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Hagel defended keeping the operation secret from the Afghan government and others.
"This was an operation . . . that had to be very closely held," he said. "We did not want to jeopardize ⅛it⅜; we couldn’t afford any leaks anywhere."
The deal produced a mixed reaction from the Afghan government Sunday. A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the release of the Taliban prisoners but said that the decision to send the men to Qatar violated "international laws, which say that no government can submit a citizen of another country to a third nation as a prisoner."
The Afghans asked for the former detainees’ "unconditional freedom."
In addition to assurances Obama received by telephone, he met personally with former Qatari emir Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York on Wednesday, where the president gave a graduation address. The sheik, the father of the current emir, turned power over to his son last year.
Bergdahl was flown to the U.S. military’s medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, where he was being evaluated Sunday. Details of his condition were not released. His parents met briefly with reporters in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday. They said they had not yet spoken with their son and used the news media appearance to communicate with him.
"Give yourself all of the time you need to recover and decompress," said his mother, Jani Bergdahl. "There is no hurry. You have your life ahead of you.. . . You’ve made it. . . . You are free."
As Defense Department officials contemplated what was described as a likely transfer of Bergdahl soon to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, there was another emotional reunion - in Doha, Qatar.
The Taliban posted several photos of the released detainees meeting with other Taliban officials. The images showed men with long, graying beards in emotional embraces.
The Taliban also released a rare public statement from its leader, Mohammad Omar.
"I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation," the statement said.
Omar also thanked the government of Qatar "for their mediation and for hosting them."
The releases occurred just after the United States announced its plans for its drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. The Afghan army is preparing to take over the ongoing battle with the Islamic hard-line Taliban.
The last time a senior Taliban official was released from Guantanamo Bay, in 2007, the detainee, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, returned to Afghanistan and became director of military operations.
Hagel and other officials said every precaution was taken to reduce the chance of error or miscalculation.
"Fortunately, no shots were fired," Hagel said. "There was no violence. It went as well as we not only had expected and planned, but I think as well as it could have."
The commander of the U.S. Special Operations team that retrieved Bergdahl on Saturday was in direct contact with his Taliban counterpart as the two sides arranged and approached their rendezvous near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, senior Defense Department officials said.
Officials said "dozens" of Special Forces troops went to the site in helicopters for the meeting with the 18 Taliban members delivering Bergdahl, while additional militants waited in the distance.
It was a rare battlefield meeting for fighters on two sides of a deadly war.
After being released by his Afghan captors, Bergdahl walked onto the waiting U.S. aircraft.
Once airborne, he scribbled the letters "SF?" on a paper plate, seeking confirmation that he was with Special Forces troops.Next Page >
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