Taliban video of Bergdahl release: What does prisoner swap mean for peace?

The Taliban released a propaganda clip of the handover of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Some hope the exchange can create an opening for peace.

Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video/AP
This image taken from video shows US solider Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sitting in a vehicle guarded by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban have released a video to international media outlets showing the handover of Bergdahl to US forces in eastern Afghanistan.

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The Taliban on Wednesday released a propaganda video of the handover of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, claiming the peaceful transfer as a significant victory. The seamless operation has raised hopes among some that it could provide an opening for a broader peace process. 

The 17-minute video was emailed to international media outlets, and posted on a Taliban website. The Pentagon is reviewing the video, but does not have reason to doubt its authenticity, spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

The footage offers the first public images of the tense handover. It comes as President Obama faces pushback over his decision to release five Taliban commanders in return for Bergdahl’s release. Bergdahl was the only known American prisoner of war from the 13-year war. He faces accusations from fellow soldiers of walking off base as a deserter.

In the footage, Bergdahl is first seen in the back of a white pickup truck in an open field, his head shaved and in traditional Afghan dress. The video voiceover says the handover took place around 4 p.m. Saturday in eastern Khost Province. 

Taliban fighters armed with machine guns stationed themselves on the surrounding hills. The Wall Street Journal identified at least one rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the video, a weapon that can bring down a helicopter.

In the video, Taliban fighters chant “long live our mujahideen,” and one tells Bergdahl in Pashto “Don’t come back to Afghanistan. Next time we catch you, you won’t be here alive.”

The most dramatic footage is of the tense exchange between the insurgents and US special forces, who arrived in a US Blackhawk helicopter, The Wall Street Journal reports:

The three men who dismounted from the U.S. Black Hawk helicopter for the handover and approached the Taliban pickup truck carried no visible weapons, and were dressed in civilian clothes. One wore jeans.

An insurgent holding a white flag spoke with them briefly, the video shows. The Americans then shook hands with two of the Taliban, and waved at the other insurgents. They walked Sgt. Bergdahl to the Black Hawk and frisked him before boarding. Seconds later, the chopper lifted off.

The handover took exactly one minute, from the moment the Black Hawk touched down at the isolated site to the time it took off, according to the footage.

"When they landed, I was expecting to have words with them, but the soldiers were in a hurry and were so nervous. We shook hands with only a few of them before they fled," one of the insurgents involved in Sgt. Bergdahl's release says in the Taliban video.

A statement that accompanied the video quoted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar praising the concurrent release of five Taliban officials from the US prison at Guantánamo a “significant achievement” for the movement.

The exchange comes as the US is preparing to draw down its troops from 33,000 to less than 10,000 in 2015, and completely pull out in 2016.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that Bergdahl’s exchange might “be a new opening that can produce an agreement” between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which the US has been pushing for. 

A Taliban spokesman retorted that “It won’t help the peace process in any way, because we don’t believe in the peace process,” according to the Long War Journal.

In response to accusations that the Taliban release will be counterproductive, The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy writes that ending a war “requires hard choices, and that moment has arrived for the US.”

... it's also possibly that these men, older and wiser heads than many of the commanders in the field who have little political experience, will be interested in cutting deals with the Afghan government after so much bloodshed. With the group in Qatar for the next year, government representatives will have a chance to find out.

Journalist Anand Gopal, writing in 2010, told the tale of senior lieutenants of Taliban leader Mullah Omar getting together and planning to surrender to Karzai's government just as Kandahar was about to fall in 2001. The group sent a letter to Karzai, acknowledging him as the leader of Afghanistan, and promised no resistance when NATO sought to take Kandahar. The men sought immunity from prosecution in exchange for all this.

Karzai, aware that many of the warlords who had fought the Taliban were eager for revenge and that the US was not interested in dealing with the group, ignored the overture.

"Widespread intimidation and harassment of these former Taliban ensued," Gopal writes. "Sympathetic figures in the government told (Muhammad) Haqqani and others in the group that they should flee the country, for they would not be safe in Afghanistan. So the men eventually vanished across the border into Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. Many of the signatories of the letter were to become leading figures in the insurgency." 

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