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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But Taliban members say the time for talking may be over. They are contending with a split in their ranks that threatens the whole idea of a peace deal with the American and Afghan governments. "Had we continued talks for a few more weeks with the U.S. in Qatar, our movement would have died a natural death," says a senior Taliban commander operating in Kandahar. "Infighting had started among various factions." While an imploding Taliban might appear to be a good thing for the American and Afghan governments, a fragmented and more radical Taliban would not be. The commander tells TIME that since the talks fell apart, there has been a purge in the Taliban leadership. Younger and more violent field commanders have been promoted over the more peace-ready old guard, and a strict warning has been delivered that any Taliban caught freelance negotiating with the Afghan government or the Americans will be killed. On May 12, a Taliban splinter group assassinated Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban minister and a member of the government's High Peace Council, in Kabul. In a subsequent phone call, the group's spokesman, Qari Hamza, took responsibility for the attack and declared that its ranks were swelling with Taliban opposed to "the so-called peace talks with the U.S. We formed a separate group that comprises all those genuine Taliban fighters who shed their blood in jihad against the U.S.-led foreign forces for the liberation of Afghanistan." Just a few weeks before he died, Rahmani told TIME he was confident that the talks would resume shortly. "We are tired of war. The Taliban are tired of war, and the Americans are tired too. Talks are the only solution."

In spite of the hardening of the Taliban's position, the Bergdahls and the Obama Administration have not given up hope of negotiating the young Idahoan's release. Although the U.S. government believed that going public about the talks over Bergdahl would be a mistake, "You have to have great sympathy for the Bergdahls," says the senior Administration official, "and they've made their decision here."

For the Bergdahls and the Hailey community, Bowe's return would mark the end of a long journey. But for Bowe, who has been criticized by many for the circumstances surrounding his capture and his appearance in propaganda videos, it would be just the start. "He will always be separate from everyone else--not an outcast, but isolated," says Van Dyk, who is still haunted by his own experience. "And it won't be right, but he will be called a traitor. He has a long road ahead."

Back in Hailey, where yellow ribbons symbolizing solidarity with Bowe still flutter in the cool mountain breezes, Bob and Jani Bergdahl have committed now to pressing their son's case in public and will appear at a veterans' rally in Washington on May 27. That event may spark a new round of interest in the U.S.'s only missing soldier in Afghanistan, but it is unlikely that it will create enough pressure on any of the key players to bring Bowe home. The White House waits for a signal from the Taliban that talks can begin again, and the town of Hailey for news of a miraculous release. And somewhere in the mountains near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a young man waits to go home to his family.


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