The Cable

Serial Recap: The Secret Taliban Talks That Failed

Large and powerful forces, backed by outsize egos, worked for years to get the Taliban and the Americans to talk peace. And when they did, the issue of Bowe Bergdahl was always part of the discussion. “Bowe was like a line item, an important line item, but a line item nonetheless,” Sarah Koenig, the host ...

Afghan alleged former Taliban fighters carry their weapons before handing them over as part of a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad on February 24, 2016. More than a dozen former Taliban fighters from Nazyan district of Nangarhar province handed over their weapons as part of a peace reconciliation program. AFP PHOTO / Noorullah Shirzada / AFP / Noorullah Shirzada        (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan alleged former Taliban fighters carry their weapons before handing them over as part of a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad on February 24, 2016. More than a dozen former Taliban fighters from Nazyan district of Nangarhar province handed over their weapons as part of a peace reconciliation program. AFP PHOTO / Noorullah Shirzada / AFP / Noorullah Shirzada (Photo credit should read NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)

Large and powerful forces, backed by outsize egos, worked for years to get the Taliban and the Americans to talk peace. And when they did, the issue of Bowe Bergdahl was always part of the discussion.

“Bowe was like a line item, an important line item, but a line item nonetheless,” Sarah Koenig, the host of the Serial podcast exploring Bergdahl’s five years of imprisonment at the hands of the Taliban, said in the latest installment.

We don’t hear much from Bergdahl in Thursday’s episode, which focuses instead on the Americans and Afghans who tried, in fits and starts, to kick start peace talks between the two sides and bring the missing soldier back home.

One of the key players in the years-long drama of secret talks in European safe houses was Richard Holbrooke, the controversial but always colorful diplomat who pushed harder than any other figure in Washington for a political reconciliation in Afghanistan that would involve a formal role for the Taliban.

The problem was that Holbrooke had few allies in the Obama administration, and he clashed with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the war effort at the time, who said it was premature to launch talks until the military made more solid gains.

“Richard would have 10-second conversations with Petraeus and the gist of that was this was no time for diplomacy,” recalled Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton. “He deeply resented Petraeus, who was his friend, referring to him repeatedly as his wingman.” Holbrooke died in December 2010.

Still, secret talks began in early 2011, only to fall apart when the Taliban walked away after a news leak in May. Months later, the two sides began to feel each other out again, but things again crumbled after an episode in which the Taliban raised a flag and hung a sign in front of their office in Qatar declaring the re-establishment of an Islamic Emirate separate from the Western-backed Kabul government. Then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai flew into a rage over the move, and everything stalled.

But by 2013, the Taliban was tiring of holding Bergdahl, and Washington wanted him back before large numbers of American troops began pulling out ahead of the country ahead of the end of the end of U.S.-led combat mission there.

The talks this time eschewed promises of peace, and focused instead on a straight prisoner exchange. The Taliban named five leaders who had been captured at the start of the war in 2001. Koenig reports that they had all been taken into custody while they were in the act of surrendering, or negotiating deals, with either the Americans or the Karzai government. Which isn’t to say the militants didn’t have troubling pasts: one, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, was infamous for sticking his fingers into the nostrils of doomed men to push their heads back before slitting throats.

We do get a brief glimpse of Bergdahl in the episode. It comes as describes how he was unable to speak when American special operators picked him up in eastern Afghanistan in May 2014. It had been so long since he had used full sentences to speak to another person in English that he had temporarily lost the ability. To communicate, he asked the commandos for a pen and paper. He said he immediately began to feed them intel, which as we’ve come to learn over the nine episodes of Serial, sounds exactly like something Bowe Bergdahl would claim to have done.
Photo Credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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