It’s probably not an accident that “Trade Secrets,” episode 9 of the Serial podcast series about Bowe Bergdahl, is the least compelling show so far. It almost completely abandons the ground-level detail to give an overview of the high-level negotiations that were going on in the background.
Obviously, anyone exploring the Berghdahl incident must cover this part of the story and it feels like the producers used this episode to get that part over with. Weirdly, it also covers the details of Bowe’s release: when we’re finished with this week’s show, he’s been sent home and it hardly feels like the momentous event you might have been expecting.
Producer Sarah Koenig explores whether we traded five terrorists to get Bowe back from the Taliban. She relays the case that the prisoners acted like prisoners of war during their captivity, that they were model prisoners at Gitmo and that they’d long ago given up any valuable intel they might have provided to the United States. Someone on the U.S. side of the equation believes that these men were materially different than the fully committed al-Qaeda types we have in custody and that these men don’t qualify as that kind of threat. The Serial host relays that position and doesn’t really question it.
The other big point this week is the idea that a Bergdahl trade would have happened much earlier if U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke hadn’t died at the end of 2010. Holbrooke was pushing for a negotiated resolution to the conflict with the Taliban, a notion that was wildly unpopular in the Obama administration and with the president himself. Holbrooke believed that a prisoner exchange (one that looked a whole lot like the final deal that brought Bergdahl home) could be a “confidence-building measure” that paved the way to peace talks.
The most interesting bit this week is about Holbrooke’s difficult relationship with General David Petraeus, who repeatedly called the SRAP his “wingman.” Holbrooke believed the military was there to back up diplomatic efforts, while Petraeus (and the White House) were fully committed to a military solution.
After Holbrooke’s death, it became an extended comedy of errors. The supposedly secret talks were reported in the press and the Taliban backed off to appease hardliners in their camp. Then former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, chairman of the high peace council, was assassinated by a man claiming to be a Taliban envoy.
The next attempt in 2013 involved allowing the Taliban to open a political office in Doha, Qatar. The Afghan government wasn’t really into this idea but reluctantly agreed to go along with the plan if no one used the term “Islamic emirate.” Of course, those words were on both the flag raised on opening day and the sign affixed to the building. Talks ended and that screwup delayed any deal for at least another year.
Finally, the idea that the prisoner trade would be tied to peace talks was abandoned, the U.S. got a proof of life video that showed Bergdahl in a perilous state and the decision was made to swap the five men for one American soldier.
Bergdahl returns home and can barely communicate because it’s been so long since he’s had the opportunity to speak English and hold a conversation. His family feels relieved, because Army reps had assured them that there would be no serious repercussions for their son once he returned. Being held captive for five years was punishment enough for his decision to walk off his post.
Of course, we all know that wasn’t the case and that’s were Serial will pick up next.