Handshakes and dust: Taliban release video of US PoW Bowe Bergdahl's first taste of freedom

 

There were some handshakes, a pat-down and then they were gone. The handover of Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier held prisoner by the Taliban for almost five years, was completed in a matter of seconds.

The Taliban today released an extraordinary 17-minute showing the release of the 28-year-old soldier to US special forces in Afghanistan last Saturday. The incident apparently took place around 4pm local time in the area of Bati in the Ali Sher district of eastern Khost.

“Don’t come back to Afghanistan,” one of the Taliban fighters tells Mr Bergdahl, according to a translation of the Pashto by the Associated Press. “You won’t make it out alive next time.”


The return of Mr Bergdahl, the last known American POW, has sparked a huge debate in the US. Many, including Mr Bergdahl’s friends and family from Hailey, Idaho, are delighted he will soon be coming home.

Yet some have questioned whether the US has created problems for itself by agreeing to the Taliban’s demand to release five militants from the US military-run detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. Those men have been dispatched to the custody of the government of Qatar, where they will remain under limited supervision for 12 months.

Others still, including some of the soldiers who served with Mr Bergdahl, have asked whether he should be celebrated as a hero given that when he was seized by fighters from the Haqqani network in June 2009, it appears he had deserted his post.

There is considerable evidence that by that time Mr Bergdahl, who had signed up to the US army because he believed it would be similar to enlisting in the Peace Corps, had become disenchanted with both the US military and its mission in Afghanistan. The US is said to be still considering whether or not Mr Bergdahl should face any penalty for deserting.

“The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at,” he wrote in the last email to his parents, Robert and Jani, before he was captured and which was later published by Rolling Stone magazine. “It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good [sergeants] are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”

It is unclear whether the video released on Wednesday will add anything to the debate. It shows a thin, shaven-headed Mr Bergdahl, wearing a white shalwar kameez with a checked shawl around his shoulders, sitting in the back of a truck and surrounded by half a dozen Taliban fighters armed with machine guns. He is carrying what appears to be a white and red tote bag.

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At one point, the single child who grew up skiing, fencing and ballet dancing in the mountains of Idaho, is seen blinking in the dust and wiping his eye. Around him the landscape looks hot, hilly and sparsely-vegetated.

The video then pans to show a US military Black Hawk helicopter coming into view and then landing. Two Taliban fighters, one carrying a white piece of cloth tied to a stick of wood, lead Mr Bergdahl towards the chopper.

They are met by three men in civilian clothes who advance swiftly from the chopper where soldiers in army uniform stand and watch. The three men, reportedly US special forces, shake hands with Mr Bergdahl and the Taliban fighters, quickly lead him back towards the Black Hawk.

Before he gets on, one of the men pats him down, presumably to check to see whether he has been strapped with any sort of explosive. They chopper then lifts into the sky.

A statement from the Taliban, which was also also distributed to media, quoted leader Mullah Mohammad Omar as saying the prisoner exchange was a significant achievement. The release of the five militants into the custody of Qatar, which has been involved in on-off efforts to broker a broader peace settlement between the US and the Taliban, had brought “great happiness and joy”.

A senior Pentagon official said there was no reason to doubt the authenticity of the video. “We know the transfer was peaceful and successful, and our focus remains on getting Sgt Bergdahl the care he needs,” said Rear Adm John Kirby.

It is not known whether or Mr Bergdahl has yet had a chance to see the footage of his hand-over. He is reported to be in a stable condition at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre, a US-run military hospital in Germany.

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