The American hostage who was released by the Taliban last week in a controversial prisoner exchange has described how he was tortured, beaten and locked in a cage by his captors.
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has told US officials at the German military hospital where he is being treated that his five years in captivity included periods spent in total darkness inside a kind of shark cage following two escape attempts.
While his recollections may be unprovable, anything hinting at unusual suffering or humiliation during his time as a prisoner of war may help the pendulum of public and political opinion to swing back to him after it last week swung violently from initial applause for his release to queasiness and even opprobrium.
The FBI reported that the soldier’s parents, who had been with President Barack Obama at the White House when he first made the release of their son public, have received death threats in recent days. The danger emerged shortly after their home town of Hailey, Idaho, cancelled a homecoming parade for their son because of the sudden uncertainty over his status as a hero.
On Sunday, John Kerry, the Secretary of State, spoke out vigorously in defence of the deal agreed to by President Obama, in which Sgt Bergdahl was handed over in return for the release from Guantanamo Bay of five Taliban detainees, who were transferred to Qatar, where they will be obliged to remain under surveillance for at least a year.
A growing band of Republicans but also some Democrats have berated the White House for agreeing to the prisoner-swap without consulting first with Congress, and questioned its wisdom – not least because of worries that the five men might return to Afghanistan and put US servicemen and women in danger once again.
“I just think that’s a lot of baloney,” Mr Kerry said in an interview with CNN, noting the pending US withdrawal from the country.
At the same time some soldiers who served with Sgt Bergdahl have questioned the circumstances of his capture in June 2009, intimating that he wandered away from his platoon’s remote outpost of his own accord – that he, in effect, deserted. Some have said that the search for him thereafter led to the deaths of six US personnel.
The plight of Sgt Bergdahl had been nagging at the Obama White House of years. There was once some hope that his release could be part of a broader bargain whereby the Taliban would sign a peace deal with the government in Kabul and renounce terrorism. But US leverage in the region has dwindled.
Mr Kerry yesterday echoed President Obama, asserting that abandoning Sgt Bergdahl was never an option. “It would have been offensive and incomprehensible to consciously leave an American behind, no matter what,” he said, adding that the Qatar government won’t be “the only ones keeping an on eye” on the five released Taliban.
“I am not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved” in fighting the US, he conceded. “But they also have an ability to get killed doing that, and I don’t think anybody should doubt the capacity of the United States of America to protect Americans.”
Former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, who was himself a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said yesterday he agreed the US has to make every effort to secure the freedom of men left behind “but not at the expense of the lives or well-being of their fellow servicemen and women”. He added that “when we join the military, we know we take certain risks”.
Sgt Bergdahl remains at the military hospital at Landstuhl in Germany amid word that while his physical health is perhaps better than had been expected, he still has some psychological adjustments to make before he travels to the US, initially to a base in Texas where he would be reunited with his family.
He has not yet spoken with his parents and has exchanged only one letter with a sister since being released.