Bergdahl: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

President Obama Makes A Statement On Release Of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl
J.H. Owen / Getty Images President Obama announces the release of Bowe Bergdahl, with the sergeant's parents by his side, in the White House Rose Garden May 31.

Misinformation clouds the debate over the soldier-Taliban swap

Monday marked the first time in a week that the controversy swirling around the deal to win Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s release wasn’t on the front pages of the nation’s three most influential newspapers.

A clear bottom line seems to be emerging, both among the military and the public: President Obama was right to make a deal to bring him home. But two tough questions remain: did Obama give too much to win Bergdahl’s release? And will Bergdahl be held accountable for any malfeasance that may have contributed to his nearly five years in captivity?

Statements made rashly often don’t hold up in hindsight. Sure, talking heads on cable TV continue to foam at the mouth, but the fact that the dust is beginning to settle following Bergdahl’s exchange for five senior Taliban leaders on May 31 offers a chance to ponder where the story now stands.

Here’s an accounting, based on interviews with current and former military troops, including some who served with Bergdahl, as well as family members who believe the hunt for the missing soldier led to the deaths of their loved ones:

  • With the U.S. troop presence shrinking in Afghanistan, the Taliban feared Bergdahl was a depreciating asset. If his value shrunk too much, the Administration fears that the Taliban might have come to believe that keeping him alive wasn’t worth the effort.
  • Bergdahl was sick and getting sicker. According to U.S. military officials, he was brutalized and confined to a cage, often in the dark, following escape attempts. “It was a proof-of-life video” that convinced the Administration to act, a senior Pentagon official says of a December 2013 recording that U.S. officials didn’t see until January. “Just showed him talking and referring to recent events. Though difficult to make precise medical diagnoses from such, it was evident to experts who watched it that he was not in good health.” The Administration’s line might have more credibility if the recovery had happened more quickly after seeing the video. There are also suspicions that the Taliban began treating Bergdahl better as negotiations for his release looked like they might succeed.
  • The White House plainly erred in having the President hold a Rose Garden ceremony with Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, to announce his release. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday the choice of the garden to make the announcement signaled the President’s commitment to leave no soldier behind. “We didn’t have to do it at the Rose Garden, but that is a very important principle,” he added. “So standing in the Rose Garden to make that assessment or make that commitment clear is exactly what the President chose to do.”
  • Retired four-star Marine general Anthony Zinni, who once headed U.S. Central Command, said the Pentagon may have stumbled by not telling the White House that military should handle the return announcement. “It was the right thing to do to bring him home, but I think it was handled miserably and I think the fault lies with the Pentagon,” Zinni says. He recalls when Vietnam-era U.S. troops held as prisoners came home, and the strict orders from commanders to avoid saying anything too laudatory about those suspected of less-than-stellar actions while imprisoned. “I distinctly remember the generals getting cautioned about not going overboard,” Zinni says. Of course, he acknowledges, the White House could have ignored such warnings from the Pentagon.
  • The White House compounded the problem by sending Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., on television the following day to declare that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” That really set off the troops who served alongside Bergdahl and say he deserted. The White House’s counter has been weak. “The point that I would make to you is that any American who puts on the uniform and volunteers to fight for this country overseas is doing something honorable,” Earnest said Monday.
  • Perhaps a half-dozen U.S. troops died hunting for Bergdahl after he allegedly left his post in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. “Bergdahl’s walking away was a large factor contributing to my son’s death,” Andy Andrews of Cameron, Texas, said Monday. His son, 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, was killed by an RPG September 4, 2009, while protecting a fellow soldier. They had been on a routine patrol near where Bergdahl vanished, and had been asking locals about him when they were attacked. “Sergeant Bergdahl is not a hero, and my son—who sacrificed himself to save others—was a hero,” Andrews says. This is the most inflammatory charge, and quickly surfaced, once Bergdahl was out of enemy hands, from soldiers who served with him. That tells us two things: the soldiers kept quiet (they had also signed non-disclosure agreements concerning Bergdahl’s disappearance) until he was safe. But once safe, they felt their sense of duty required them to tell the truth as they saw it. But direct links between the deaths and the hunt for Bergdahl remain elusive.
  • Some fringe elements have posted anonymously—absent proof and without hearing Bergdahl’s side of the story—that he is a traitor. They contend Bergdahl is a deserter and deserves to be shot. His hometown of Hailey, Idaho, feeling the ire, cancelled a welcome-home celebration slated for June 28. While this is beyond vile, it’s something that today’s polarized politics nurtures. “They say we’re kind of a disgrace, or what a shame it is to have a celebration for a traitor,” Kristy Heitzman of the local Chamber of Commerce said. “They say they had planned on coming to the area to go fishing or camping, but now they won’t be coming to Idaho.”
  • The deal makes U.S. troops more vulnerable to kidnapping now that the Taliban know they can be swapped for high-value comrades. While some military officers agree, they also note that a U.S. POW has now been shown to be more valuable that a U.S. KIA.
  • Critics of the deal maintain the five senior Taliban released for Bergdahl will, in all probability, return to the fight after spending the coming year in high-walled villas in Doha, Qatar, 1,200 miles from Kabul. Military officers say that’s likely.
  • There is concern that the swap seems to have been a one-off deal, with no larger bargain—one that might help end the war—in the offing. “The goal of this recent effort was to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl,” Earnest said. “We did not want to reduce the likelihood of our success in securing his release by injecting a rather complicated variable into it.”
  • There will be plenty of time to probe just how Bergdahl came to be missing in the coming months. If an investigation determines that he should face charges of desertion or other counts, he could plead guilty in exchange for reduced punishment. There is a sense in some military quarters that five years imprisoned by the Taliban is punishment enough.

The true bottom line, after all the acrimony—and sanctimony—is pretty straightforward. “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of -a-bitch,” James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general who served as chief of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, said Monday. “So let’s get him back, let the Army investigate, and we’ll sort it out.”


Obama on Bergdahl Prisoner Exchange: I Would Do It Again

"This is something that I would do again and I will continue to do wherever I have an opportunity," the President told NBC's Brian Williams.

President Barack Obama continued to defend swapping Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban militants Friday, telling NBC News’ Brian Williams that he would do it again despite the public controversy that has followed.

In an interview that aired on the 7oth anniversary of D-Day, Williams asked the President why he didn’t notify key members of Congress in advance, as is typical. Obama replied: “When somebody wears our country’s uniform and they’re in a war theater and they’re captured, we’re going to do everything we can to bring them home.” He added, “We had to act fast in a delicate situation that required no publicity.”

The White House negotiated a prisoner swap of five Taliban leaders for Bergdahl’s release after five years in captivity, but the deal has been mired in controversy in part amid scrutiny of Bergdahl’s absence from his post in Afghanistan before his capture.

“We saw an opportunity and we took it. And I make no apologies for it,” Obama said in the interview. “This is something that I would do again and I will continue to do wherever I have an opportunity, if I have a member of our military who’s in captivity. We’re going to try to get ’em out.”

Obama spoke with Williams in Normandy, France, where the President joined world leaders to mark the 70thth anniversary of D-Day on Friday. During the full interview, which airs on NBC at 8 p.m ET, Obama also addressed former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he met face-to-face Friday for the first time since relations broke down over the Ukraine crisis earlier this year.

Regarding Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Putin said: “They need to stop financing and arming separatists who have been wreaking havoc in the eastern part of the country– and that if Russia begins to act in accordance with basic international principles, then I’m confident that the United States– Russia relationship will improve,” he said.


TIME Afghanistan

This Is Why the Taliban Are Saying Bergdahl Was Treated Well

Bergdahl made several friends among his Taliban captors, a Taliban commander told TIME

Before U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked toward the American chopper Saturday that would take him away after five years of captivity, the Taliban made sure to give him a tunic set, along with a woven scarf that can also be worn as a turban, as a parting gift.

A Taliban commander close to the negotiations over the release of Bergdahl told TIME Thursday that “we did whatever we could to make [Bergdahl] happy.”

But why would a Taliban commander – who has been known to TIME for several years for supplying reliable information – want the world to think the Taliban treated Bergdahl well?

“It’s important to them that the Taliban be recognized as a legitimate Afghan political entity,” says TIME Middle East Bureau Chief Aryn Baker in the video above. “And video of Bowe’s release, posted the Taliban’s Facebook page, gave them the validation they have long sought.”

Watch the full conversation with Baker above.

TIME Afghanistan

Behind the Scenes of Bowe Bergdahl’s Release

Captured US Solider
U.S. Army/AP Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in an undated image provided by the U.S. Army.

Asked whether the Taliban would be inspired by the exchange to kidnap others, a commander laughed. “Definitely."

In the days and hours leading up to the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl last week, his Taliban captors in Pakistan prepared for a big send-off. Those selected to physically hand Bergdahl over to U.S. officials at a pre-arranged location on the other side of the border in Afghanistan rehearsed the messages they wanted to convey to the American people. A videographer was assigned to cover the event, for propaganda purposes. And those closest to Bergdahl commissioned a local tailor to make him a set of the local tunic and trousers in white, which, given as a gift, denotes a gesture of respect.

“You know we are also human beings and have hearts in our bodies,” a senior Taliban commander affiliated with the Haqqani network, which was holding Bergdahl captive, tells TIME. “We are fighting a war against each other, in which [the Americans] kill us and we kill them. But we did whatever we could to make [Bergdahl] happy.”

The commander, who has been known to TIME for several years and has consistently supplied reliable information about Bergdahl’s captivity, is not authorized by his superiors to speak to the media, so he has asked not to be identified by name. The commander spoke to TIME by telephone from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.

Bergdahl, who was the only known remaining U.S. prisoner of war from the long conflict in Afghanistan, had learned basic Pashto during his incarceration and had made several friends among his Taliban captors, according to the commander. The tunic set, along with the woven scarf that can also be worn as a turban, but is draped across Bergdahl’s shoulders in the Taliban video documenting his release, was a parting gift designed to demonstrate no personal ill will, says the commander: “We wanted him to return home with good memories.”

Bergdahl’s release, as part of the first prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Taliban in 13 years of war, was the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year process marred by Taliban intransigence and Afghan government meddling that eventually saw the near simultaneous transfer of five top-level Taliban officials from detention in Guantánamo Bay to a form of house arrest in Qatar. The outcome has sparked fierce criticism from Republicans in Congress.

So dispirited was Bergdahl with the process, says the commander, that he didn’t even believe his captors when they announced his pending release. Bergdahl had been there once before, in March 2012, when negotiations were so close that he had already been handed over to senior members of the Taliban council in Afghanistan conducting the talks. When they collapsed, Bergdahl was shuttled back to Haqqani captivity in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas along the border. “That’s why he didn’t trust us this time when he was told about his likely release,” says the commander.

It is not entirely clear what made the negotiations more successful this time around, other than the sense of urgency triggered by Bergdahl’s apparent declining health and U.S. plans to significantly reduce military troop numbers in Afghanistan over the next couple of years. For the Taliban, it doesn’t matter. They see the exchange as an unmitigated victory. “Our talks finally proved successful for the prisoners’ swap,” says the commander. “We returned our valued guest to his people and in return, they freed our five heroes held in Guantánamo Bay since 2002.”

Another senior Taliban commander, who is close to the senior Taliban leadership based in Kandahar, Afghanistan and Quetta, Pakistan, and is close to the negotiations, describes scenes of intense jubilation among the Taliban leadership and their supporters. Candies and sweet pastries are being passed around, he says, speaking to TIME via telephone from the Kandahar area. Those close to the leadership and the detainees are feasting on “whole goats cooked in rice” — a special meal usually reserved for celebrations. “I cannot explain how our people are happy and excited over this unbelievable achievement.” (He too has been known to TIME for several years.) “This is a historic moment for us. Today our enemy for the first time officially recognized our status.”

The news of the detainees’ release, says the commander from Kandahar, spread like a wildfire. “Besides our field commanders and fighters, our leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is so happy and is anxiously waiting to see his heroes,” he says.

There was some disgruntlement among Taliban ranks over the terms, admits the Kandahar commander. Some members wanted a ransom payment for Bergdahl, in addition to the release of the Guantánamo detainees. But the leadership prevailed. “We told them that these five men are more important than millions of dollars to us,” he says. He was more tolerant of complaints from Taliban foot soldiers who pointed out that for all the celebrations surrounding the officials’ release, there was no reward or recognition for the Taliban fighters who captured Bergdahl in 2009. But that’s not likely to get in the way of future attempts to kidnap American soldiers, across all ranks.

Asked whether the Taliban would be inspired by the exchange to kidnap others, he laughs. “Definitely,” he says. “It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people. It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”

— With reporting by Mushtaq Yusufzai / Peshawar

TIME Afghanistan

Taliban Commander: More Kidnappings to Come After Bergdahl Deal

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border
Al-Emara/Reuters U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (C) waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border, in this still image from video released June 4, 2014.

Behind the Scenes of Bowe Bergdahl’s Release

A Taliban commander close to the negotiations over the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl told TIME Thursday that the deal made to secure Bergdahl’s release has made it more appealing for fighters to capture American soldiers and other high-value targets.

“It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people,” the commander said, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”

The commander has been known to TIME for several years and has consistently supplied reliable information about Bergdahl’s captivity.

The U.S. agreed on May 31 to exchange five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for Bergdahl, America’s only living prisoner of war. Following the deal, the outpouring of relief by those who had long lobbied to “Bring Bowe Home” was soon eclipsed by accusations and recriminations as Republican lawmakers accused the administration of making a dangerous precedent.

“What does this tell terrorists?,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz said on ABC’s This Week the day after Bergdahl’s release. “That if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorist prisoners?”

With reporting by Mushtaq Yusufzai / Peshawar

TIME National Security

Bowe Bergdahl ‘Proof of Life’ Video Fails to Convince Senate Skeptics

McCain Speaks After Meeting on Bergdahl release at US Capitol
Jim Lo Scalzo—EPA Republican Senator from Arizona John McCain, center, speaks to the media after a briefing by Obama administration officials to all U.S. Senators about the release of American hostage Bowe Bergdahl in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., June 4, 2014.

The Obama Administration showed the Senate a classified Taliban "proof of life" video of Sgt. Bergdahl, but some lawmakers remain skeptical that his health was as dire as the Administration has claimed

A classified Obama Administration briefing for the U.S. Senate Wednesday night failed to convince several lawmakers that the freedom of America’s final Afghanistan prisoner of war, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, had been worth the price of releasing five Taliban leaders from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

A main feature of the briefing was the presentation of a short “proof of life” video of Bergdahl, which administration officials have said led them to believe that Bergdahl’s health was in danger. After watching the video, estimated to last about 90 seconds by Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, several Senators said they did not see evidence of an imminent threat to his life.

“It appeared that he was drugged and that he was barely responsive in the video,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I don’t think from a health standpoint there was any issue that dictated the release of these five [Taliban members] in exchange for Bergdahl.” Chambliss, who says he thinks the video should be released to the public, added that he could not speak to whether or not Bergdahl’s safety was at risk.

“His health was not the critical factor,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia. ”In that one video you could tell that he had been drugged. He was in a different state. That was back in December, five months ago.”

“That did not sell me at all,” Manchin added. “He was not in that type of dire situation when he was released—didn’t look sick to me.”

Nonetheless, Kirk said he believes the video still had some effect on influencing President Obama to make a deal for Bergdahl’s release. “I would definitely think that it would have an emotional impact on the President, which is probably why the Taliban released it,” said Kirk. “He didn’t look good. I understand the emotional power of that video.”

The Administration officials that briefed the Senate included Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, as well as representatives from the State Department, the Office of the Director National Intelligence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

TIME Foreign Policy

New Videos Show Western Couple Held Captive in Afghanistan

Bowe Bergdahl's release has led the families of Josh Boyle and Caitlan Coleman to release videos of the couple, who were captured in Afghanistan

The families of an American and a Canadian who were captured by the Taliban in 2012 are publicizing videos of the couple in an attempt to speed up their release from captivity.

The videos obtained by the Associated Press and published Wednesday show Josh Boyle and Caitlan Coleman in an unknown location, with Coleman wearing a black headscarf and her husband Boyle’s beard long and untrimmed. Both look significantly thinner than photos taken of them before their capture.

Boyle, a Canadian citizen and Coleman, an American, were passing through Afghanistan while traveling through former Soviet Republics including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Coleman, who was pregnant during their travels, checked in regularly with her family at home until communication abruptly stopped on Oct. 8, 2012.

Coleman’s father received the videos in July and September of 2013, the AP reports, emailed from an Afghan man who claimed to have ties to the Taliban.

After the release last week of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the families of the captured couple decided to appeal to the U.S. and Canadian governments for assistance. They said they are disappointed their children were not freed as part of the Bergdahl deal.

“It would be no more appropriate to have our government turn their back on their citizens than to turn their backs on those who serve,” Josh Boyle’s father Patrick Boyle said.

The families have not received any ransom demands, and it’s unclear when or where the videos were filmed.


TIME Afghanistan

Bergdahl’s Idaho Hometown Cancels Homecoming Celebration

Bowe Bergdahl Hailey Idaho
Brian Skoloff—AP Flags and balloons, marking the release from captivity of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, adorn the sidewalk outside a shop in the soldier's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, on June 4, 2014.

Bergdahl's hometown is canceling a celebration for the returned sergeant at the end of the month amidst a rising backlash

Updated 4:45 p.m. E.T. on June 4

A rally in U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s Idaho hometown celebrating his release after nearly five years of captivity has been canceled amid growing questions about the circumstances of the soldier’s capture.

The joy over Bergdahl’s return among residents of the small mountain community of Hailey, Idaho has been dampened by claims that he abandoned his post. Some have also claimed that the subsequent search for Bergdahl cost the lives of up to six soldiers, Reuters reports.

Hailey’s city administrator, Heather Dawson said town officials called off the June 28 rally at the request of organizers. The town “will be unable to safely manage the number of people expected,” Dawson told Reuters.

But residents say they support Bergdahl either way and that they’re continuing to prepare for a June 28 rally in his honor.

“People in Hailey have been aware for some time that there were questions about how Bowe came to be captured, and that there was a chance that Bowe could be in trouble when he came home,” said Stefanie O’Neill, a rally co-organizer.

The backlash over Bergdahl’s release reached a fever pitch early this week amid reports that the White House overrode interagency security processes to free five Taliban higher-ups in exchange for Bergdahl’s release. There has also been increasing scrutiny of Bergdahl’s absence from his post in Afghanistan before his capture.


TIME Military

Watch The Bowe Bergdahl Video

A close look at video of Bowe's release

Sure, it’s grainy, with the narrator speaking a foreign language. But the video released by the Taliban on Wednesday is more revealing than anything the Pentagon has said about the late-Saturday afternoon rendezvous deep in a Khost valley where Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl began his long ride home.

The cinéma vérité puts us on the ground inside a remote corner of Afghanistan. We’re sharing the (edited) view of the cameraman and the 17 other Taliban insurgents who gathered to meet the modified UH-60 Black Hawk chopper that touched down in eastern Khost province to begin Bergdahl’s long trip home after nearly five years in Taliban captivity:

—Bergdahl is sitting in the right rear seat of a pickup truck. His posture is unusual; his hands may be bound in some way underneath his thighs.

—He appears dazed at best, terrified at worst. At a minimum, he seems plainly out of it. He listens as a masked captor, leans into the vehicle. “Don’t come back to Afghanistan,” the armed man says in Pashto. “You won’t make it out alive next time.”

—Bergdahl, wearing traditional Afghan garb under a striped white shawl, is pale and gaunt, as if he’s been inside for years. He’s blinking incessantly, as if he hasn’t seen bright light for a long time, either.

—A Taliban flies a white flag, like that flown by the Taliban government during its five years in power, on what appears to be a freshly-cut branch.

—Bergdahl wipes dust, or a tear, from his left eye, just before the Taliban speaking to him taps him softly three times on his right shoulder.

—One Taliban is armed with what appears to be a radio, apparently keeping superiors informed of what’s happening on the ground.

—A Black Hawk helicopter appears overhead.

—Bergdahl stands outside the vehicle with one of his captors. His eyes seem to follow the descent of the approaching chopper.

—Bergdahl and a pair of Taliban meet with three U.S. personnel, in civilian clothing.

—As Bergdahl is led to the helicopter, his gait appears unsteady. That could be because he had been shackled for much of the time, including while he slept, following a reported escape attempt. A fellow American holds him by the left arm, helping to ease him over the rough terrain.

—The U.S. troops wave goodbye to the Taliban. The Taliban wave back. Bergdahl doesn’t look back, and doesn’t wave. His head’s bearing suggests his eyes are focused on the helicopter in front of him.

—U.S. troops pat down Bergdahl before they let him into their helicopter, filled with troops in uniform. That’s simple due diligence. Bergdahl could have been carrying a weapon, or drugged and booby-trapped by his captors.

Any high-risk, high-profile military operation such as this one is an iceberg, where cameras can capture only a small piece of what’s there. Lurking overhead are more helicopters crammed with additional troops if the first chopper ran into any kind of trouble—mechanical or otherwise.

“They took every possible precaution we could take,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said following the pickup, “through intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, through having enough of our assets positioned in the right locations having enough helicopters, doing everything we possibly could do to anticipate any violence or anything going in a different direction.”

Most critical, of course, were the anonymous Special Operations troop on board Black Hawk #41 that touched down for a minute deep inside Taliban-controlled territory: the pair of pilots that kept it flying, the crew chief that kept it humming, and the soldiers who escorted Bergdahl across their helicopter threshold bound for home.

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