The overarching sentiment about the trade for Bowe Bergdahls freedom was that the US had traded five terrorists for the life of a deserter, but was it true?
When Bowe Bergdahl was picked up by a special ops team in Afghanistan on 31 May 2014, according to Serial host Sarah Koenig, he wanted to talk to his rescuers, but couldnt. He hadnt spoken a full sentence in so long he couldnt remember how to form the words, which is hard to imagine but indicative of the trauma he went through.
While Bergdahl was being flown to US custody at the infamous Bagram Air Force Base, five Taliban prisoners were being released from Guantnamo Bay detention camp. They were the trade for Bergdahls freedom and it took five years to make it happen.
According to Koenig, US sentiment about the trade was all over the place, but one of the loudest and most common opinions was that the US had traded five terrorists for the life of a deserter. Even in Afghanistan there was disbelief, according to This American Life occasional contributor Hyder Akbar, who was in Afghanistan when the trade happened. People around the globe were mystified, but according to Koenig it was all supposed to be part of a larger scheme to end the war in Afghanistan, which is undoubtedly a noble goal. Of course, that didnt happen, though.
As the war raged on, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assigned Richard Holbrooke as the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP). He had helped negotiate the end of the war in Bosnia and there were hopes that he could do the same in Afghanistan. Holbrooke, though, wanted a political end to the war in Afghanistan, which rubbed many people, including Barack Obama, the wrong way, according to Koenig.
Confidence building measure
While many people in the US didnt want to sit down and talk with the Taliban, the Taliban was very interested in talking to Clinton, who gave Holbrooke the go-ahead to meet with Tayeb al-Agha, a Taliban representative that they inexplicably called A-Rod (Clinton discusses this in her book, Hard Choices). It was a very secret meeting held in a small village in a safe house run by German intelligence. The US had a few non-negotiable points: they wanted the Taliban to break with Al-Qaida, stop fighting, and support the Afghan constitution, including rights for women and girls, a point that was particularly important to Clinton. They really wanted the Taliban to start communicating with the Karzai government, so Afghans could talk to other Afghans about the future of their country, so the US could leave, which sounds both like a very good plan and a middle school playground game.
The Taliban had a few things they wanted, too, including to be off the UNs list of terrorist organizations, a political office, and they wanted their prisoners back, which is where Bergdahl came in. He had graduated from being an awol soldier who had been held for over a year by the Taliban, to being a so-called confidence-building measure whose trade could pave the way to peace talks. Koenig makes it clear that Bergdahls release was not the point of the negotiations, but rather simply a line item in the conversation.
At the end of the meetings, both sides were ready to move forward with the negotiations and begin the steps to end the war in Afghanistan. Then something unexpected happened: Holbrooke died. His death dramatically changed the conversation, as he was one of the few people willing to advocate the unpopular idea of negotiating with the Taliban to end the war.
Fits and starts
In the wake of his death, Clinton gave a speech in honor of Holbrooke, officially recognizing the importance of reconciling with the Taliban, but even then not everyone in the government was happy about it.
Clinton and the Obama administration began to move forward with the confidence building measures that Holbrooke had negotiated. The prisoners would be exchanged, the Afghans would begin talking, and the conversation would continue at a meeting in Germany in 2011. It was a good plan, but instead what happened was what Koenig described as years of fits and starts.
After Munich, the talks stagnated. It took so damn long, said German SRAP Michael Steiner. Washington was getting nervous, the Taliban was getting antsy, Afghan president Karzai was suspicious, and Pakistan hadnt been consulted at all, even though they claimed they wanted to be involved in any peace talks. In 2011, Marc Grossman became the new SRAP. (Heres a photo of him and Steiner on the US embassy in Kabuls Facebook page.) Grossman told Koenig that the supposedly secret talks were eventually reported by the press, who specifically named Tayeb al-Agha leading the Taliban to walk away from the talks. Clinton and Grossman were eventually able to woo them back to the table.
Read more: www.theguardian.com