In the latest episode of the Serial podcast, titled "Trade Secrets," journalist Sarah Koenig and her team delve into the details of Bowe Bergdahl's rescue from the Taliban. What most people know as the controversial Gitmo prisoner swap of 2014 actually started off much loftier in scale—and aimed to end the war in Afghanistan.
MILITARY ACTION VS. DIPLOMACY
As Stars and Stripes recaps, the seeds of the effort to rescue Bergdahl started with U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, best known for brokering the 1995 Dayton Accords in the Balkans. Holbrooke thought that peace in Afghanistan could be achieved diplomatically, chiefly by getting the Taliban to start negotiating with the Afghani government.
Holbrooke's theory, however, was not popular and he frequently clashed with his friend, General David Petraeus, who was leading the Afghanistan war effort. Kati Marton, Holbrooke's widow, recalled: "Richard would have 10-second conversations with Petraeus and the gist of that was this was no time for diplomacy."
However, by late 2010, Holbrooke was able to set up a secret meeting in Munich with a Taliban insider known as "A-Rod." It did seem possible that, if the Taliban could find official recognition from the Afghani government, there could be a chance for peace... and if that was possible, Bergdahl could be released.
STALLING. AND STALLING AGAIN.
The tenuous talks hit a devastating setback when Holbrooke suffered a heart attack and passed away. In early 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed interest in furthering Holbrooke's efforts. The Taliban withdrew from talks however, especially when hopes of their Guantanamo prisoner demands seemed too much for the U.S. negotiators. Diplomat Marc Grossman told Koenig that the Taliban, in particularly, "wanted these five guys" from the prison released.
Later, Secretary of State John Kerry oversaw revived talks, which this time included a demand over an official Taliban government office. The office was agreed upon, but when then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai noticed that flag and sign sported the words "Arab Emirates" (language that was supposed to be prohibited), the relations between the Afghani government and Taliban fell apart again. Throughout all this, Bergdahl’s release remained a “line item” for negotiating peace and a condition of ending U.S. military combat operations in Afghanistan.
In early 2014, the Taliban submitted to talks again. This time, the loftier goals of ending the fighting were dropped: the insurgents were only interested in freeing the five prisoners from Gitmo. In exchange, they would free Bergdahl.
During this time, Bergdahl recalls his treatment from his captors improving. He was served regular meals, received a toothbrush, and was provided science textbooks to occupy his time. A treadmill was even moved into his cell so he could exercise.
The final details of the exchange were worked out and, on May 31, Bergdahl was picked up by U.S. forces. Bergdahl had not spoken English in so long that he recalls trying to thank the Soldiers who received him and having to write it down.
"THESE FIVE GUYS"
One of the most controversial aspects of Bergdahl's release is the perception that five active terrorists were released back into the field from Gitmo to secure his freedom. Koenig and her team explored this aspect of the prisoner exchange and found that while even Afghanis were surprised with just how valuable Bergdahl seemed to be in the trade, the assumption that U.S. was releasing dangerous enemy combatants is not as clear.
Carol Rosenberg, a journalist for the Miami Herald who covers military affairs—including those involving Guantanamo Bay-- reminded Koenig that the prisoners that were traded had not had any intelligence value for a long time. Osama bin Laden had already been killed and Rosenberg called the prisoners "highly compliant" with Gitmo staff, likening them to P.O.Ws who were just waiting for the conflict to be over so they could be freed.
You can listen to all of Serial season 2, episode 9 at the Serial website. Episode 10—which will explore the Army's decision to press charges against Bergdahl—will debut on March 17.
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