Bring Our Son Home

The parents of America's only missing soldier in Afghanistan almost got him back from the Taliban. What went wrong?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Christopher Morris for TIME

From their home in Idaho, Bob and Jani Bergdahl have been working for three years to secure their son Bowe's release

(2 of 8)

But on May 9, just weeks after Bowe's 26th birthday, the Bergdahls emerged from their self-imposed silence with an unexpected interview in a local newspaper, saying they believed the U.S. should negotiate a prisoner exchange for their son with the Taliban and that "everybody is frustrated with how slowly the process has evolved." After a flurry of interviews with the national media, in which they revealed that Bowe had in fact been the subject of a failed deal involving the transfer of five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantnamo, they retreated to the sanctuary of their family home, located in the shadow of Idaho's Smoky Mountains, a range of peaks so wild and raw they wouldn't look out of place on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But in an interview at a local coffee shop after most of the reporters had left town, Bob Bergdahl, 52, described the agonizing journey his family has undertaken, how the pressure has built with the passing years and why he felt he could stay silent no longer. Pained but reflective, Bergdahl spoke for more than two hours, never becoming truly emotional and deflecting any question about his inner life to focus on what he could do, must do, to get his son back. "We do not want to pressure the White House. We do not want to pressure Congress," Bergdahl said. "They're going to have to come to terms the way they always do, through hardcore politics, especially in an election year. But at the same time, we have a window of opportunity in Afghanistan, and that window is not going to wait for a national election to come to an end. I don't think we can count on the dynamics on the ground in Afghanistan to be the same in November as they necessarily are now. This is a war, and war doesn't wait on politics."

TIME has learned that the urgency the Bergdahls feel is rooted in a recent split in the Taliban movement that, in a cruel twist, was precipitated by the very negotiations that were meant to secure the release of their son. People close to the Taliban and the particular faction that is holding Bergdahl say the once secret talks with the Americans sparked a furor among hard-line Taliban fighters who felt they were being sold out by some of their leaders. Those hard-line Taliban are now--according to Taliban, other Afghan and American sources--in no mood to restart talks over Bergdahl, or anything else for that matter.

But Bowe Bergdahl remains a unique and valuable bargaining chip for the Taliban, and that gives his parents hope. To the U.S. government, he also presents an opportunity for much broader political gains. His release might push the fitful peace talks with the Taliban further along. "The onus is on the Taliban to come back to the negotiations if they want to move this process forward," says an Obama Administration official.

These three disparate entities--the Bergdahls and their Hailey community, the U.S. government, and the Taliban--have mobilized assets at hand to achieve the oddly shared goal of bringing the crisis over the young U.S. soldier to a close, even as they pursue very different endgames. At the heart of it all is a young captive who has declared in one of the five hostage videos released by the Taliban, "I am a prisoner. I want to go home. The Afghanistan men who are in our prisons, they want to go home too."

In Custody of the Taliban

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8