Sarah Koenig interviews a Taliban spokesman and uncovers the story of Bergdahls kidnap while also showing she doesnt understand Taliban humour
It feels like a lot longer than a week since Serials first episode of its second season aired. In real life Bowe Bergdahls story has moved on substantially, with the news on Monday that Bergdahl will face a court martial (1) for his alleged desertion.
The story also made its way into the presidential race with Bergdahls attorney, Eugene Fidell, saying Donald Trump should stop his prejudicial months-long campaign of defamation against Bergdahl after the Republican frontrunner said he should be shot. Websites have produced primers on the case, guides and more primers, videos asking whether Bergdahl is a hero or deserter, and podcasts on what to expect at the court marshall. But were not focusing on that right now. Episode two is all about the story of his capture, as told through an interview with the Taliban, which was the carrot left dangling in front of our noses at the end of last weeks episode.
I was talking on the phone to this Taliban fighter
Sarah Koenig brings us up to date with Bergdahls court marshall, summing it up in her signature laconic manner. The armys in two minds whether to throw the book at him, she says, or say: OK, yes. He screwed up in a huge way but five years with the Taliban? Enough is enough. Its delivered with a tone that suggests hes a naughty child who has eaten his siblings birthday cake.
I was talking on the phone to this Taliban fighter, Koenig continues, as if its something you do everyday. They discuss the loss of life both sides suffered in order to retain Bergdahl or free him. The Taliban lost 15 fighters in one raid. So, was it worth it? Some people are worth more than 1,000 individuals and he was worth more than 5,000, the Taliban spokesman responds (2).
Then were presented with a contradiction of Bergdahls story: he says he was snatched by men on motorbikes. A local stringer who worked for Mark Boal says people told him that Bergdahl was often seen near a local village and that Taliban fighters had wanted to grab him for a while, ultimately capturing him by pretending to be local police while the soldier was in a Kochi tent. Bergdahl says thats not true. This exchange is a lot like season ones back-and-forth, except instead of former school friends weve got the word of one of the most famous US soldiers in the world and, well, the Taliban.
A ready-made loaf
Bergdahls appearance in a Kochi tent and capture by the nomadic people is seen as utterly miraculous by the Taliban fighter. How could this enemy of the Quran just stroll into their lives? Theres an insight into Taliban banter here as well. They claim that when Bergdahl was taken, he kicked one of the Pakistani Taliban, to which the others (who were mostly Afghan) joked: He knew you were Pakistani! Oddly, Koenig says she didnt get the joke it is hardly complex.
The fun continues with a story about how the Taliban thought Bergdahl was drunk when he was captured, but they had to admit it was a slightly flawed accusation because: 1. theyd never seen a drunk person, and 2. they assume all westerners are drunk anyway.
Amid the jokes is Bergdahls version of events. Hes definitely sober while explaining that he knew he needed to carefully judge when to push things and when not to, because the consequences could be serious, deadly even. It doesnt matter how many kung fu movies you watch you need to be realistic when youre facing these people, he says, bringing up another film reference after the Bourne one last week.
It was a new kind of crisis
Bergdahls capture was an entirely new scenario in the Afghan/US conflict, says Koenig. But the US knew he would be moved constantly with the ultimate aim of getting to home base or in Tom and Jerry terms the hole in the wall where Tom cant go. But the Taliban knew the US would be thinking that, so first they went west to Ghazni province. Theres a handy map on the Serial website for anyone who wants to visualise this. Ghazni was the scene of a recent Taliban jailbreak, and also where Afghan forces repelled 2,000 insurgents. Bergdahl was to be handed to a group in Pakistan, and the US were looking for him and threatening to hunt anyone who didnt cooperate.
One of the most interesting parts of the series so far is the cultural differences presented and the genuine humour. When Bergdahl was refusing to eat and clearly depressed, the Taliban did a traditional dance for him in a field while they were hiding from US searches. It was meant to boost his morale but because he didnt have a clue what was going on it had the opposite effect. Bergdahl doesnt remember any dance. Theres a bit of Adam Curtiss Bitter Lake here or, to a lesser extent, the sinister undertones and gallows humour of Errol Morriss Standard Operating Procedure.
I think a lot of us would have shot him
If we would have found him I think a lot of us would have shot him, says Darryl Hanson, one of Bergdahls fellow soldiers. Another says they Haaaaaated him. Its a really interesting contrast to the bemused excitement and begrudging hospitality of the Taliban. The DUSTWUN lasted 45 days. Planes, helicopters, drones: hundreds of people snapped into action because as the US army creed goes: Leave no one behind.
They were flown into villages and made to check every house and all the women to make sure Bergdahl wasnt disguised. Wikileaks reports show the scale of the search. They were actually right outside a house where he was being kept but missed him. It sounds like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Koenig sets up the contrast between the US (big machine hurtling through Afghanistan in a slapdash way) and the Taliban (smaller, honed to be able to travel freely and quickly). We zoom out here to show how, because of the USs ultimately short-term approach to Afghanistan, the Taliban were able to regroup and seep back into areas like Ghazni (3).
It was a tough, tough meeting, says a battalion leader, who had to inform wives and relatives of soldiers who were searching for Bergdahl that it was dangerous. Morale was low in the soldiers, and fights broke out. Leaders tried to regain morale by handing out cans of beer and telling dirty jokes. But it was pointless because Bowe was in Jerrys mouse hole, AKA Pakistan: Bowe would spend the next year learning how to escape. Next time on Serial. Looks like were going to Pakistan.
- Everything thats revealed on the podcast is admissible evidence during the court marshall.
- Thanks for your comments from last week, Ive taken them on board.
- A ready-made loaf is a brilliant expression and arguably should have been the title of the episode.
- Sarah Koenig doesnt get Taliban banter.
- Pop culture reference watch: last week the Bourne films. This week – kung fu flicks.
- The kung fu reference cuts both ways though, and it is slightly amusing that the Taliban thought Bergdahl was a trained martial artist.
- Ranking the cliffhangerness of the Next time on Serial sign-offs: this week was a 6/10 cliffhanger, last week was around 8/10.
- It seems like bad jokes are a universal for soldiers in conflict.