KABUL — A video released by the Taliban on Wednesday documented the moment U.S. Special Forces personnel retrieved Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban fighters. It includes the first images of Bergdahl seen in many months and offers a rare glimpse into the insurgency’s operations.
In the video, Bergdahl can be seen wearing traditional Afghan clothes, his head shaven and his face strained. He is first seen waiting in a silver pickup truck while militants wait for an American Black Hawk helicopter to land. He is then led by two militants to U.S. Special Forces operators in civilian clothes after they dismount from the helicopter.
The release occurred on Saturday in exchange for five Afghan detainees held in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Their faces flash across the screen in the new video.
Throughout the clip, a man referred to as an “eyewitness mujahideen” explains what happened during the Bergdahl release. Another man holds a white flag. Many others stand armed in the distance.
“We have taken some tribal elders to get the confidence of the Americans,” he says. “The Americans told us to come forward with three guys.”
Another is heard telling Bergdahl: “Don’t come back to Afghanistan. If you come back, you will not leave alive.”
The Taliban fighter says he informed the Americans that “we are willing to come to any location you choose, but we would like to have assurance.” The captors claimed to have 18 fighters on the ground as backup, several of whom are seen in the footage.
The Black Hawk appears to be on the ground for about one minute, during which time Bergdahl is escorted away from his captors. The American service members pat Bergdahl down, checking for explosives, before helping him into the helicopter.
“We told [the Americans]: if he is not in good health, please tell us,” the Taliban member says in a voiceover.
According to the Taliban video, the release took place in a district of Khost province called Alisher. Two months earlier, insurgents stormed and destroyed a police checkpoint in the district, according to Afghan officials. Khost is considered a stronghold of the Haqqani network, the insurgent group believed to have held Bergdahl.
“We have no reason to doubt the video’s authenticity, but we are reviewing it. Regardless, we know the transfer was peaceful and successful, and our focus remains on getting Sgt. Bergdahl the care he needs,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
Also in the video, a narrator acknowledges “the efforts of the political team in Qatar.” That message, apparently referring to Taliban negotiators in Doha, was the first sign that the organization’s diplomatic office in Qatar was playing an active role.
The same video also includes footage of the Taliban detainees upon their arrival in Qatar. They are seen embracing other members of the organization who have been based in Doha for more than a year as part of the Taliban’s diplomatic office.
The newly released detainees are to be kept in Qatar for 12 months as part of the agreement between the United States, the Taliban and Qatar.
In a news conference Wednesday in Brussels, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked whether any U.S. service member was killed in the search for Bergdahl, who is believed to have slipped away from his platoon’s small outpost in Afghanistan’s Paktika province on June 30, 2009, after growing disillusioned with the U.S. military’s war effort. He was quickly captured by enemy forces and spirited across the border into Pakistan, where he was held captive by insurgents affiliated with the Taliban. At the time, some U.S. troops resented risking their lives for someone they considered a deserter.
“I do not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sergeant Bergdahl,” Hagel said after attending a NATO defense ministers’ meeting. “I am not aware of those specific details or any facts regarding that issue.”
He said the Army “will conduct a comprehensive review of all the circumstances regarding Sergeant Bergdahl’s disappearance . . . but let’s first focus on getting Sergeant Bergdahl well, getting his health back . . . reuniting him with his family.”
Hagel added: “Let’s not forget, Sergeant Bergdahl is a member of the United States armed forces. . . . Other questions will be dealt with at a later time.”
Asked whether military and congressional criticism of Bergdahl was warranted and whether he still deserves to be a sergeant, Hagel replied: “Until we get facts, until we have . . . a review of all the circumstances, it’s not in the interests of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sergeant Bergdahl’s family and to him to presume anything.”
Hagel, himself a former Army sergeant who served in Vietnam, said that “it’s not my place . . . to decide who’s worthy of being a sergeant and who isn’t, and I think any further talk of that is irresponsible.”
After his release, Bergdahl was flown to the U.S. military’s medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, where he is “still receiving care,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Wednesday aboard Air Force One.
Asked whether President Obama has seen the video of Bergdahl’s transfer, Rhodes said, “Not that I’m aware of.” In a news briefing for reporters traveling with Obama on his current European trip, Rhodes added: “We didn’t tape a video to release ourselves, but this was a very transparent exchange carefully negotiated, so it went off without surprises in terms of how it was executed.” He said that “we’re not surprised by the content of the video,” although “it was not our decision to put it out.”
Rhodes said the video is “certainly consistent with how that exchange had taken place.”
As a debate raged in the United States over the prisoner exchange that led to Bergdahl’s release, Afghans saw the handover through different lenses. To government-appointed peace negotiators, it meant a better chance at reconciliation with the Taliban. To Afghan military officials, it was a coup for the enemy.
But to Afghans living in the village where Bergdahl walked off the U.S. military outpost in 2009, it was another chapter in a perplexing American saga. Residents of Yusef Khel still remember the morning five years ago when a blank-faced U.S. soldier stumbled through their village.
“It was very confusing to us. Why would he leave the base?” said an elder in the village named Jamal, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. “The people thought it was a covert agenda — maybe he was sent to the village by the U.S.”
Locals remember Bergdahl walking through the village in a haze. They later told Afghan investigators that they warned Bergdahl he was walking into a dangerous area.
“They tried to tell him not to go there, that it is dangerous. But he kept going over the mountain. The villagers tried to give him water and bread, but he didn’t take it,” said Ibrahim Manikhel, the district’s intelligence chief.
“We think he probably was high after smoking hashish,” Manikhel said. “Why would an American want to find the Taliban?”
The villagers say Bergdahl wandered into Yusef Khel from the U.S. base, about a half-mile away. They still remember the massive search effort that followed his disappearance. But the village eventually returned to normal — albeit still with grave security problems — and few locals thought about Bergdahl until this week, when his face flashed across Afghan news programs.
“I had forgotten about that abducted American,” said Manikhel. “I hope the U.S. can rearrest the Talibs that they released.”
Meanwhile in Kabul, former members of the Taliban who have joined the Afghan government tried to assess what the prisoner exchange means for reconciliation efforts.
To Abdul Hakim Mujahid, once a Taliban diplomat and now the deputy director of the government’s High Peace Council, the role to be played by the newly released detainees depends on their experience at Guantanamo.
“If they were treated badly, they might go back to the battlefield,” he said.
Mujahid said the five detainees included some of the most important men in the Taliban’s ranks, who he expects will wield influence immediately.
“The commanders on the battlefield might be young, but the legitimacy of the fighting lies in the hands of these senior leaders,” he said.
Karen DeYoung in Brussels and Zachary A. Goldfarb aboard Air Force One contributed to this report.