On a gorgeous spring day a little over a year ago, I sat in Zaney’s River Street Coffee House in Hailey, Idaho, waiting to meet the father of the only U.S. soldier still missing from the war in Afghanistan.
Before long, a man in a black T-shirt peddled a bicycle through the brilliant sunshine and entered the coffee shop. Lean and athletic in his early 50s with piercing blue eyes and sandy brown hair, Bob Bergdahl wouldn’t look a day older than 40, except for the beard he’s been growing since his son Bowe was captured by the Taliban in June 2009. His son is now the centerpiece of what may be the start of a complicated round of negotiations between the U.S. and Afghan Taliban representatives.
Bob shook my hand with a warm smile and told me about the ordeal his family had been through in the past three years. Bowe Bergdahl was a 23-year-old private first class in the Army when he went missing from a base in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. A close-knit, private family, the Bergdahls worked behind the scenes to try to secure Bowe’s release, worrying that too much exposure might make the process more difficult.
Bob began learning Pashtu and grew a beard as an act of solidarity with his missing son. In May 2011, two years after Bowe was captured, Bob appeared on a YouTube video where he appealed directly to the Pakistani military for Bowe’s release. Nearly another year of silence followed. In early 2012, the U.S. engaged in preliminary talks with the Taliban through an office the group set up in Qatar. A prisoner swap, in which Bowe would have been exchanged for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was supposed to be a confidence-building measure leading to more serious negotiations. But in the spring of 2012, those talks fell apart, and the Bergdahls broke their silence to plea for continued efforts to bring Bowe home.
When I spoke with Bob in May 2012, he worried that the politics of the presidential election would forestall any efforts to negotiate his son’s release. “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,” he told me. “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.”
Bob was more right than probably even he knew. There was virtually no discussion of his son — and little about the Afghanistan war in general — in last year’s presidential race, and the family has now waited a long, fourth year hoping for his release.
On Thursday, a spokesman for the Taliban told the Associated Press that they are ready to free Bowe in exchange for five senior operatives imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, roughly the same deal that fell apart one year ago. But the offer comes amid turmoil that may scuttle planned peace talks involving three key players: the U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban. This week, more than four years after Bowe went missing, the Taliban agreed to peace talks with the U.S. through a spokesman based in a newly opened office in Qatar.
Then just as quickly as the possibility of those talks emerged, they fell into crisis. The Afghan government was furious with the Taliban office in Qatar, angered by how it seemed to present itself as the embassy of an alternative government, leading Afghan President Hamid Karzai to suspend talks with the U.S. on a long-term security deal that would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. The Taliban spokesman told the AP that a prisoner exchange would be the first item on the agenda even before peace talks would begin.
For now, Bowe’s fate remains in limbo, but there have been optimistic developments. Earlier this month, the Bergdahls received a handwritten letter through the International Committee of the Red Cross. According to Colonel Tim Marsano, the public-affairs officer for the Idaho National Guard, Bowe’s parents were very confident it was written by their son.
“They’re very encouraged by what’s happening in Qatar right now,” Marsano says. Beyond that, the family has chosen to stay quiet.
Because similar talks have begun and stalled in the past, there’s little reason to believe that things will be different this time. But for Bowe Bergdahl’s family, the hope of getting back their son looms larger than the frustrations of geopolitics. “They’re going to have to come to terms the way they always do, through hard-core politics,” Bob told me last year. As they wait for new negotiations to start, the Bergdahl family undoubtedly hopes that this time, the political calculus will offer a different resolution, one that will eventually bring their son home.