Obama: Freed soldier Bowe Bergdahl ‘was never forgotten’
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
May 31, 2014 06:33 PM EDT
President Barack Obama on Saturday formally announced the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last remaining American prisoner in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl had been held captive by the Taliban for nearly five years. His freedom — which capped off a week marked by announcements about the end of American involvement in Afghanistan — was negotiated on the condition of the release of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay who have been sent to Qatar.
“We’re committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan and closing Gitmo,” Obama said, in a brief statement in the Rose Garden, flanked by Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani.
But, Obama said, the nation also “made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home. It’s who we are as Americans,” he said. “Today, at least in this instance, it’s a promise we’ve been able to keep.”
The administration cast the Bergdahl news as having significance that go beyond Bergdahl, and well beyond Saturday.
The announcement of Berghdal’s release—the White House has carefully used the word “recovery” in public statements, not “transfer” or “swap” — came after a week of secret efforts to finalize the terms.
Indicating the kind of involvement from the Afghan government, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement Saturday afternoon saying he’d spoken to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to inform him of Bergdahl’s release.
“As we look to the future in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to support steps that improve the climate for conversations between Afghans about how to end the bloodshed in their country through an Afghan-led reconciliation process,” Kerry said — a process that Obama indicated Saturday he saw the release as part of.
Obama said that he spoke Tuesday with the Emir of Qatar, to thank his government for serving as the interlocutor and agreeing to take custody of the prisoners released from Guantanamo.
“The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security,” Obama said.
Obama made a surprise four-hour trip to Bagram Air Base Sunday to announce to a rally of troops that the war in Afghanistan would come to “a responsible end” by the end of the year. Tuesday at the White House, he detailed what that meant: a phased plan which would leave troops in Afghanistan past 2014 only for non-combat support and counterterrorism operations, and have all of them removed by 2016. Wednesday, he attempted to lay out a foreign policy that looks forward past the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which he took charge of at the beginning of his presidency.
After weeks of controversy about the treatment of veterans at Veterans Affairs health facilities — resulting in the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki just a day earlier — Obama and other leading national security officials echoed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who called the news “a powerful reminder of the enduring, sacred commitment our nation makes to all those who serve in uniform.”
But Obama kept the focus Saturday on the now freed prisoner, who is recovering in Afghanistan.
“Sergeant Bergdahl has missed birthdays, and holidays and simple moments with family and friends which all of us take for granted. But while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten”— not by his family or his hometown in Idaho, or the military. “And he wasn’t forgotten by his country, because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
Invited to speak by Obama, Jani Bergdahl expressed her thanks to all involved, adding, “we will continue to stay strong.”
Bob Berghdal — who led the effort to keep attention on the sergeant’s captivity — started out addressing his son first with the traditional Arabic greeting of peace that Muslims use, then in Pashto, explaining that the released prisoner is having difficulty understanding English currently.
“I’m your father, Bowe,” he said.
He thanked all those who were involved in the effort.
“The complicated nature of this recovery will never really be comprehended,” he said.
While praising the release, several leading Republicans criticized the president for the circumstances under which it was arranged.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said he is “extremely troubled” by the negotiations and the swap they led to.
“This fundamental shift in US policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take US hostages,” Rogers said in a statement. “Further, I have little confidence in the security assurances regarding the movement and activities of the now released Taliban leaders and I have even less confidence in this Administration’s willingness to ensure they are enforced. I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.”
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and leaders of the president’s national security team — National Security Adviser Susan Rice and deputy National Security Advisers Tony Blinken and Ben Rhodes — stood to the side of the Rose Garden for the announcement, exchanging hugs afterward.
So did Obama and the Bergdahls.
“It’s a good day,” Obama said, embracing Jani.
“Yes, a good day,” she said back, as they walked back up the stairs to the Oval Office.