Bergdahl's freedom was negotiated in exchange for the release of five high-level Taliban officials from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The five were the most senior Afghans still at the prison, all held since 2002. They are: 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; Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence and was in direct contact with supreme leader Mullah Omar as well as other senior Taliban figures, according to military documents; Mullah Norullah Nori, who was 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 as a military commander and had direct ties to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, according to U.S. military documents, and Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan, according to the military documents.
Several factors helped seal a deal after all this time. Interest in bringing Bergdahl home increased as Obama worked to complete plans for withdrawing nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which would leave fewer resources to keep tabs on the soldier and get him out. U.S. officials say they were increasingly worried about Bergdahl's health, although the video they used to justify those concerns was six months old. Then, this week, administration officials told senators in a closed-door briefing the Taliban had threatened to kill Bergdahl if the proposed prisoner exchange became public, requiring quick action. The administration decided it couldn't follow a legal requirement to give Congress 30 days' notice of plans to release detainees from Guantanamo.
Critics are asking whether one soldier was worth trading for five Taliban figures, especially when that soldier's loyalty to the Army has been questioned. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., complained the U.S. had released the "Taliban dream team." On the other hand, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the five were likely to be transferred to another country at some point anyway. So the dealmakers reasoned "we should get something for them," she said. Still, Rob Williams, the national intelligence officer for South Asia, told the Senate Intelligence Committee this week that four of the five were expected to resume activities with the Taliban, according to two senior congressional officials who were not authorized to speak publicly because the session was classified. The officials did not say which four.
It was a celebratory moment when Obama stood in the Rose Garden with Bergdahl's parents last Saturday to announce that their son had been released. But the White House soon was on the defensive both for failing to notify Congress about the arrangement and for the terms of the deal. Obama cast Bergdahl's rescue as an easy call, regardless of how he came to be captured, saying: "Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity. Period. Full stop."
Senior legislators had been briefed more than two years ago about the possibility of the prisoner swap, stirring up significant opposition among both Democrats and Republicans to the idea of trading Bergdahl for the five Taliban. More than a year went by without further consultation on the matter, and then suddenly it was a done deal, despite a law requiring 30 days' notice to Congress before Guantanamo detainees are released. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said — before the explanation of the death threat — that the administration couldn't afford to wait a month in a tense, fast-moving situation. "That would have seriously imperiled us ever getting him out," he said of Bergdahl. The White House apologized to senior lawmakers for failing to give them advance notice.
Obama said his determination to bring Bergdahl home was grounded in a "pretty sacred rule" that the U.S. doesn't leave behind men or women in uniform. But his critics say the deal violated another basic U.S. tenet: Don't negotiate with terrorists, making it more likely that other Americans will be snatched as bargaining chips. "Every soldier on the ground should be upset by this," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration insisted the U.S. didn't make concessions to terrorists; it simply negotiated a prisoner swap with enemies, just as has been done in previous wars. While the Haqqanis are listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, the Taliban are not.