of the deal, and delegates from Qatar were quietly sent to Guantánamo Bay in late May — their presence a surprise to those who saw them in the dining facility at the island military prison.
But the endgame, described in interviews with more than a dozen American and foreign officials, has also come under fierce attack from members of Congress, angry they were not consulted about the prisoner swap and critical of the decision to trade five Taliban commanders for an American soldier they have labeled a deserter. [Page A11 .]
In the few days since Mr. Obama made an emotional announcement with Sergeant Bergdahl’s parents in the White House Rose Garden, the White House has repeatedly had to defend the deal it cut to bring home the longest held American captive of America’s longest war.
On Wednesday evening, as they emerged from a briefing with administration officials in a secure basement room in the Capitol, both Republican and Democratic senators said that they were not convinced that Sergeant Bergdahl’s life was in immediate danger.
And angry lawmakers insisted that the exchange of the Taliban prisoners for Mr. Bergdahl puts American lives at risk.
Hopes for Sergeant Bergdahl’s release were rekindled late last September, after two years of intermittent negotiations, when the Taliban used a Qatari intermediary to send a secret message to the United States indicating that a prisoner swap might be possible. Up to that point, the prisoner issue had been one part of a broader agenda aimed at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, but this was a more narrow proposal.
“It was a far, far smaller deal — not Bergdahl in return for something bigger,” according to a former senior administration official, who like a dozen other officials spoke about the events surrounding Sergeant Bergdahl’s release only on the condition of anonymity.
Obama administration officials responded to the message weeks later, in early November, expressing interest in the idea but demanding that the Taliban provide proof that the captured American soldier was still alive. At the same time, discussions intensified between Washington and Doha about the conditions under which the five Taliban prisoners could be transferred and held in the peninsula nation.
Some senior American military commanders had long opposed using the Taliban prisoners as a bargaining chip to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release, but there was generally skepticism among American intelligence officials that releasing Taliban operatives who had been in captivity for more than a decade would have any appreciable impact on the Afghan battlefield.
In early December, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Qatar for what appeared to be a number of routine meetings with an ally and a chance to meet the country’s new emir. But a top priority for Mr. Hagel during his stop in Doha was putting a plan in place to free Sergeant Bergdahl. The secretary pressed his Qatari hosts: Is there a team in place to push ahead on the negotiations? Could Qatar give assurances that the Taliban prisoners would be closely monitored so they would not slip out of the country and return to Afghanistan?
The proof of Sergeant Bergdahl’s condition came soon after, when the Taliban produced a short video clip of the soldier. In the video, believed to be shot sometime in December, Sergeant Bergdahl made references to recent events — including the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela — but he appeared sick and weak.
“He looked shriveled,” said one senior American official who saw portions of the video. “There was a pallor about his skin that looked unhealthy. He didn’t seem alert; he seemed lethargic.”
Several teams of military medical specialists analyzed the video and wrote a report concluding that, among other things, the American prisoner was undernourished and was cradling one arm in another.
One Defense Department official said that the Taliban had also expressed concerns about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health, worried that his death would eliminate any leverage they had to secure the release of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.
The video reinforced growing fears within military circles that the chances of freeing the Afghan prisoner would become more difficult at the end of 2014, when the number of United States troops was scheduled to shrink significantly. As American troops pulled out, so would specialists from the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies who were vital to helping find the soldier.
But negotiations lagged for several months.
“For a while the Taliban went silent, and we thought the whole thing was another bust,” one American official said.
But by mid-May, the United States and Qatar had signed a secret memorandum, with Qatar agreeing to impose security provisions for the five Taliban detainees. The memorandum called for a minimum one-year travel ban on the Afghans. Other details have been kept secret.
Even after the agreement was in place, the Obama administration chose to keep Congress in the dark about the secret negotiations. In recent days, White House officials have said that any leak about a possible prisoner trade could have once again scared off the Taliban.
“We didn’t have 30 days,” Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said Monday, stepping around the question of whether they could have notified some in Congress two or three weeks ago.
On May 23, amid the growing fears that Sergent Bergdahl’s life might be in jeopardy, a small team from the State Department, Pentagon and White House flew to Qatar. With Qatari officials passing messages back and forth between the Americans and Taliban negotiators, the broad terms of an agreement were reached: A Taliban delegation would bring Sergeant Bergdahl from Pakistan to just across the border into the eastern province of Khost, in Afghanistan, where he would be turned over to American Special Operations troops.
The final piece of the accord fell into place on May 27, when Mr. Obama spoke by phone to the emir of Qatar and received his personal assurances that the Taliban detainees would be closely watched when they arrived in Qatar. A Qatari delegation flew to Guantánamo on Thursday evening, where its members waited until it was time to escort the five Taliban detainees — all of them among the very first prisoners at the controversial military jail — back to Doha.
Thousands of miles away, Special Operations troops were figuring out the logistics of the battlefield handoff with the Taliban, again through a Qatari intermediary. One American demand was that Sergeant Bergdahl would be handed over during the day, but problems finding cellular phone signals on both sides of the Afghanistan border delayed the exchange for hours — pushing almost to sunset on Saturday.
At 7 p.m. local time, in a tense but peaceful exchange that lasted no more than a minute, Taliban fighters pulled Sergeant Bergdahl from the cab of a pickup truck and handed him over to the American commandos.
Seconds later, he was whisked away in the Black Hawk helicopter.
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(via NY Times)