Bowe Bergdahl video: Why did Taliban release it now?

The message in the Taliban video of Bowe Bergdahl's release was triumphal (if misspelled): 'Don't come back to Afghanistan.' Such videos are a staple of Taliban propaganda.

Courtesy of US Army/Reuters/File
Army Sgt. Bowe Berghdal, pictured in this undated Army photo, was handed over to US Special Operations forces in Afghanistan on Saturday after five years in captivity.

The Taliban has released a video showing the handover of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to US Special Forces in eastern Afghanistan. The 17-minute tape is a narrative of the entire event, starting with the freshly shaven Sergeant Bergdahl waiting inside a silver and red quarter-ton pickup and ending with US troops hustling him inside a waiting Blackhawk helicopter to safety.

If there’s a theme the Taliban fighters wish to convey, it may be summarized by the words which come on screen after the handover is complete: "Don’t come back to Afghanistan." The first word is misspelled as “Don," but the idea comes across anyway. At one point, the Taliban say the same thing to Bergdahl, with evident amusement.

Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the Pentagon was reviewing the video but had no reason to doubt its authenticity.

“Regardless, we know the transfer was peaceful and successful and our focus remains on getting Sergeant Bergdahl the care he needs,” Admiral Kirby said Wednesday.

Why did the Taliban release this now? Videos have long been an integral part of the communications strategy of virtually all Islamist radical fighters, for one thing. They’re cheap, easy to disseminate, and instantly convey a message even to the functionally illiterate or the speakers of another language.

Hostage videos, from the brutal to the triumphant, have been a staple of America’s grinding years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Plus, this one seems almost triumphal. The fighters guarding Bergdahl as he waits seem relaxed, almost anticipatory. When the US contingent arrives they shake hands as if for a prearranged business meeting with a hostile corporation. If anything, the greeting did not meet the Afghan traditional standards for courtesy, according to The New York Times. A Taliban member interviewed by the Times complained that the Special Forces team had not shaken hands with all the Afghans and had left in a hurry.

“Don’t come back to Afghanistan." As noted, that’s the threat that lay behind the courtesy. The US soldier Bergdahl was blinking, seemingly disoriented, a captive. He was released at the Taliban’s sufferance. Then, he fled with his fellow Americans into the sky.

For that and other reasons the video “is likely to infuriate the US military," writes The Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison from Kabul. The Taliban are putting Bergdahl on display, and there are hints his condition is poor or deteriorating. The tape shows the face of at least one of the Special Forces soldiers, who generally try to keep their identity hidden. At one point, a US team member appears to be trying to get the cameraman to back off.

“Expect the Taliban video to heighten scrutiny on WH/admin claims that #Bergdahl’s health required immediate exchange,” tweeted Stephen Hayes, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, Wednesday morning.

Defense officials say Bergdahl is now resting comfortably in a military hospital in Germany. There is no public timetable for his return to the US. It seems certain that he, at least, will follow the Taliban’s warning and not return to Afghanistan anytime in the foreseeable future.

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