This week, we finally get to the real, actual story of his Bowe Bergdahl was released from his captors. It wasn’t someone in an obscure office bribing a general with scotch, or a family friend contacting Interpol, Marines kicking in doors, or Bergdahl escaping. What was it? Five years of protracted, painfully uneventful diplomatic negotiations conducted by our nation’s civil servants, doing their regular jobs. The system works! Albeit very, very slowly.
On this episode, we dive deep into the negotiations between the US, Hamid Karzai’s Afghani government, and the Taliban. The Taliban had tied Bergdahl’s release to their larger hopes for a universal peace treaty with the US, so this episode goes way, way out from our confused solider to talk about basically the entire breadth of Middle East politics from about 2001 to 2014. The gang’s all here! Donald Rumsfeld, Hamid Karzai, even everyone’s favorite oil heir and porn enthusiast, Osama bin Laden. It’s a lot to cover in a breezy 45 minutes.
One interesting wrinkle is that the US and the Taliban, for largely bullshit reasons of decorum on both sides, can’t negotiate directly, but have to pass on their messages through a neutral third party. That’s the Qataris, who by all accounts have their diplomatic B-team on the case, which leads to some farcical screw-ups, like some confusion about a flag outside of an office building ended up delaying Bergdahl’s release for an additional year.
Speaking of delays! Another interesting thing Koenig mentions is the negative effect leaks in the form of Washington Post and Der Spiegel articles about the supposedly confidential negotiations, had on the process. They forced the Taliban to harden their positions, almost permanently delaying the whole thing. Once the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan knew the talks were happening, and the initial negotiating position of the Taliban, it became much harder for their representatives to make concessions (aka, do the work of diplomacy). This is pretty fascinating, because I’d argue it points out that some things–like international diplomacy–work best when done in secret. So, you know, maybe something like a massive dump of confidential US diplomatic cables, as in fact happened during these talks (though Koenig doesn’t mention it) isn’t universally positive.
Bergdahl’s release was eventually decoupled from the larger peace deal, reduced to a simple Bridge of Spies-style prisoner swap. In exchange for Bergdahl, the Taliban eventually get four Guantanimo detainees. Koenig tells us what bad people they were–one is described as “the guy who puts his fingers in your nostrils to pull back your head when they slit your throat”–but also how, really, many of them weren’t even fighting the US. They were just people with enemies smart enough to know the US would arrest anyone you told them was Taliban or Al Qaeda, no matter the truth of the situation, and pay you handsomely in the process. The fact that these people were actually militants of some kind doesn’t just make their years-long detention at least sort-of justified, it meant they had some organization pushing to get them back. The truly innocent–cab drivers, etc–weren’t so lucky. According to the ACLU, as many as 86 percent of Guantanamo prisoners were turned in for bounties, and 92 percent of all prisoners were eventually determined not to have any affiliation with Al Qaeda.
Eventually, we hear, Bergdahl got out. There was a big ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House. End of story, right? Hardly.
Next week: The backlash.