So there was a ransom in the works. Fox News heard whispers about that soon after Bergdahl was released. So did the Free Beacon, from an intel official who speculated that a criminal syndicate like the Haqqani Network would have been much more interested in cash than prisoners.
If you believe BuzzFeed, though, it wasn’t the U.S. government that was considering a ransom, it was Bergdahl’s father. And it’s unclear if it was a pipe dream or something he might have actually pulled off.
Robert Bergdahl, the soldier’s father, did not return calls for comment. However, David Rohde, an American journalist who was himself held hostage by the Taliban in 2008, communicates with the family regularly and asked the father about the second channel of negotiations described by the two sources. The father, he said, acknowledges setting up “multiple channels” to the Taliban, because he was willing to try anything to free his son. But the father, a retired UPS worker, insisted that he did not take this effort seriously, that there was never an actual ransom price discussed, and that he never raised money for a ransom…
It’s unclear how much, if anything, the U.S. government knew about this channel. One former American official involved in the formal negotiations was dismissive of the father’s outreach. “There was nothing serious about those efforts,” he said. “They were not plausible. There is always background noise in things like this. It wasn’t serious enough to merit attention.”
So it was a pipe dream. Or … was it?
[In the fall of 2013] the Taliban negotiated on both fronts, for the cash on one hand and for the prisoners on the other, as if hedging their bets.
The cash, at least to the two sources familiar with this channel, seemed to be winning out. “These financial negotiations were more advanced then the prisoner talks,” one source said. “They were really close to getting this done,” said the other.
But there were still plenty of unknowns, including how Bergdahl’s father would have raised the ransom money if a deal had been reached. One theory is that a friendly government in the Middle East would have contributed the cash. And even if the deal were struck, could the actual release have gone through?
So it wasn’t a pipe dream? I’m confused. But this is important news if the White House knew about it. One of BuzzFeed’s sources claims that Bob Bergdahl kept his ransom negotiations “close to the vest” — but obviously not so close to prevent a story like this one from coming out. Also, Bergdahl’s parents reportedly had “extraordinary insider access” to the military’s hunt for their son, replete with video conferences involving senior commanders and White House and State Department officials. Hard to believe Bergdahl’s father wouldn’t have mentioned the ransom option to his government liaisons at any point, especially given the potential risk to his son from any miscommunications. If government negotiators had been close to freeing Bowe and then Bob Bergdahl surprised them by swooping in with a ransom offer out of the blue, the Taliban might have gotten confused or suspicious and backed out altogether. It was in his interest to let the White House know.
And if the White House did know, the question arises: Why’d they go ahead with the prisoner swap for the Taliban Five if Bergdahl’s captors would have taken cash from private sources instead? Both are unpalatable options; arguably the ransom would have been harder to sell politically to Americans than a prisoner swap would, since the former feels like pure appeasement while the latter has some military tradition. Apparently, though, it was on the table, and it would have kept five bad actors from returning to the battlefield had it gone through. So why’d they do a trade instead? One possibility, as BuzzFeed notes, is that the White House regarded the swap as a confidence-building measure that would hopefully bring the Taliban around on broader peace talks. But that’s goofy, if true: The U.S. has been reaching out for talks for years and has been rebuffed at every turn. The other possibility is that Obama really was and is hellbent on closing Gitmo, and only a prisoner swap would accomplish that goal. If he (or a Sunni ally) had paid the $10 million, he’d still be stuck with figuring out what to do with the Taliban Five. A straight-up exchange solved his problem while the ransom didn’t. Go figure that the exchange won out.