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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