The parents of America's only missing soldier in Afghanistan almost got him back from the Taliban. What went wrong?
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Update: Saturday, May 31, 2014. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been released in exchange for five prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.
Bob Bergdahl was halfway through his UPS delivery route on the evening of June 30, 2009, when he received an urgent message from his dispatcher, requesting that he return immediately to headquarters. Bergdahl had spent the afternoon the same way he spent most afternoons, delivering packages to the far-flung mountain settlements outside Hailey, Idaho, where he lives with his wife Jani and where they had brought up their two children Sky and Bowe. By the time Bergdahl turned in to the graveled parking lot of the UPS hub, it was 7 p.m. Standing there, next to his wife, were two American soldiers in dress uniform. Alongside them was an Army chaplain. For the father of an American infantryman serving in Afghanistan, that could mean only one thing: his beloved son was dead. “How is Jani going to take this?” he wondered. But the two soldiers had something else to tell him. Twenty-three-year-old Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl had gone missing from his base in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. He was, they explained, DUSTWUN–a military acronym that means “Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown.” Bob and Jani stood in the parking lot, and together with the chaplain, they prayed.
They did not yet know it, but their son was a prisoner of the Taliban, the only American soldier ever to be taken alive and held by the militant group that the U.S. has been fighting since the war began in October 2001.
Some families would have gone public with the news immediately, telling the world that their son must be brought home–now. The Bergdahls, though, are quiet people. The close-knit family–Jani had homeschooled Bowe and his older sister–retreated into silence. They preferred to work behind the scenes, lobbying the State Department and the Department of Defense to pursue Bowe’s release. They worried that too much exposure might make things worse. Other than some carefully scripted official statements and a single self-made YouTube video, in which Bob Bergdahl addressed Bowe’s captors and asked for his only son’s safe return home, Bob and Jani had never spoken in public about their son.
But on May 9, just weeks after Bowe’s 26th birthday, the Bergdahls emerged from their self-imposed silence with an unexpected interview in a local newspaper, saying they believed the U.S. should negotiate a prisoner exchange for their son with the Taliban and that “everybody is frustrated with how slowly the process has evolved.” After a flurry of interviews with the national media, in which they revealed that Bowe had in fact been the subject of a failed deal involving the transfer of five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantnamo, they retreated to the sanctuary of their family home, located in the shadow of Idaho’s Smoky Mountains, a range of peaks so wild and raw they wouldn’t look out of place on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But in an interview at a local coffee shop after most of the reporters had left town, Bob Bergdahl, 52, described the agonizing journey his family has undertaken, how the pressure has built with the passing years and why he felt he could stay silent no longer. Pained but reflective, Bergdahl spoke for more than two hours, never becoming truly emotional and deflecting any question about his inner life to focus on what he could do, must do, to get his son back. “We do not want to pressure the White House. We do not want to pressure Congress,” Bergdahl said. “They’re going to have to come to terms the way they always do, through hardcore politics, especially in an election year. But at the same time, we have a window of opportunity in Afghanistan, and that window is not going to wait for a national election to come to an end. I don’t think we can count on the dynamics on the ground in Afghanistan to be the same in November as they necessarily are now. This is a war, and war doesn’t wait on politics.”
TIME has learned that the urgency the Bergdahls feel is rooted in a recent split in the Taliban movement that, in a cruel twist, was precipitated by the very negotiations that were meant to secure the release of their son. People close to the Taliban and the particular faction that is holding Bergdahl say the once secret talks with the Americans sparked a furor among hard-line Taliban fighters who felt they were being sold out by some of their leaders. Those hard-line Taliban are now–according to Taliban, other Afghan and American sources–in no mood to restart talks over Bergdahl, or anything else for that matter.
But Bowe Bergdahl remains a unique and valuable bargaining chip for the Taliban, and that gives his parents hope. To the U.S. government, he also presents an opportunity for much broader political gains. His release might push the fitful peace talks with the Taliban further along. “The onus is on the Taliban to come back to the negotiations if they want to move this process forward,” says an Obama Administration official.
These three disparate entities–the Bergdahls and their Hailey community, the U.S. government, and the Taliban–have mobilized assets at hand to achieve the oddly shared goal of bringing the crisis over the young U.S. soldier to a close, even as they pursue very different endgames. At the heart of it all is a young captive who has declared in one of the five hostage videos released by the Taliban, “I am a prisoner. I want to go home. The Afghanistan men who are in our prisons, they want to go home too.”
In Custody of the Taliban
At the beginning, Bowe Bergdahl refused to make life easy for his captors. “He was not cooperating,” one Taliban commander tells a TIME special correspondent based in Peshawar, Pakistan. Initially, Bergdahl refused to eat as he was moved rapidly around the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan. After his capture, he was taken first to the Pakistani town of Angoor Adda, which borders the Afghan province of Paktika, where Bergdahl’s Army unit was based. Soon after, he was shifted to the thickly forested mountains of North Waziristan’s Shawal Valley, where the network of the Taliban-aligned militant leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is headquartered. North Waziristan is a forbidding, xenophobic land of suspicious clans where no stranger goes unnoticed and where perilous terrain makes infiltration by even the most dedicated intelligence agencies extremely difficult. Another militant who, like the others, requested not to be identified, in deference to Taliban rules against speaking to the media, said that once Bergdahl was in Pakistan he was almost entirely beyond the reach of the U.S. military. “We had been waiting for years and years to hunt down such an important bird. Once one fell into our hands, then we knew how to keep it safe and sound.”
How Bergdahl fell into the hands of the Haqqani network remains unclear. Within days of his disappearance on June 30, a Taliban commander crowed to the media that his group had captured a drunken American soldier outside his base. Two and a half weeks later, they released a video. Bergdahl, dressed in local garb and showing the beginnings of a wispy beard, said he had been captured after falling behind on a routine foot patrol. Unnamed soldiers from his base, however, told international media outlets that he had wandered into the scrub-covered mountains on his own with his journal and a supply of water, leaving his weapons and armor behind. An unidentified U.S. official told the Associated Press at the time that he had “just walked off” after his guard shift was over.
Whatever the truth, Bergdahl was in the custody of one of the most violent factions of the Taliban. After his initial rebelliousness, Bergdahl started cooperating a little more, militants say. At times he was looked after by a group of English-speaking fighters, “so he does not feel bored,” says the commander. He drank mineral water and boxed juices and was eventually allowed the foods of his choice, within reason. “Under the rules of melmastia, ‘Pashtun hospitality,’ he will eat the same foods his captors eat,” says Jere Van Dyk, a CBS news consultant who was captured and held for 45 days in 2008 by the same group. “There will be dal, rice, and meat when they can afford it.” In the right season, they might offer spinach or eggplant cooked in oil. “They will provide him with soap and toothpaste, all the amenities they can to show that they are taking care of him. He will have a cot and a quilt.”
Even though Bergdahl is the only American service member the Taliban have successfully captured, kidnapping and hostage taking have long been tactics of the militant group. Since 2001, fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan have seized hundreds of aid workers, journalists, wealthy Pakistanis and other people the Taliban considers worthy of ransom or negotiation.
The cultural code of hospitality extended to captives appears–deliberately–evident in the first video, which became public in July 2009. While the off-camera interrogator asks questions of Bergdahl in accented but fairly fluent English, the shaved-headed soldier mops up a plate of stew with pieces of bread. He finishes his meal with a glass mug of the pale yellow tea popular among the Pashtun population.
The worst part of being a captive, say Van Dyk and British journalist Sean Langan, who was held hostage by the Haqqanis for four months in 2008, is the state of perpetual fear. “No matter how nice they are–and usually they are–you know that they could kill you at any minute,” says Langan. “That can break a person over time.”
In a third video, released in April 2010, Bergdahl sports a thick beard and wears an army sweatshirt that looks fresh out of the package. Bergdahl says he is being treated well and is allowed to exercise. His captors tell TIME that by that stage he had started learning basic Pashtu, “words such as bread, water, How are you?, I am fine, Who are you?” Bergdahl, who was raised a devout Presbyterian, even started thinking about converting to Islam, says one commander. Suspicious at first, they asked if it was out of fear or frustration that he wanted to convert. “He told us, ‘Your way of life has impressed me, and I want to live like you.’”
And then, last fall, Bowe Bergdahl escaped.
Learning Pashtu in Idaho
Back in Hailey, Bob Bergdahl was also learning Pashtu. He scoured websites and militant chat rooms looking for information. He kept delivering packages for UPS, as familiar and warm a face around Hailey as ever, but getting Bowe back had become his mission in life. He read up on the border region’s history and politics and culture, information that he then used in his own video directed at Bowe’s captors.
“Idaho is so much like Afghanistan,” Bob Bergdahl says, speaking of the wild mountainous environment that both places share and that Bowe loved. “The similarities will help him. We hope that will be what sustains him.”
Friends and neighbors in Hailey say the videos of Bowe have been both comforting and torturous to the Bergdahl family. They prove that Bowe is alive, but they are also a visceral reminder of just how far away he is. Sherry Horton, one of Bowe’s closest friends, says she takes comfort in seeing Bowe’s beard grow. “It’s nice to look and to be able to see in the different videos the beard growth that tells you the passage of time.” Bob Bergdahl has started growing his own beard in solidarity. “His faith seems to be intact,” says Bergdahl of his son. “In his videos, he’s mentioned his faith in God, and that means a lot to us. We think the Taliban and these Pashtun people can identify with that. And I hope they can respect him for that. I hope they continue to treat him humanely.”
Hailey’s support for Bowe Bergdahl has never wavered during his nearly three years in captivity. Zaney’s River Street Coffee House, where he once worked as a barista, has become ground zero for the campaign to get him back. The cheerful, flower-bedecked clapboard building boasts signs in the window that read STANDING WITH BOWE AND GET BOWE BACK. That solidarity and respect for the Bergdahls’ decision to stay quiet until now partly explains why their story has remained largely out of the public eye. The Departments of State and Defense lobbied news outlets not to report that Bergdahl was the subject of negotiations with the Taliban, arguing that news stories about him might hurt his chances of being released or even imperil his life.
Behind the scenes, the Bergdahls and the government worked in tandem. “We’ve been in very close contact with the Bergdahls,” says a senior Administration official. “I visited with them quite a lot. They’re very aware of what we have been doing, and I very much have appreciated their support.”
The Pentagon has been working to locate Bergdahl since he went missing. “I can assure you that we are doing everything in our power, using our intelligence resources across the government, to try to locate him,” General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on May 10. “If you go to the Centcom command center, there’s about a 4-by-6-ft. poster of Bowe Bergdahl sitting in front of the podium to remind them, and therefore us, every day that he remains missing in action,” he said. But in a region as vast and unforgiving as North Waziristan, looking for one American soldier held hostage by a group that has long experience with captives is a humbling reminder of the limits of even the world’s most powerful military.
Art Keller, a former CIA officer who took part in the agency’s hunt for terrorists in Pakistan, says the few CIA agents who worked in the tribal regions when he was there in 2006 could not even leave the Pakistani army bases that hosted them. “I had a local person who worked in that area who I could only communicate with via computer,” he says. “So I couldn’t even meet with them.”
The Haqqanis “are so conscious of the use to which we put drones that if they’re going to move anyone, they’ll do it in a way that we don’t pick up visual traces,” Keller says. “Are they going to move [Bergdahl] with a bag over his head? Even that would raise suspicion.”
Another former CIA case officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, Patrick Skinner, also doubts that either local intelligence or technology is of much help in finding Bergdahl. And if he were located, sending in a SEAL team or Special Forces to rescue him in such an environment–and in Pakistani territory–would be both practically and politically hazardous. “Outside of an incredible intelligence break, or luck,” says Skinner, “the way it’s going to happen is that it’s going to be done through back channels where everybody involved will get something.”
Talking with the Enemy
Three days after his escape, the Haqqanis recaptured Bergdahl in the mountains. “It was a brief escape, and he was easily recovered from the same area. He was not familiar with the area and route, and then the whole area was controlled by Taliban, and therefore escaping was not possible,” one of the network’s commanders says. The Haqqanis were angry. Bergdahl had exploited the honesty, poverty and illiteracy of the men assigned to guard him, promising them that he would take them to the U.S. if they helped him escape, the militant leader says. Bergdahl was physically punished for misguiding the fighters who had tried to escape with him, says the commander, adding that the fighters had been “paralyzed,” his grim euphemism for execution.
Since his recapture, says the commander, Bergdahl no longer has the freedom to walk around and exercise that he once enjoyed. He is still properly looked after, he says, but “we don’t trust him anymore and keep him in lockup most of the time.”
Late last fall, the U.S. government initiated talks with the Taliban in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar in the hope of bringing an end to the war. In the course of the discussions, the Taliban told the Americans that they wanted five senior Taliban officials released from Guantnamo, a senior Administration official says. The U.S. then raised the possibility of including Bergdahl in the process. Soon the two sides had a tentative agreement.
American officials insist it was never a direct exchange. “This wasn’t negotiating with terrorists,” says the senior Administration official. “This wasn’t a swap.” Instead, they describe each step as a confidence-building measure designed to keep everyone at the negotiating table at an office in Qatar, where both sides had agreed that Taliban envoys could safely set up residence. The offer to the Taliban from the Americans, with Qatar’s approval, was this: The Guantnamo detainees would be given jobs, reunited with their families and permitted to move around Qatar with some monitoring. They would not, however, be allowed to go back to Afghanistan, and they would have to complete a deradicalization program. The Americans hoped the agreement would lead to more-comprehensive talks about the role of the insurgent group in Afghanistan after most foreign troops pull out in 2014.
In January, a delegation from the Afghan Taliban approached the Haqqani network with the proposal, members of both groups say, and asked that it hand over its prisoner. The Haqqanis agreed, pledging loyalty to the mainstream Taliban group, and Bergdahl was moved across the border, back into Afghanistan. In order to prove that they were serious, the Taliban produced another, yet unseen and previously unreported video of Bergdahl, says Hekmat Karzai, director of the Afghanistan-based Centre for Conflict & Peace Studies, who has stayed abreast of the negotiations through his extensive contacts with current and former Taliban members. “It was given to the Americans to say, ‘Look, this guy is alive. He is in our custody, and we are willing to talk. We are willing to potentially swap Bergdahl for those detainees.’” Administration officials refused to confirm or deny the existence of a proof-of-life video.
In early January, the Taliban for the first time publicly revealed to individual journalists that they were interested in negotiating with Washington. It was a significant departure for a group that has consistently refused to negotiate as long as foreign troops remained in Afghanistan.
But there was a problem. As the talks in Qatar proceeded, discussions inside the Taliban movement got heated at times, says Karzai, particularly between the older, more experienced members who were part of the Taliban government toppled in 2001 and the younger recruits who know nothing but battle. One senior commander says leaks about the talks had undermined morale. “Most of our fighters had stopped fighting, and the battlefields became a standstill due to talks with the Americans.”
But by early March, it looked as though everything was set to go. Many members of the detainees’ families were already in Qatar, preparing for long-anticipated reunions with fathers and husbands they hadn’t seen in a decade.
And then it all fell apart.
On March 15, the Taliban suspended the talks, citing the Americans’ “unacceptable” conditions. Taliban members say the U.S. tacked on a last-minute stipulation that the Taliban announce a cease-fire and lay down arms first. “We told them we are willing to announce a cease-fire, but you should start pulling out all foreign forces and tell the world that invading Afghanistan and removing the Taliban from power was your mistake, but they did not agree,” a Taliban leader says. “Thus the talks failed.” Not surprisingly, the U.S. sees it differently. “The Taliban refused to agree to the terms we require for a transfer, so they walked away,” the Obama Administration official says. “This proposal … is still very much on the table.”
But Taliban members say the time for talking may be over. They are contending with a split in their ranks that threatens the whole idea of a peace deal with the American and Afghan governments. “Had we continued talks for a few more weeks with the U.S. in Qatar, our movement would have died a natural death,” says a senior Taliban commander operating in Kandahar. “Infighting had started among various factions.” While an imploding Taliban might appear to be a good thing for the American and Afghan governments, a fragmented and more radical Taliban would not be. The commander tells TIME that since the talks fell apart, there has been a purge in the Taliban leadership. Younger and more violent field commanders have been promoted over the more peace-ready old guard, and a strict warning has been delivered that any Taliban caught freelance negotiating with the Afghan government or the Americans will be killed. On May 12, a Taliban splinter group assassinated Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban minister and a member of the government’s High Peace Council, in Kabul. In a subsequent phone call, the group’s spokesman, Qari Hamza, took responsibility for the attack and declared that its ranks were swelling with Taliban opposed to “the so-called peace talks with the U.S. We formed a separate group that comprises all those genuine Taliban fighters who shed their blood in jihad against the U.S.-led foreign forces for the liberation of Afghanistan.” Just a few weeks before he died, Rahmani told TIME he was confident that the talks would resume shortly. “We are tired of war. The Taliban are tired of war, and the Americans are tired too. Talks are the only solution.”
In spite of the hardening of the Taliban’s position, the Bergdahls and the Obama Administration have not given up hope of negotiating the young Idahoan’s release. Although the U.S. government believed that going public about the talks over Bergdahl would be a mistake, “You have to have great sympathy for the Bergdahls,” says the senior Administration official, “and they’ve made their decision here.”
For the Bergdahls and the Hailey community, Bowe’s return would mark the end of a long journey. But for Bowe, who has been criticized by many for the circumstances surrounding his capture and his appearance in propaganda videos, it would be just the start. “He will always be separate from everyone else–not an outcast, but isolated,” says Van Dyk, who is still haunted by his own experience. “And it won’t be right, but he will be called a traitor. He has a long road ahead.”
Back in Hailey, where yellow ribbons symbolizing solidarity with Bowe still flutter in the cool mountain breezes, Bob and Jani Bergdahl have committed now to pressing their son’s case in public and will appear at a veterans’ rally in Washington on May 27. That event may spark a new round of interest in the U.S.’s only missing soldier in Afghanistan, but it is unlikely that it will create enough pressure on any of the key players to bring Bowe home. The White House waits for a signal from the Taliban that talks can begin again, and the town of Hailey for news of a miraculous release. And somewhere in the mountains near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a young man waits to go home to his family.