WASHINGTON — Five years a captive in the Afghanistan war, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is back in American hands, freed for five Guantanamo terrorism detainees in an exchange that has stirred sharp debate in Washington over whether the United States should have negotiated with the Taliban over prisoners.
US officials said Sunday that Bergdahl’s health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release.
Republicans said the deal could place American troops in danger, especially if the freed detainees return to the fight.
Bergdahl, 28, was taken to Bagram Air Field for medical evaluations, then transferred Sunday to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the US military hospital in Germany, where he will receive a medical evaluation and go through a reorientation process.
It was not immediately known when he will be reunited with his family in the United States.
Visiting troops in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stepped forward at Bagram Air Field to thank the special operations forces who retrieved Bergdahl, who was said to be the only American prisoner of war still held by insurgents in Afghanistan.
Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, spoke of the excitement that spread through the ranks when the sergeant’s release was confirmed. ‘‘You almost got choked up,’’ he said. ‘‘It was pretty extraordinary.’’
Tireless campaigners for their son’s freedom, Bob and Jani Bergdahl held a press conference in Idaho to thank all who were behind the effort to retrieve him.
‘‘You were not left behind,’’ Bob Bergdahl said, as if speaking to his son. ‘‘We are so proud of the way this was carried out.’’ He spoke in Boise, as residents in the sergeant’s hometown of Hailey prepared for a homecoming celebration.
The Taliban handed Bergdahl over to special operations forces Saturday in an area of eastern Afghanistan, near Pakistan, US officials said. In a statement on its website, the Taliban put the location on the outskirts of Khost province.
Officials did not offer details about Bergdahl’s health. National security adviser Susan Rice said he had lost considerable weight and faced an acute situation. Yet she said he appeared to be ‘‘in good physical condition’’ and was able to walk.
Questions persisted about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture. Hagel declined to comment on earlier reports that the sergeant had walked away from his unit, disillusioned with the war. Such matters ‘‘will be dealt with later,’’ he said.
Hagel was met with silence when he told troops in a Bagram hangar: ‘‘This is a happy day. We got one of our own back.’’
It was unclear whether the absence of cheers and applause came from a reluctance to display emotion in front of the Pentagon chief or from any doubts among the troops about Bergdahl.
In weighing the swap, US officials decided it could help the effort to reach reconciliation with the Taliban, which the United States sees as key to more security in Afghanistan. But they acknowledged the risk that the deal would embolden insurgents, perhaps encouraging them to grab US troops or citizens as bargaining chips for the release of others in US custody.
Republicans pressed that point. ‘‘Have we just put a price on other US soldiers?’’ asked Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. ‘‘What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a US soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?’’
President Obama, joined in the Rose Garden on Saturday by the sergeant’s parents, said the deal was struck because the United States ‘‘does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.’’
The five detainees left Guantanamo Saturday aboard a US military aircraft flying to Qatar, which served as go-between in the negotiations. They are to be banned from leaving Qatar for at least a year.
Among the five: a Taliban deputy intelligence minister, a former Taliban interior minister with ties to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and a figure linked by human rights monitors to mass killings of Shi’ite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.
Administration officials and lawmakers pressed their points on the Sunday news shows. Republicans said the deal violated requirements that Congress be given 30 days’ notice before any exchange of captives at Guantanamo.
Rice said ‘‘an urgent and an acute situation,’’ which she did not specify, did not allow that time.
‘‘We did not have 30 days to wait,’’ she said. ‘‘And had we waited and lost him, I don’t think anybody would have forgiven the United States government.’’
Several dozen US special operations forces, backed by multiple helicopters and surveillance aircraft, secured Bergdahl’s transfer from about 18 Taliban members. He is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009.
Haqqani operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban but operates with some degree of autonomy.