Somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan near the Afghan border, an American soldier from small-town Idaho — home-schooled by his parents before he joined the Army— is held captive by Taliban militants. Aryn Baker and Nate Rawling at TIME magazine dig deeper into the story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only missing soldier from the war in Afghanistan at this time.
Captured by militants three years ago, he is a prisoner of war. A much-prized possession for the Haqqanis, the network of Taliban fighters responsible for Bergdahl’s kidnapping.
“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,” a militant has said.
Bergdahl’s family takes heart in knowing he is alive by seeing him in videos released by the Taliban — there have been five so far. But each time, the experience is “a visceral reminder of just how far away he is.”
We previously reported how his parents, Bob and Jani, have broken their silence about stalled U.S. government efforts to negotiate his release.
With access to interviews of Taliban commanders, Baker and Rawling report new details of a failed escape by Bergdahl last fall.
“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 “paralysed,” his grim euphemism for execution.
Over the course of his imprisonment, some people have accused Bergdahl of being a traitor — of deserting the military and being a coward. There are conflicting stories about how he went missing on June 30, 2009:
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“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,” reports Time.
“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 armour 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.”
Military blogger Jonn Lilyea at This Ain’t Hell addresses the story, saying, “I know there is speculation in the military community about the circumstances surrounding his capture – I’ve heard it all – but until we get this American Army sergeant home to his family and in the arms of his countrymen, we should lay that speculation aside for the moment.”
As a retired Army Infantry sergeant, Lilyea notes: “Whatever the circumstances of his capture were, the fact that he tried to escape proves to me that he’s still trying to fulfil his obligations under the Code of Conduct.”
The Obama Administration’s peace talks with the Taliban fell apart earlier this year, with Time also describing how in-fighting within Taliban forces themselves have put aside the possibility of them coming back to the table any time soon.
Still, Bergdahl “remains a unique and valuable bargaining chip for the Taliban” and this is encouraging to his parents, knowing that their son could be kept safe.
As for the U.S. government, negotiating Bergdahl’s freedom — possibly through a prisoner swap — could be “an opportunity for much broader political gains.” If the Taliban can be brought back into negotiations and a successful deal is made, the U.S. could use that foundation of cooperation to initiate broader peace talks.
You can find the complete Time magazine piece here.
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