Bring Our Son Home

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

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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

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Three days after his escape, the Haqqanis recaptured Bergdahl in the mountains. "It was a brief escape, and he was easily recovered from the same area. He was not familiar with the area and route, and then the whole area was controlled by Taliban, and therefore escaping was not possible," one of the network's commanders says. The Haqqanis were angry. Bergdahl had exploited the honesty, poverty and illiteracy of the men assigned to guard him, promising them that he would take them to the U.S. if they helped him escape, the militant leader says. Bergdahl was physically punished for misguiding the fighters who had tried to escape with him, says the commander, adding that the fighters had been "paralyzed," his grim euphemism for execution.

Since his recapture, says the commander, Bergdahl no longer has the freedom to walk around and exercise that he once enjoyed. He is still properly looked after, he says, but "we don't trust him anymore and keep him in lockup most of the time."

Late last fall, the U.S. government initiated talks with the Taliban in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar in the hope of bringing an end to the war. In the course of the discussions, the Taliban told the Americans that they wanted five senior Taliban officials released from Guantnamo, a senior Administration official says. The U.S. then raised the possibility of including Bergdahl in the process. Soon the two sides had a tentative agreement.

American officials insist it was never a direct exchange. "This wasn't negotiating with terrorists," says the senior Administration official. "This wasn't a swap." Instead, they describe each step as a confidence-building measure designed to keep everyone at the negotiating table at an office in Qatar, where both sides had agreed that Taliban envoys could safely set up residence. The offer to the Taliban from the Americans, with Qatar's approval, was this: The Guantnamo detainees would be given jobs, reunited with their families and permitted to move around Qatar with some monitoring. They would not, however, be allowed to go back to Afghanistan, and they would have to complete a deradicalization program. The Americans hoped the agreement would lead to more-comprehensive talks about the role of the insurgent group in Afghanistan after most foreign troops pull out in 2014.

In January, a delegation from the Afghan Taliban approached the Haqqani network with the proposal, members of both groups say, and asked that it hand over its prisoner. The Haqqanis agreed, pledging loyalty to the mainstream Taliban group, and Bergdahl was moved across the border, back into Afghanistan. In order to prove that they were serious, the Taliban produced another, yet unseen and previously unreported video of Bergdahl, says Hekmat Karzai, director of the Afghanistan-based Centre for Conflict & Peace Studies, who has stayed abreast of the negotiations through his extensive contacts with current and former Taliban members. "It was given to the Americans to say, 'Look, this guy is alive. He is in our custody, and we are willing to talk. We are willing to potentially swap Bergdahl for those detainees.'" Administration officials refused to confirm or deny the existence of a proof-of-life video.

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