- Associated Press - Friday, June 6, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - That feel-good moment in the Rose Garden seems like a long time ago. Just a week after the president announced that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been freed in Afghanistan, details emerging about the soldier, the deal and how the rescue came together are only adding to the list of questions.

Why did Bergdahl leave his military post in the first place? Should he be punished as a deserter? Did U.S. troops die looking for him? Was the swap - Bergdahl’s freedom for that of five Taliban commanders - a good deal for the United States or the Taliban, or both? Did the U.S. negotiate with terrorists? Why did President Obama OK the prisoner swap? And why now?

A look at what’s known - and unknown - about saving Sgt. Bergdahl:


On June 30, 2009, when he disappeared from his infantry unit, Bergdahl was a 23-year-old private first class who had been in Afghanistan just five months. Back home in central Idaho, he’d been known as a free spirit who worked as a barista and loved to dance ballet. After he disappeared, fellow soldiers recalled, he’d made some odd comments about the possibility of getting lost in the mountains and whether he could ship belongings home. Rolling Stone magazine later reported that Bergdahl had sent his parents emails suggesting he’d lost faith in the Army’s mission there and was considering deserting. By 2010, the Pentagon had concluded that Bergdahl had voluntarily walked away from his outpost. During the five years he was held by the Taliban, he was automatically bumped up in rank to sergeant. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says Bergdahl’s next promotion to staff sergeant, which was to happen soon, is no longer automatic now that he has been freed.


Within weeks of Bergdahl’s disappearance, video surfaced revealing that he had been taken captive by the Taliban, who were embroiled in a bloody battle to topple the Afghan government and reclaim power. It’s believed that Bergdahl was held in eastern Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan under supervision of the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally that the U.S. deems a terrorist organization. Over the next five years, the Taliban trickled out at least a half-dozen videos of Bergdahl in captivity. The most recent one was a proof-of-life video taken in December that seemed to show him in declining health. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Bergdahl was held under “good conditions,” and was given fresh fruit and any other foods he requested. He said the soldier enjoyed playing soccer as well as reading, including English-language books about Islam. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar said the swap of Bergdahl for five of his men was a significant achievement for the organization, which is angling to increase its influence in post-war Afghanistan.


The Pentagon initially said it was “sparing no effort” to find Bergdahl, with members of his own unit involved in the hunt for their former comrade. But the search effort waned after it appeared he had been taken to Pakistan - out of bounds for American forces. No high-stakes rescue effort was launched, mostly because of a lack of actionable intelligence and fears that Bergdahl might be killed during a raid. Instead, the U.S. kept tabs on him with spies, drones and satellites as negotiations to get him back played out in fits and starts. Some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers have said he should bear the blame for any deaths of soldiers killed or harmed while searching for him. The military hasn’t confirmed a link to any such deaths.


Bergdahl’s freedom was negotiated in exchange for the release of five high-level Taliban officials from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The five were the most senior Afghans still at the prison, all held since 2002. They are: Mohammad Fazl, whom Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for presiding over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 as the Taliban sought to consolidate their control over the country; Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence and was in direct contact with supreme leader Mullah Omar as well as other senior Taliban figures, according to military documents; Mullah Norullah Nori, who was a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001. Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taliban positions including interior minister and as a military commander and had direct ties to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, according to U.S. military documents, and Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan, according to the military documents.


Several factors helped seal a deal after all this time. Interest in bringing Bergdahl home increased as Obama worked to complete plans for withdrawing nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which would leave fewer resources to keep tabs on the soldier and get him out. U.S. officials say they were increasingly worried about Bergdahl’s health, although the video they used to justify those concerns was six months old. Then, this week, administration officials told senators in a closed-door briefing the Taliban had threatened to kill Bergdahl if the proposed prisoner exchange became public, requiring quick action. The administration decided it couldn’t follow a legal requirement to give Congress 30 days’ notice of plans to release detainees from Guantanamo.


Critics are asking whether one soldier was worth trading for five Taliban figures, especially when that soldier’s loyalty to the Army has been questioned. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., complained the U.S. had released the “Taliban dream team.” On the other hand, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the five were likely to be transferred to another country at some point anyway. So the dealmakers reasoned “we should get something for them,” she said. Still, Rob Williams, the national intelligence officer for South Asia, told the Senate Intelligence Committee this week that four of the five were expected to resume activities with the Taliban, according to two senior congressional officials who were not authorized to speak publicly because the session was classified. The officials did not say which four.

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