Episode 09: Trade Secrets

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Man 1

How do do you manipulate an entire country to get enlisted soldier home?

Ira Glass

Previously, on Serial

Woman 1

Like, how can I get into Afghanistan? Or how can I get into Pakistan? I'm going to get my bags packed and have my passport, and, like—

Man 2

Our greater bureaucracy is telling the families to just shut up and wait.

Man 3

I address the Pakistani armed forces.

Woman 2

I think I can get that done for you. But he really likes Johnny Walker Black Label...

Bowe Bergdahl

In order to exchange you, the Taliban is waiting for all the prisoners in all of the prisons, you know, all the Muslims around the world to be released.

Sarah Koenig

From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's Serial—one story told week by week. I'm Sarah Koenig.

May 31st, 2014—the day Bowe gets picked up by a special-operations team in Afghanistan.


He's quickly pulled onto a helicopter. Leaving the ground like that—with space suddenly all around him, after five years of being locked in rooms—he said it was like crossing an abyss. When they landed at a nearby base, Bowe wanted to communicate with these guys who'd rescued him.

But he couldn't talk yet. He hadn't spoken sentences, much less had a conversation, in so long. He says he could think of the words, but he couldn't make them come out of his head.

Bowe Bergdahl

What I ended up doing was asking for something to write on. And the first thing I asked them was if they were special forces. And then when they told me they were special forces, I immediately went into giving them intel and names.

And then they got me onto the plane. After a few minutes, you know, they threw some clothes on me, they threw the...the...the...the hat and the...the shirt and pants and, uh, they threw me on a plane with the rest of the team.

And they got me to Bagram. And that was the last I saw of 'em. I did mention that, like, you know, I wanted to say thank you, and they know, the people who were around me at the time, you know, they said, "OK, we'll pass that on, but, you know, we got to get going, because we got to get you on the plane. We got to get you some food in you and all that," you know? And I didn't wanna...I didn't wanna bother those guys because I could understand, you know, they just...they had a lot of other things to do.

Sarah Koenig

At that moment, a military transport plane was standing by at Guantanamo Bay, waiting to take five Taliban guys to Qatar. Five years' worth of machinations—high hopes and false starts and politicking and secret meetings—had gone into getting Bowe onto that helicopter, and the five Taliban prisoners onto a C-17.

The response to this trade back home in the U.S. varied.

But probably the loudest response was I can't believe we just did that. We negotiated with release some get back a deserter? And it seems people also had questions in Afghanistan.

Hyder Akbar

Wait, what was all of this about? Did they really just give up five leaders of the Taliban for one American soldier?

Sarah Koenig

That's Hyder Akbar. He grew up in the U.S., but he's Afghan. He now lives in Kabul. His father was governor of Kunar Province.

Hyder's a friend of This American Life. He's done some stories for us. Hyder was in Afghanistan when the trade happened. And he remembers the talk, the disbelief.

Hyder Akbar

This guy was definitely he a general? I remember these conversations, being like, "Is this guy a general?" "No, he's just a soldier."

"Really? They're going to let go of five leaders? There must be something greater at play here."

Sarah Koenig

And there was supposed to be something much greater at play here, something as big and grand as a plan to end the war. So what happened? How did this become the solution to getting Bowe home?

In 2009—the year Bowe was captured—the war in Afghanistan was going very badly for U.S. troops. And a struggle was going on inside the Obama administration about what to do about it. The idea the president settled on was fully resourced counterinsurgency.

Peace talks—meaning talking directly to the Taliban about ending the war—that was not part of the plan, not yet. The person who argued the most forcefully for that to change, who said we should start talking to the Taliban now, was a diplomat named Richard Holbrooke.

Holbrooke had just been appointed SRAP: special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Basically, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had hired him to help end the war. Holbrooke was this legendary negotiator, a huge tenacious talent, and also a huge personality. In her memoir about being secretary of state, Clinton tells a story about how relentless he was, how he once followed her into a ladies' room in Pakistan so he could finish making his point.

Holbrooke rubbed some people in the administration the wrong way, including Obama himself. But Holbrooke didn't stop lobbying for a political solution to the war.

Kati Marton

Well, Richard did not think that, um, there was a military solution to the war in Afghanistan.

Sarah Koenig

That's Kati Marton, a journalist and writer. She was also married to Richard Holbrooke, who died in 2010.

Kati Marton

He did not think that you could just muscle your way to a solution. And, you know, General Petraeus felt that doubling down on the Taliban was the way to go. Richard would have 10-second conversations with Petraeus. And the gist of that was, no, this is not the time for diplomacy.

And, um, he deeply resented Petraeus—who was his friend—referring to him repeatedly as his wingman. Richard would grumble to me, "Since when did the diplomat become the military's wingman?"

Sarah Koenig

Kati says it wasn't a personal slight to Holbrooke—he didn't care about that. It was the principle.

He thought the military had too much sway, that it was dominating political strategy in these wars. Vali Nasr also worked for Holbrooke in the SRAP office, though as a special advisor. He's a Middle East scholar. Vali Nasr says, in Holbrooke's view, the whole military-versus-diplomacy debate was out of whack. In other words, it was General Petraeus who should be Holbrooke's wingman...or handmaiden?

Vali Nasr

Military's a handmaiden to diplomacy. And that balance has been lost during the Bush years. And...and...and that's a...I think he believed that that was fundamentally wrong and would funda...and would get America into greater trouble. So Holbrooke's view was that you use the military to get the Taliban to the table. But the goal is to get them to sign a document, an agreement.

Sarah Koenig

Meanwhile, Holbrooke is being sidelined this whole time. People in the administration are trying to get him fired, in fact—though Hillary Clinton protected him.

To make matters worse, Holbrooke had a crummy relationship with Hamid Karzai. Karzai thought Holbrooke had undermined him in the Afghan presidential elections the summer of 2009. And Karzai wasn't entirely wrong about that.

So all around, Holbrooke isn't so popular. And neither is the notion of the U.S. sitting down with the enemy—the Taliban. But it seems the enemy was interested in talking to us.

Diplomats in Germany had been meeting with a 30-something Afghan guy who was close to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. His name was Tayeb Agha. Back in Washington, they didn't say his name out loud, though. They used a code name, A-Rod. (Holbrooke was a baseball fan.)

Kati Marton

Yes, A-Rod was a very familiar [LAUGHING] name around my house.

Sarah Koenig

A meeting with A-Rod would be risky. You don't know if the guy's for real, whether you're being played. Neither side knows, in fact.

But Holbrooke wanted to try it. He took it to Hillary Clinton, who was skeptical but gave the go-ahead for a first face-to-face meeting between the Taliban and the United States government. It was to be just outside Munich, right after Thanksgiving, 2010.

And it was to be secret. The Taliban insisted it be secret, or else they'd walk. Pakistan didn't know. The British didn't know. Few people in the U.S. government knew. Few people in the Taliban knew.

They met in a small village, in a safe house run by German intelligence. Although Tayeb Agha had worn Western suits in his earlier meetings with the Germans, at this meeting, he wore traditional Afghan clothes, a white tunic. Tayeb Agha opened by reading a formal propagandistic statement he knew the Americans wouldn't like.

The Americans don't have a set agenda. They're mostly there to listen. But while they weren't talking terms, the U.S. did have some non-negotiables.

We wanted the Taliban to stop fighting, break with al-Qaeda, and support the Afghan constitution—including rights in there for women and girls. (That was especially important to Hillary Clinton.) The big goal was to get the Taliban to start talking to the Karzai government.

The idea, as the State Department put it, was to get Afghans talking to other Afghans about the future of Afghanistan, so we could get out of the room. The Taliban wanted a few things, too. They wanted the U.S. to distinguish between them and al-Qaeda, take their names off a UN-sanctions list of terrorists.

They wanted a political office outside of Pakistan. (They wanted it in Doha, Qatar.) And they wanted their prisoners back.

And that's where Bowe comes in. By that time, the Haqqanis had been holding him for almost a year and a half. And now, at this meeting, his fate becomes tied to the fate of the peace process in Afghanistan. If the U.S. hands over some Taliban prisoners, they'll hand over the American soldier. Bowe would be part of what are called confidence-building measures that would pave the way for substantive peace talks. The Americans weren't allowed to call it a prisoner exchange, by the way. They had to call it a mutual release.

So Bowe is part of the discussion. But he's not the point of these talks. He's not the crux of anything.

That's pretty clear when I've asked diplomats and State Department officials about it. Bowe was like a line item—an important line item, but a line item nonetheless.

I've heard and read a number of different accounts now about what the Taliban initially asked for in exchange for Bowe.

One source told me it was always five particular guys at Gitmo the Taliban wanted. Another source, who was at the meeting, told me that at first it was a simpler demand: four Taliban prisoners held at Bagram in Afghanistan. Tayeb Agha turned us down for an interview. So I haven't been able to definitively pin this down.

In any case, when the Munich meeting was over, the Americans—a contingent from the White House, State Department—they fly home, report back to their bosses. Thumbs up. It's on. Holbrooke drives out to the airport to meet his guy. He's so eager to hear how it went.

And then, just a couple of weeks later, Holbrooke dies. He was at work when his aorta ruptured. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery. But on December 13th, 2010, he died.

Just to pause here for a minute, a bunch of people I talked to for this story were sad about Holbrooke's death—not just for him, but for Afghanistan. They have this feeling that maybe if Holbrooke hadn't died when he did, the talks with the Taliban could have worked out differently, that we wouldn't still be in this mess of a war. Here's Vali Nasr.

Vali Nasr

Holbrooke was the only, I think, statesman at that time in the United States who was willing to take the risk of owning reconciliation. That's—

Sarah Koenig

He wasn't afraid of it.

Vali Nasr

Wasn't afraid of it. He advocated what was a very, very unpopular and risky position. And I don't think anybody else was willing to do it after that. Nobody stood up and said, "I'm now Mr. Reconciliation. I'm now the champion of this thing." And the irony of it was that, you know, he was much effort was being put on marginalizing him, uh, that when he actually died, we realized, you know, how much was he actually carrying, and how important he was.

Sarah Koenig

Right after Holbrooke dies, that's when political reconciliation with the Taliban officially becomes U.S. strategy. In February of 2011, Hillary Clinton gives a speech—in honor of Holbrooke, actually—in which, for the first time, an American official speaks out loud, in public, about talking peace with the Taliban. Still, many people in the government aren't happy about it.

Hillary Clinton

Now I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be a lot easier if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace.

Sarah Koenig

Here was the original vision after Munich. Over the next six months, everyone would agree to terms on the confidence-building measures. The office would happen. The trade, including Bowe, would happen. And then the goal was by December 2011, at an international conference planned in Bonn, Germany, Karzai would be there. And the talks, Afghan to Afghan, would be under way.

Such an orderly vision. Instead, what happens is—fitful is the best word I can think of—years of fits and starts. For people in the diplomacy business, the ping-ponging trajectory of these talks is probably familiar.

But to me, as I was trying to figure out what happened with Bowe and his connection to these meetings with the Taliban, I just had no idea it would look like this. And I'm not gonna take you through every step because we'd be here all week. But I just want to point out some of the moments of, like, "Ah, if only!" because they really bring home how fraught and fragile diplomacy can be.

So after Munich, there's this brief moment of hopefulness, let's say. Hamid Karzai had created a High Peace Council in anticipation of impending peace talks. The U.S. had a couple more meetings with Tayeb Agha.

And then, stagnation. Nothing is signed. Nothing is moving. Washington is wary. It's dithering.

Michael Steiner was the SRAP for Germany at the time. He'd helped set up the U.S.-Taliban talks in the first place. And he says after Munich, it was like the motor of the whole process sputtered.

Michael Steiner

We lost time—enormous, precious time—afterwards. With every lost month, the prospectus to get this situation healed becomes more difficult. You know? It took so damned long.

Sarah Koenig

Tayeb Agha needed to show progress to his bosses. The Taliban were getting antsy. In addition, for Tayeb Agha, it's no easy thing for him to get to these meetings in secret.

He worried, understandably, that his life might be in danger if it became public he was talking to the U.S. Factions inside the Taliban didn't want peace talks. And no one had consulted Pakistan about any of this. And Pakistan had long wanted to be a player in any peace talks. Karzai was perpetually worried that the U.S. and Pakistan were up to something behind his back. It all had to stay quiet.

In 2011, Ambassador Marc Grossman replaced Holbrooke as SRAP.

Marc Grossman

Um, well, it was supposed to be secret. It would have been better if it had been quiet. But as I know you know for doing your research, uh, people just kind of talked and talked and talked.

Sarah Koenig

They did.

Marc Grossman

We suffered a lot of leaks from Washington and also...and also from Kabul. And why? Well, because, you know, it wasn't the most popular thing in the world to be doing.

Sarah Koenig

The result? In May of 2011, the Washington Post and Der Spiegel, in Germany, both reported that the talks were happening. And for the first time, they named Tayeb Agha. The Taliban walked away from the talks.

Clinton rushed to Islamabad to smooth things over with Pakistan. Another State Department official flew to Doha to ask the Qataris to please, please ask the Taliban to come back—which, a few months later, they did. But, according to Michael Steiner, the leaks meant the Taliban now had to dig in on their demands, to reassure their own people they weren't selling out to the Americans.

Michael Steiner

The price for the continuation of the process, um, got higher because the demands become higher. And if he would have acted earlier, much less would have been to be paid.

Sarah Koenig

Steiner didn't specify, but I believe he's talking about the Gitmo detainees. But the Taliban now fixed on that demand.

And that made things harder. Because getting prisoners out of Gitmo—any prisoners, just ask President Obama—that's not easy. There are laws about it.

You have to tell Congress. You have to get the secretary of defense to sign off on it. Someone in the SRAP office at the time told me when they'd discuss it at meetings, the Defense Department just really, really, really opposed transferring anybody out of Guantanamo.

Big picture, Marc Grossman's goals were the same as Holbrooke's: to create a stable Afghanistan inside a stable region. And he had a plan, a series of international conferences and meetings to get other countries to commit money and support to help not only end the war in Afghanistan, but sustain a peace. He explained all of this to Tayeb Agha when they finally met.

Sarah Koenig

And what were...what did he want? Like, what became clear to you was, like, why he was there?

Marc Grossman

They wanted their prisoners out of Guantanamo.

Sarah Koenig

Grossman says at one point they did try to offer Tayeb Agha prisoners from Bagram. But that was a no-go. And he told the reporter, David Rohde, that they tried to offer up four different Taliban guys from Gitmo—lesser figures who'd already been cleared for transfer—but that was also rejected. The Taliban wanted these five guys.

At this point, in the middle of 2011, there were 17 Afghans in Guantanamo, all of them accused of being tied to the Taliban or to terrorist groups. So why was Tayeb Agha asking for these five back in exchange for Bowe? If you look at especially two of the biggies on the list—guys named Mullah Fazl and Norullah Noori—what

happened with them is actually a really interesting window into what was going on with the war right in the beginning, in 2001. Because—and this was a surprise to me—at that time, late 2001, some Taliban commanders surrendered. So there was this opportunity—some people argue that we blew it, that it was a big missed opportunity—to get the Taliban to stop fighting. That we could have swooped in when they were weakest, contained them, made peace. In other words, all the things we'd still be struggling to do a decade and a half later.

I talked to Carlotta Gall about these guys, Fazl and Noori. Carlotta's a reporter for the New York Times. And she arrived in Afghanistan just a couple of weeks after the U.S. started bombing. The Taliban regime was unraveling.

And in the north, where Carlotta was, hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters had just been trapped in the city of Kunduz. She wrote a newspaper story about what happened next, but it never got published—so much else was going on then in Afghanistan. In retrospect, though, what she saw was a singular moment in the war.

I talked to Carlotta over Skype. She was in her office in Tunis—she's a North Africa correspondent now—so the sound isn't great. But she told me the story of what she saw.

She says she was up north at this big mud fort, where General Dostum also was. Dostum was this infamous commander who was fighting the Taliban. And the U.S. was supporting him. So Dostum's there, at this fort.

Carlotta Gall

And he...he received a delegation of Taliban, um, who wanted to surrender. And it was amazing. We all...a bunch of us reporters were waiting there all day,

and suddenly this convoy of pickups arrived, sweeping into the...into this mud-walled fort late at night, in the dark. And they know, it was full of...they were all Taliban. They were, you know, manning these big guns on the back of their pickups,

and they swept in. They were pretty scary. But actually, they were coming to talk and to surrender to Dostum. And, um, Mullah Fazl was their leader.

Sarah Koenig

So Mullah Fazl was there. And Norullah Noori was with him. And these were two of the guys that a good decade later the Taliban would ask us to release in exchange for Bowe.

Carlotta says, Norullah Noori had a reputation as someone you could reason with. He was a quieter guy than Fazl, a provincial governor. But Fazl—Carlotta said he was one of the most feared men in the land.

Carlotta Gall

He was this...this, uh, hideous, um, operational commander who had a string of massacres to his name. And people up there in the north were terrified of these guys. And, um...and he, you know...yeah, I mean, people had been telling me all week—because I'd been there a week or so—and people were saying, this is the man who...who would shove his fingers up people's nostrils to push their head back and then slit their throat.

Sarah Koenig

Oh my god.

Carlotta Gall

He was...he was really...I mean, I would say he was accused of many war crimes. And he was known to have committed massacres of a lot of the northern tribes as the Taliban sought to suppress the north.

Sarah Koenig

And here he is, Mullah Fazl, and Noori, and others, and they're surrendering. They head into this meeting with Dostum. There are Americans in the room too, CIA probably. Carlotta's waiting outside.

Carlotta Gall

And it took hours. And eventually they called us in at midnight, um, the press. And Mullah Fazl was there. He's very short, grumpy-looking.

Dostum made him basically say on camera that, you know, the fight's over. And he didn't actually, I think, say the word surrender, but he basically said, "We will give up our weapons and end the fighting."

So it was an incredible moment to see. And not many of us were up there. And not much of it got in the papers at that time. But it was the only public surrender of, um, the Taliban forces.

Sarah Koenig

Carlotta says in the days that followed, Fazl delivered. Hundreds of his fighters—Taliban, and also foreign fighters and Pakistanis—came streaming in and handed over their weapons. Apparently, the understanding was that Fazl's fighters would be allowed safe passage back to where they came from.

But it didn't happen. Instead, many of them got killed at a now infamous prison uprising, which lasted for days. Hundreds more got packed up in container trucks and asphyxiated.

It was a whole other grisly chain of events.

As for Fazl and Noori, Dostum kept them under house arrest for a while, at his own rather fancy guest house. But eventually, he gave them up to the Americans.

Carlotta Gall

What we learned later was they were taken to one of the warships in the Gulf, I think, as quite a few prisoners were at that time. And then they later ended up in Guantanamo.

Sarah Koenig

They were, in fact, in that group of first arrivals at Guantanamo, on January 11th, 2002. You've seen the pictures from that day: men on their knees, the orange jumpsuits, barbed wire. As for the other guys on Tayeb Agha's list, they all seem to have been in contact with, if not cooperating with, either the U.S. or the Karzai government, when they were arrested and sent to Guantanamo.

One was the Taliban's deputy intelligence chief, who was at a meeting with CIA agents when he was grabbed and rolled up in a carpet and carried away like that, in broad daylight. Another was the former Taliban interior minister, who'd been in contact with Karzai about a job. And one was meeting an American at the airport when he got arrested.

So those are the five. (Actually, there was one other guy the Taliban wanted back, but he died at Guantanamo. He had a heart attack after exercising on an elliptical in early 2011.)

If the Taliban could get these guys out of Gitmo, it would be symbolic in a bunch of ways. First off, it's a hugely morale-boosting message to their own fighters: Look at the lengths we'll go to get our prisoners out.

More than that, it's a huge public relations victory: the United States, at the highest levels, would be recognizing them, the Taliban, as a legitimate organization, not treating them as a ragtag band of terrorists. And finally, to them, it's a victory for their understanding of justice in this war somce most of these guys say they weren't exactly fighting with Americans when they were captured in the first place.

Mullah Fazl himself explains this line of thinking in his military tribunal at Guantanamo. He tells the tribunal about the meeting with Dostum, the reporters, quote, "There were cameramen and journalists there. He"—meaning Dostum—"he says there's 25-year war between person to person, village by village, city by city, province by province, and tribe against tribe. If you think this is crime, then every single person in Afghanistan should be in prison or bring them here.

I never, ever fought against the new government. I never fought against America. And I didn't do anything wrong against them. Then why am I an enemy combatant?" unquote.

It does seem true that Fazl was a brutal fighter, a powerful commander, and possibly a war criminal. But you can argue the same is true of General Dostum. Dostum has also been accused of war crimes. He's now first vice president of Afghanistan, our ally.

And one last thing on this. In 2001, Hamid Karzai had come to an agreement with Taliban commanders in the south. The Taliban would hand over control of four provinces, peacefully, and in return, they'd get amnesty.

But the U.S. said, no, you can't do that. Wouldn't let it happen. Instead we proclaimed, via Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that because the Taliban harbored Osama bin Laden, we would be treating them the same way we treated international terrorists.

We do not give amnesty to terrorists. We do not negotiate with terrorists. We hunt them down.

The talks with the Taliban suffered so many setbacks over the years, it's hard to even contain them all in my head. So many factors were in play in so many different countries. Some of the setbacks were pointed and intentional—the leaks, for instance.

Some setbacks were immutable—a simple case of bad timing. And some setbacks were so human, just old-fashioned screwups.

The most obvious assault on the talks came in September of 2011.

A guy came to the door of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani. Rabbani was heading Afghanistan's High Peace Council. And this guy said he had a message from the Taliban, and blew up Rabbani's house.

Rabbani was killed, as were four others from the council. Rabbani's assistant, Masoom Stanekzai, was badly injured. No one took responsibility for the attack, but many people suspected Pakistan was behind it.

Marc Grossman says losing the help of those guys, and especially having Stanekzai out of commission for so many months—it was terrible.

Marc Grossman

When you talk about Afghans talking to other Afghans about the future of Afghanistan, they were the Afghans.

Sarah Koenig

They were the ones.

Marc Grossman

Yeah. They would have been doing this work. And whoever did this, it was a very, was a very strategic move.

Sarah Koenig

The Rabbani assassination happened a couple months before the big international meeting in Bonn set for December 2011—the one that a year earlier had been something of a finish line. Now it felt like they were back to square one.

And then, a year and a half later, a screw-up—with some very bad results. Mid-2013—Bowe had been in captivity for four years by then—after various arm twistings in Washington and in Kabul and in Doha, it looks as if they really might be able to crank up the talks again.

Things have shifted some. Instead of the prisoner exchange first, they're going to do an office. The Taliban wanted an office in Doha, as a home base for political talks. It would show they were legitimate political actors. The office had become issue number one for them.

James Dobbins

And Karzai was naturally cautious about this.

Sarah Koenig

There's a new SRAP by now: Ambassador James Dobbins. He's working with Karzai and with Qatar, who's the intermediary.

Cautious is probably an understatement for Karzai on this thing.

He doesn't trust us. He doesn't trust our stated objectives in Afghanistan are for real. He's worried we're trying to cut him out of the talks, make a side deal with Pakistan, maybe.

He obviously doesn't trust Pakistan. He thinks maybe this whole office deal is a Pakistani-orchestrated plot to get recognition for the Taliban. He's worried Qatar is essentially letting the Taliban set up a shadow government with this Doha office. So it's shaky, to say the least, Karzai's cooperation here.

The United States is trying to make sure everyone abides by the ground rules, including the detail that the Taliban cannot throw around the words Islamic Emirate in connection with this office—very important. They have to call it something like—

James Dobbins

The political office of the Taliban movement, not as a representation of the Islamic Emirate, which was what they called their government. So they shouldn't present themselves, in effect, as an alternative government of Afghanistan.

Sarah Koenig

So everyone's agreeing to the sort of ground rules.

James Dobbins

So at this point, the assumption was that in June, um, the office would open, and we would begin discussions. And the detainee exchange would be, most likely, the first order of business.

Sarah Koenig

Meaning the exchange for Bowe would be the first order of business. So June 18th, the office opens. It's this new, pretty elaborate multistory building with a wall around it. There's an opening ceremony.

Back in the U.S., the time difference means it's something like three or four in the morning in Washington. Jeff Eggers, who is an Afghanistan and Pakistan director for the National Security Council, he and his staff had been up all night, waiting for the opening on TV.

Jeff Eggers

The first indication that there was a problem was the flag.

Sarah Koenig

The flag of the Islamic Emirate. They also had a sign outside the building that said Islamic Emirate.

John Kerry was secretary of state by then.

Within minutes, he calls the emir of Qatar. (Remember, we're not communicating directly with the Taliban at this point. It's all through the Qataris.)

So Kerry presumably impresses on the emir: It's not supposed to say Islamic Emirate. The one word you can't have on that flag, on that building, is emirate. We're upset.

It's not what we agreed. And it's going to make Karzai flip his lid. It's exactly what he feared.

Barney Rubin worked in the SRAP office then. He's an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had been hired by Holbrooke. He was in the air when this happened, flying to Doha from Dubai.

Barney Rubin

So I got off the plane. And I see on my BlackBerry, oh my god, what's happening? So I went to...I went directly to the embassy.

Sarah Koenig

The flag is lowered out of sight pretty fast. But the offending sign is still on the outside of the building. It's there all day.

On day two, it's still up. Barney decides to go there to try to find someone to take down the sign. The embassy is short on cars. He gets a ride in some guy's private car.

They arrive at the Taliban office building. They're surrounded by armed Qatari security. It's a whole thing for a while until they can figure out who Barney is and what he wants. But he is not leaving until someone shows up with some tools, basically.

Barney Rubin

I didn't leave until it was down.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, really, you stayed there and watched them take it down?

Barney Rubin

Yes. Yes. And then I took a photograph of the wall without the sign, and we emailed it to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and they showed it to President Karzai.

Sarah Koenig

But by that time, it was too late. Here's Jeff Eggers.

Jeff Eggers

That all it took was, you know, the optics of that one flag being thrown in there, um, to really derail, at that point, years of effort.

Sarah Koenig

Dobbins and Secretary Kerry fly to Doha to find out if there's any way to salvage the situation and to find out why it happened. What Dobbins learned is that it seemed to be a genuine misunderstanding. The Taliban thought it was fine for them to call themselves whatever they wanted.

James Dobbins

The Qatari said that in discussions that had occurred in 2012 or '11, the U.S. had said, we don't care what you call yourselves. You just have to understand we won't call you that. Now, I don't believe any U.S. official said that.

Um, but the Qataris believed it. Um, and, as I say, I think it...I think it was...the Taliban weren't trying to demonstrate bad faith; they genuinely believed that what they were doing would be unexceptionable, and were, I think, surprised by the reaction.

Sarah Koenig

It all could have been avoided, is the thing. Dobbins says the arrangement had a whiff of amateurishness. It wasn't even being handled formally by the Qatari Foreign Ministry. They had this kind of B team on it.

Barney Rubin says the office agreement kept changing to accommodate everyone's concerns, but that there was never a final document everyone signed off line by line. Anyway, now the Taliban had lost face.

James Dobbins

They felt that once they had been, in effect, humiliated by having to take down their flag and their sign, that they couldn't go forward with the talks.

Sarah Koenig

So peace talks grind to a halt. Bowe would stay in captivity for another year.

Sami Yousafzai

The Taliban are like simple, straightforward people: Do you want a deal or not?

Sarah Koenig

That's Sami Yousafzai, the Afghan reporter. Sami interviewed someone high up in the Taliban for us. We agreed not to say who it is. This guy told Sami that after four years, four and a half years of holding Bowe, they were getting fatigued.

Sami Yousafzai

For them—for the Qatar office—I believe this was getting too much long. They made a contact over 2010 or '12; and then it was '13, still nothing was coming as a result.

You know, the American is just quite slow in responding. And they told them that we have to bring everything in the knowledge of President Obama, and it's not like a easy case. So you understand. So that's why there was like communication was getting longer and longer.

Sarah Koenig

In 2013, the year before Bowe was released, the Taliban had a lot going on. We wouldn't know it for a couple of years, but Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, had actually died in spring of 2013. Mullah Sangeen, who was in charge of keeping Bowe for most of his time as a prisoner, was killed in a drone strike in September of 2013.

Sami says he imagines the Pakistanis were also pushing the Taliban to settle this prisoner deal because they were getting pressure from the Americans about it. So there were all those reasons. And—

Sami Yousafzai

Fourth one would, I would say, the Pakistani army operation.

Sarah Koenig

The Pakistani army was gearing up to launch attacks in Waziristan, against the Pakistani Taliban. And so people there were on notice, including the Haqqanis, who were holding Bowe: You might want to get out of there before you get killed.

Sami Yousafzai

But obviously, you know, the Haqqani people was told that we are going to do operation. So the area was be totally abandoned for all kind of militants, except they are fighting. So Haqqani move...uh, some of them moved to Afghanistan. And they know in Afghanistan, they couldn't hide him, because the American has access to anywhere they want.

Sarah Koenig


Sami Yousafzai


Sarah Koenig

Early in 2014, the Taliban finally let the Americans know they're ready to make a deal. But not on a peace plan. Instead, they tell us, if you just want a swap for your prisoner, we're ready.

Bowe is now cut loose from the broader talks about reconciliation. He's free floating. And it's up to us whether to grab him. Ultimately, the White House would have to make the call.

Jeff Eggers was working at the White House as a special assistant to the president for national security affairs. Jeff says they took stock of the situation.

Jeff Eggers

And at around the same time, there was, you know, some sense that we were...we were only going to lose opportunities to recover Bergdahl the more the resources—the Western and coalition resources in Afghanistan—declined.

Sarah Koenig

In other words, we're about to start withdrawing our troops, transitioning out of there. So this isn't going to get any easier to get him back.

The United States had asked for a proof-of-life video of Bowe. And in January, it arrived. I haven't seen it, but I've talked to a few people who have. And they said Bowe looked to be in bad shape.

His movements were strange. His speech was incoherent. People told me it was alarming.

Eggers says the White House wasn't weighing any other options, for better or for worse. And they worried Bowe wasn't going to last in captivity. And the U.S. was getting out of Afghanistan.

Jeff Eggers

It was was the combination of those factors that gave rise to the idea that you could salvage those two line items.

Sarah Koenig

The two line items being we get Bowe back, they get the five Guantanamo prisoners back.

Jeff Eggers

Those two line items, in the original confidence-building plan for catalyzing the political process, as a standalone pair. And—

Sarah Koenig

But at what...once you hit 2014, there is no broader agreement. It's just the trade, right?

Jeff Eggers

Well, I wouldn't put it that way. I would say that the broader agreement was sitting up on a shelf, gathering dust.

Sarah Koenig

Something was better than nothing. And maybe, maybe one day, someone would take down the rest of the big, beautiful agreement to make peace and dust it off. And there'd be two fewer line items to argue about.

During those last months before Bowe was released, Bowe says the Taliban started to treat him better. They fed him better, more regularly. He got this little treadmill thing so he could gain some strength.

He'd already gotten a toothbrush, which he said he'd asked for during a videotaping. But now they gave him some science books he'd also asked for. He said they gave him college-level physics and chemistry books.

U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, start making trips back and forth to Qatar to iron out the deal.

We're not negotiating with Tayeb Agha anymore, or anyone else from the Taliban, about it directly. These aren't talks. It's a transaction, and the Qataris are the brokers.

We drew up an agreement with the Qataris about how they'd monitor the five Taliban, who were supposed to stay in Qatar for a year.

There's this video I've watched a few times on YouTube. It's from May 26th, 2014—Memorial Day. Chuck Hagel is visiting Arlington National Cemetery.

Chuck Hagel

Hi, guys.

Sarah Koenig

A Vietnam War veteran—an activist for POW and MIA cases—confronts Hagel about Bowe.


We're getting out of Afghanistan. We need to get him home. We know he's alive.

Sarah Koenig

He says, please, sir, you've got to bring him home. Hagel stands there patiently, awkwardly, in the sun, hearing the guy out. He can't say anything except—

Chuck Hagel

We're doing everything we possibly can. And we are.

Sarah Koenig

The next day, word comes back from the DOD legal counsel, the guy Hagel had traveled to Qatar with. He says, we have a deal. Meaning the Taliban holding Bowe are good to go.

Everything about this transfer was top secret. If it got out, they worried it could fall apart. Somebody could get killed.

On May 29th, a delegation of five people from Qatar comes to Guantanamo to escort the Taliban guys back to Doha. The Qataris talk to each of the Taliban guys. And then they wait.

The deal was that the U.S. wouldn't release them until Bowe was in U.S. custody. But the Taliban holding Bowe are taking much longer than anybody anticipated. Eight hours later, they realize this is not happening.

They have to house the Qataris in a nearby naval hotel. The Taliban guys, they put in a kind of holding cell near the airport. This was not supposed to happen.

Carol Rosenberg, a reporter from the Miami Herald, had been looking out for this Taliban trade—for years, actually. Carol's been covering Guantanamo since the day it opened. She'd watched three of these Taliban guys arrive there on day one.

Carol was down at Guantanamo at the end of May. And she said, she noticed these big planes—two C-17s—across the water from where she was. She can just make them out.

Carol Rosenberg

Squinting across the bay, seeing, you know, the airframes of C-17s on the airstrip, I'm like, why doesn't it leave? [LAUGHS]

Sarah Koenig

[LAUGHING] Right, right, right.

Carol Rosenberg

They don't park them here.

Sarah Koenig

Another day goes by. The planes are still sitting there. Now it's May 30th. Carol's asking people at the base, what is going on with these planes? They're saying stuff like—

Carol Rosenberg

"C-17s? What C-17s? I don't see any C-17s." Which to me confirms it's probably the Bergdahl trade.

Sarah Koenig

Finally, the morning of Saturday, May 31st, the U.S. gets word Bowe is safe. The plane leaves for Doha. On it are the Qataris, the Taliban prisoners, and U.S. security personnel.

According to a congressional investigation, when they were planning the transfer, a Defense Department official said he thought the U.S. security would be a good idea because they were concerned about, quote, "one of the knuckleheads trying something," unquote.

Jim Dobbins said to me about the trade, it wasn't a disaster and it wasn't a brilliant achievement. It was a successful and necessary operation. But it wasn't going to end the war—which, of course, is disappointing, and also makes this deal hard to assess.

You can easily say, wow, the Taliban really got a lot of bang for their buck on this one. If you look back at the things they wanted at that first Munich meeting in 2010, well, check, check, check. They got some of their names off the UN sanctions list.

Their office isn't official, but there is that building in Doha. And they got their prisoners back—from Gitmo, no less. And all they gave up was Bowe, the guy they planned to give up all along, the guy they were tired of holding. All in all, a tidy victory.

On the other hand, we had to get Bowe back somehow. Nothing else had worked. And there was no way the United States government was going to let an American soldier die in captivity.

And other countries trade all the time. Israel, say: they'll trade prisoners even for the remains of one of their soldiers. And there are now five fewer prisoners at Guantanamo.

President Obama would like to close Guantanamo.

When I was talking to Carol Rosenberg, one of the things she pointed out was that these five Taliban guys hadn't had intel value for a long time. Osama bin Laden was already dead.

And also, as prisoners, they didn't do any of the things you sometimes hear about from Gitmo officials. They weren't hunger-striking or gathering up their bodily fluids in cups and flinging it at the guards. With the exception of one, they didn't even challenge their detention in federal court, as so many other detainees have.

Carol Rosenberg

These guys did none of that. They sat there in communal confinement, following the directions, praying when there was prayer time, eating when it was food time, sitting there sort of, you know...I don't want to say like Buddha, but, you know, sitting there, following the rules, and not being a problem.

They were what they would call down here "highly compliant." And to me, that says, like, that's like a POW, right? They're there thinking, I'm a prisoner of this war. And when the politics change or the war ends, I'm gonna get out of here.

Barack Obama

Good afternoon, everybody. This morning I called Bob and Jani Bergdahl and told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son, Bowe, is coming home.

Sarah Koenig

The day of the trade, right after lunch, Obama appeared in the Rose Garden, along with Bowe's parents. He thanked the service members who recovered Bowe. He noted that the United States is committed to winding down this war and to closing Gitmo. And he gave a shout-out to the erstwhile peace talks.

Barack Obama

Going forward, the United States will continue to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation, which could help secure a hard-earned peace within a sovereign and unified Afghanistan.

Sarah Koenig

Bob and Jani Bergdahl had been reassured many times over the years, by many people—some very high-up people in the military and at the Pentagon—that if Bowe came home, he wouldn't face serious charges, that time with the Taliban would be punishment enough, that they probably didn't need to consult a military lawyer. So the Bergdahls thought, that day in the Rose Garden, that it was over—mission accomplished.

Not quite. Next time, on Serial.

Serial is produced by Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis, and me, in partnership with Mark Boal, Megan Ellison, Hugo Lindgren, Jessica Weisberg, Page One, and Annapurna Pictures. Ira Glass is our editorial advisor. Producing help this week from Jonathan Menjivar.

Whitney Dangerfield is our digital editor. Research by Kevin Garnett, fact-checking by Michelle Harris, copyediting by Anaheed Alani. Emily Condon is our line producer.

Our music is composed by Nick Thorburn, Fritz Myers, and Mark Phillips. The show is mixed by Kate Bilinski. Kristen Taylor's our community editor.

Other Serial staff: Seth Lind, Elise Bergerson, and Kimberly Henderson.

Special thanks this week to David Holbrooke and HBO, Christopher Chivvis, Bruce Mason, reporter Christina Lamb of the Sunday Times, David Rohde, Ari Shapiro, and Biz Iqbal. We learned about Carlotta Gall's story from her book The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan.

And the tape of Chuck Hagel at Arlington comes from Patrick J. Hughes. Check out his website, And our website,, where this week we have a timeline of the Afghanistan peace process, showing where Bowe's story fits in. That's Serial is a production of This American Life and WBEZ Chicago.

Man 4

What President Obama did took a lot of...a lot of intestinal fortitude to make that decision.

Sarah Koenig

Were you about to say balls and you didn't want to say it?


Man 4


Ira Glass

Coming up, on the next episode of Serial—

Woman 3

He served the United States with honor and distinction.

Man 5

And then holy shit, it's in your face.

Woman 4

Colonel Baker called me. And he said, "Sandra, we need to have a talk about this." I said, "OK."

Man 6

I haven't seen, from you or any other journalist, a real dig into how the army came to that conclusion.

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