US commandos planned for the worst as they arrived at a site in eastern Afghanistan to free Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after the Taliban had agreed to release him in exchange for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Although details of the swap had been agreed, the US commandos arriving to take Bergdahl from the site along the border with Pakistan came prepared to fight, said Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit yesterday.
US forces "took every possible precaution we could take, through intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, through having enough of our assets positioned in the right locations, having enough helicopters, and doing everything we could possibly do to anticipate violence, and anything going in a different direction", Hagel said.
Watch: US soldier released in swap for Guantanamo detainees
Bergdahl was brought to the site by a group of up to 18 Taliban fighters. He walked to the waiting US helicopters and the operation was over quickly. "No shots were fired, there was no violence," Hagel said of the operation.
"Once he was on the helicopter, he wrote on a paper plate, 'SF?'" a defence official said, referring to the abbreviation for special forces. "The operators replied loudly: 'Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time'. And at this point, Sergeant Bergdahl broke down."
Bergdahl, 28, had already left Afghanistan when Hagel touched down at the giant Bagram military base outside Kabul yesterday. He was captured under unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.
Bergdahl developed a love for Afghan green tea, taught his captors badminton, and even celebrated Christmas and Easter with the hardline Islamists, a Pakistani militant commander said.
Bergdahl's almost five years in captivity saw him transferred between various militant factions along the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border, finally ending up in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal district.
A commander of the Haqqani network, a militant outfit allied with the Taliban and with ties to al-Qaeda, painted a picture of a man who adjusted to his new life by engaging with his captors while clinging to aspects of his own identity. "He was fond of kawa [Afghan green tea]. He drank a lot of kawa all day, which he mostly prepared himself," the commander said.
Over time, Bergdahl became fluent in Pashto and Dari, two of the major languages spoken in Afghanistan, he said. Unlike the militants, Bergdahl "liked vegetables and asked for meat only once or twice a week", the commander said.
While the militants attempted to teach the soldier about Islam and provided him with religious books, he preferred more earthly pursuits.
"He never missed his religious festivals. He used to tell his handlers they were coming up weeks before Christmas and Easter and celebrated it with them," he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry informed Afghan President Hamid Karzai of the prisoner swap only after Bergdahl was safely in US custody because of high secrecy surrounding the operation.
President Barack Obama hailed the release in a brief appearance with Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, in the White House Rose Garden, saying that "while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten".
Bergdahl finds it difficult to speak English and speaks mostly Pashto, one of two major languages spoken in Afghanistan, according to his father.
Bergdahl will now remain at the Landstuhl centre in southern Germany while he continues what the US army called his "reintegration process".
Bloomberg, Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse