Serial recap – season two, episode nine: Trade Secrets


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.

The prisoners

Abdul Rashid Dostum (Dostam) climbs on top of a horse and waves at throngs of supporters at a campaign rally during his run for president Photograph: David Guttenfelder/AP

After the leaks, the Taliban had to dig in on their demands so their uh, constituents? would know they were standing up for them. The demands became higher, said Steiner, and that included getting Taliban prisoners out of Guantanamo. Getting prisoners out of Gitmo any prisoners just ask President Obama, thats just not easy, Koenig said.

The Taliban was fixated on getting five specific prisoners out of Gitmo, the so-called Taliban Five: Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq.

For Koenig, the prisoners were an interesting group, because most of them had ties to the West. Most notably Fazl, who has been accused of many horrifying war crimes and human rights abuses, and Noori had surrendered in 2001 to Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is now Afghanistans vice president, but at the time was a warlord battling against the Taliban, in northern Afghanistan. Fazl and Noori were some of the first wave of prisoners to go to Guantnamo Bay and now the Taliban wanted them back.

Setbacks and screw-ups

The peace talks were besieged by setbacks, according to Koenig, including the assassination of the high peace council chairman, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, by a man claiming to be a Taliban envoy. His death set back the peace talks for months.

While details of the prisoner exchange were hammered out, it was decided that the Taliban would get an office in Doha, Qatar, which was on their list of demands. President Karzai was not really into this plan, but eventually agreed as long as no one referred to it as an Islamic emirate. Naturally, those were the two words printed on a flag and a sign outside of the Talibans new office in Qatar. The screw-up setback years of diplomatic work the Afghans were mad, the Taliban were mad, the peace talks stopped, and Bergdahl was stuck in captivity for another year.

Lets make a deal

By 2013, the Taliban was in a state of flux, at the time. Mullah Omar was dead, as was Mullah Sangeen, who had been in charge of Bergdahls capitivity, and the Pakistani army was gearing up for strikes in Waziristan against the Pakistan Taliban. Bergdahl had to be moved or traded for Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo. They were ready to make a deal for Bergdahl, separate from the peace talks.

The US demanded a proof-of-life video of Bergdahl, and he reportedly looked pretty bad. According to Koenig, for the US, if they couldnt have their peace deal, there was a sense that perhaps something was better than nothing. According to Bergdahl, during the last few months of his captivity, the Taliban started to treat him better.

Eventually the US and the Taliban strike a deal and a top-secret operation got underway to swap Bergdahl for the Taliban Five. According to SRAP James Dobbins, It wasnt a disaster and it wasnt a brilliant achievement. It was a successful and necessary operation, but it wasnt going to end the war. But still, Bergdahl was free.

Next time: Bergdahls parents thought their ordeal was over. It wasnt.


  • Bergdahl really wanted to thank the special forces team that transported him to US custody, but never got the chance.
  • Richard Holbrooke was such a relentless negotiator that he reportedly once followed Clinton into the ladies room in Pakistan to finish making his point.
  • General David Petraeus reportedly frequently referred to Holbrooke as his wingman, which Holbrooke did not appreciate for probably obvious reasons.
  • When Koenig notes that the Americans werent allowed to call the trade for a prisoner exchange but instead had to refer to it as a mutual release, she cleared her throat in such a way as to suddenly make the whole phrase sound quite NSFW.


(1) US to launch peace talks with Taliban

(2) Justice Department May Probe Alleged Bergdahl Ransom Payment (3) US swaps 5 Taliban prisoners at Guantnamo for long-held POW

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