President Barack Obama has been trying to close the U.S. detention center for accused enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since his first days in office — almost as long as one American soldier was held hostage in Afghanistan.
Today, the White House announced the release of five more detainees — in exchange for the one American who has been held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held captive since 2009, is coming home.
He was the last U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, a war running 12 years that American forces plan to exit by the end of 2016.
The release, long sought by the Taliban, was secured with assistance from the government of Qatar, according to the White House. The freed soldier was said to be undergoing treatment at Bagram Air Base, where Obama made a surprise visit over the Memorial Day weekend.
Obama, who is heading to Europe next week for a meeting of the Group of Seven industrial nations and the 70th anniversary of the invasion at Normandy, stood with the soldier’s parents in the Rose Garden of the White House this afternoon.
“While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten,” Obama said, the parents flanking him. “He wasn’t forgotten by his community in Idaho, or the military… He wasn’t forgotten by his country.”
The U.S. is transferring five detainees from Guantanamo to Qatar, Obama said — with assurances that U.S. security will be protected. The Qatari government has pledged to hold the released prisoners for at least a year.
“Those released from the U.S. military-detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, include Afghanistan’s deputy defense minister under Taliban rule and others who played major roles in the regime that helped shield those behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” Michael Bender and Gopal Ratnam report. They note, too, the questions that lawmakers are raising about trading away captives responsible for the lost lives of many Americans in and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that led to the war in Afghanistan.
“We are committed to closing Gitmo,” Obama said today. “We are also deeply committed to obtaining the release of Americans detained abroad.”
While the soldier’s mother, Jani, offered emotional thanks — “I just want to say thank you to everyone,” the father, Bob Bergdahl, spoke to a back story that wasn’t immediately apparent today:“The complicated nature of this recovery will never really be comprehended.”
“Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield,” Obama said in a statement issued by the White House earlier today.
While nearly 1,000 detainees have been held at Guantanamo since its opening 12 years ago, the population of the military prison is down to about 150 today.
Obama said in an interview aired by National Public Radio this week that closing Guantanamo remains one of the issues he hopes to resolve before leaving office.
“I’m going to keep on pushing because I want to make sure that when I turn the keys over to the next president, that they have the ability, that he or she has the capacity to — to make some decisions with a relatively clean slate,” Obama said in that interview.
“Closing Guantanamo is one,” Obama said of the remaining issues. `Making sure that we have the right legal architecture for how we conduct counterterrorism and that there’s greater transparency, as I discussed today, that’s another.”