Bergdahl exchange marked by surreal handshake

By JAMES ROSEN AND HANNAH ALLAM | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: June 4, 2014

WASHINGTON — Just before Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl slowly walked away from five years as a POW, something remarkable happened.

An American who had come to accompany Bergdahl to freedom reached out and shook the hand of one of Bergdahl’s Taliban captors.

It was a fleeting gesture of forced peace between two forces after almost 13 years of war.

The almost surreal handshake is one of several dramatic glimpses of this late chapter in the long war that played out at dusk Saturday in a rugged patch of eastern Afghanistan. It was contained in video footage released Wednesday by the Taliban and appeared on one of the Afghan insurgents’ websites.

Bergdahl’s release was part of a 17-minute newscast-style propaganda clip that also showed the five former Taliban officials freed in exchange for Bergdahl arriving to a hero’s welcome at the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar.

The video is the first glimpse into the high-stakes turnover of the sole U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, a feat that has drawn both praise and criticism for President Barack Obama.

Bergdahl’s release occurred amid the scrubby mountainous terrain typical of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As he arrives in a silver pickup with red decals on its side, Taliban guards with AK-47 assault rifles stand along the surrounding mountain ridges.

One of the mountain sentries holds a loaded RPG — rocket-propelled grenade launcher — with two rounds on his back.

Bergdahl, dressed in white traditional Afghan garb, sits in the back seat of the truck. The beard and short crew cut seen in videos released earlier in his captivity are gone, his head now bald. Appearing tense and almost dazed, he blinks his eyes repeatedly, perhaps against blowing sand coming through the open truck door. At one point he licks his lips and later purses them in a slight grimace.

One of the Taliban standing guard outside the truck holds a homemade white flag of truce.

As U.S. surveillance planes circle overhead, another Taliban guard outside the truck proclaims: “Allahu Akbar!” It means “God is greatest.”

Another Taliban captor leans into the truck. He is seen talking with Bergdahl and gesturing at him. A translation is superimposed in large black letters on the Taliban screen: “Don’t come back to Afghanistan.”

Several U.S. Blackhawk helicopters appear over the horizon.

Bergdahl stands outside the truck, a gray-checkered scarf over his shoulders, as the Blackhawks descend and land. He’s flanked on either side by Taliban, one holding the stick with the white flag. Three Americans leave one of the choppers. Possibly special forces members, they’re dressed in civilian clothes.

The Americans approach Bergdahl. One of them places his right hand on the sergeant’s shoulder, then briefly reaches out with his left hand and shakes the right hand of one of Bergdahl’s captors. As the Americans turn to take Bergdahl to the Blackhawk, one of them raises his arm and gives a thumbs-up signal to the waiting crew.

The small group reaches the chopper. Two Americans frisk Bergdahl before he boards. As the chopper lifts off, a crewman waves farewell to the Taliban.

Jonathan S. Landay of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.

A video screen grab shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sitting in a vehicle guarded by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.


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