Episode nine begins with the prisoner swap that brings Bowe Bergdahl home — or back to America, at least. On May 31, 2014, five Taliban prisoners being held in Guantánamo were exchanged for Bergdahl. In a mixture of his recollections and Koenig’s depictions, we’re given a brief flash of the moment that Bergdahl boards the helicopter with his Special Forces rescuers and begins his journey home. We’re told that it was like “crossing an abyss.” That’s also a great way to describe the jump from the last two episodes to this one. Episodes seven and eight were intimate explorations of Bowe Bergdahl’s psyche, sympathetic dissections of Bergdahl’s idiosyncrasies. They made me emotional, and based on the responses to my recap, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
Episode nine, however, is a complete reversal, probably the only direction to go after such lengthy and occasionally claustrophobic time spent in Bergdahl’s head. In this episode, Koenig’s stage is repopulated with the voices of government technocrats, journalists, and diplomats. In other words, people whose relationship with Bergdahl was mitigated through the lens of professional roles they played. They weren’t his friends or loved ones. As far as I could tell, none of them had ever met Bergdahl. Instead, this is the “zoom-out” story of the diplomatic machinations that ended with the prisoner trade (suggestively dubbed “mutual release” in official channels) used to get Bergdahl back to America. In the service of asking larger, more abstract questions, Bergdahl is once again relegated to a “line item” on a list of “confidence-building measures.” The big question in this episode is “why that trade?” How did it come to be, and why did both parties agree to it?
The trade itself was probably the most controversial aspect of Bowe Bergdahl’s capture, and not only for the American right, who lamented what they considered Obama’s raw deal. Koenig quotes people in Afghanistan wondering why the Americans would trade five big Taliban leaders for an insignificant single soldier. Surely, there had to be something larger at play here. And there was! Like the Talking Heads sang, the Bergdahl trade was just a wheel inside a wheel.
In Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, the Parisian aristocrat Saint-Savin tells young Italian nobleman Roberto della Griva that stories must begin with misconceptions, mistakes, or mischaracterizations. From the base of that original mistake spins out a series of “episodic misconceptions” that hopefully lead the reader to some kind of sense of “recognition.” It works with creating any narrative structure, not just fiction, and in this case the fundamental mischaracterization was the relationship between America’s military and its diplomatic corps.
The military in Afghanistan thought of the State Department as its handmaiden, and not the other way around. The problem with this should be obvious: The military is a hammer that sees everything as a nail. Its solutions are all necessarily military solutions. Which is fine. But the goal of the war in Afghanistan wasn’t to continuously be at war in Afghanistan; it was the larger and more fragile quest (however quixotic) to bring an Al Qaeda–free stability to the country under the aegis of a unified central government. And with this fundamental misconception, the scene is set and the wheels spin into motion.
Enter Richard Holbrooke, the tragic hero of episode nine. A diplomat whose reputation was composed equally of professional brilliance and personal cantankerousness, Holbrooke once allegedly followed Hillary Clinton into a women’s bathroom in Pakistan in order to finish making his point. He was obstinate and rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including President Obama, but he was skilled and dedicated and so Clinton hired him to help end the war in Afghanistan.
Holbrooke identified the problem of balance between the military and diplomatic methods right away. “Richard didn’t think that there was a military solution to the war in Afghanistan,” his widow told Koenig. At the time he was head diplomat in Afghanistan; he was one of the few, if not only, people in the United States government lobbying for a political solution to end the war. The imbalance between the sway the military held in national policy, the way the Pentagon took precedence in goal-forming discussions, bothered Holbrooke to no end. As did General Petraeus, then in command of troops in Afghanistan, insisting that the way to go was to double down on fighting the Taliban.
Holbrooke was bothered by the bullet-head attitude for obvious reasons, but also for one important one that was secret at the time: The Taliban wanted peace talks. In 2010, a Taliban representative code-named A-Rod (sigh, of course A-Rod) sought to initiate a series of secret peace talks with the Americans in a German-run safe house outside of Munich. In the beginning, the talks were promising. American representatives tried to keep an open mind, making very few hard-line demands of the Taliban. Instead, and this is probably a common tool used in talks like these, although Koenig doesn’t say, the Taliban and Americans agreed to a series of “confidence-building measures” to cultivate trust between the two parties. One of those measures was the release of Bowe Bergdahl, who was to be released, along with some Taliban prisoners, as a “line item” to the negotiations. Everything seemed to be going well. Thumbs-up all around.
Then Richard Holbrooke died, an episodic tragedy made even more problematic by the original imbalance between military and diplomatic solutions in Afghanistan. Holbrooke was a dynamo, almost single-handedly advocating for peaceful reconciliation with the Taliban, which was an unpopular and risky position in 2011. It’s deeply disturbing that the only realistic path to peace in Afghanistan was contingent upon the whims and expertise of one man, but so it was, and the negotiations in Munich sputtered. The secret talks leaked to the Washington Post and Der Spiegel, and the Taliban walked away, dismayed by America’s leaky media ship and, now that the talks were public, with the new incentive to dig in their heels and prove to their people that they weren’t secretly selling out to the Americans.
One of the new Taliban demands was the release of prisoners from Guantánamo, and it had five specific names in mind. In what might be the most revelatory part of the episode, Koenig makes the case that these five Taliban leaders we exchanged for Bergdahl all had something in common: They had all been cooperating with the Americans when they were taken prisoner, right after the initial invasion in 2001. Two of them, in fact, had been made to say on-camera, before their imprisonment in Guantánamo, that the fight was over and that everyone should go home. It was the only public surrender of Taliban forces during the war. Their release wouldn’t just be a public-relations coup for the Taliban; it would also be a “victory for their understanding of justice,” as Koenig puts it. This incident and the circumstances surrounding their initial capture confirm a larger and troubling picture of a weakened and wary Taliban on the verge of mass surrender in 2001. At the time, President Karzai even wanted amnesty for the Taliban. Rumsfeld refused, and we’re still there fighting them today.
In a continuing series of episodic mishaps, the larger peace deal with the Taliban disintegrates after Holbrooke’s death, until the only thing left of it is the prisoner swap. The episode ends with Koenig struggling to understand who came out ahead in the deal. On the one hand, the Taliban got five big-time Gitmo prisoners, a political office in Qatar, and the softening of some U.N. sanctions. On the other, she argues, Israel makes prisoner swaps for just the remains of its soldiers. But this sort of accounting is ephemeral. With troops still stationed in the country and Bergdahl still to face a court-martial, it’s far too early for that sort of reckoning.