Idaho Town Awaits Deal With Taliban That Will Bring POW Home

By Jessica Robinson

Four years. That's how long Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been a prisoner of the Taliban. The soldier from Hailey, Idaho remains the lone American POW from the Afghan conflict. Now, Bergdahl's parents are calling on the U.S. to reach an agreement that will bring their son home. But any deal hangs precariously on peace talks involving the Taliban, and the weekend saw yet another setback.

More than 1,500 people gathered in the sun at a park in Hailey over the weekend. The rally here for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had taken on a spirit celebration. Just days before, the Taliban said publicly was willing to release the 27-year-old in exchange for five senior Taliban operatives the U.S. is holding at Guantanamo Bay.

A member of a POW support group shows off her Bowe button. Photo by Jessica RobinsonWhen Bergdahl's father, Bob, took the stage, there was optimism in his voice.

“I will not leave you on the battlefield, Bowe," he said. "These people here will not leave you on the battlefield. Your country will not leave you on the battlefield. You are not forgotten! You will not be forgotten!” 

For four long years, Bergdahl's hometown near Sun Valley has followed the ups and downs of maybes and maybe-nots in attempts to bring Bowe home. This year, Debbie O'Neill, a friend of Bob and Jani Bergdahl, arranged to have trees planted for each year of Bowe's captivity.

“We don't want to plant a fifth tree," O'Neill said. "It's not acceptable to have an American be held a POW.”

The up-mood inspired by last week's Taliban offer of a prisoner swap lasted through Saturday. But by Sunday, the tenuous preparations in Qatar started breaking down. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed doubts that the Taliban and the U.S. would be able to come to the negotiating table any time soon.

Talks with the Taliban appear to be the most likely path home for Bowe Bergdahl. But even this route isn't certain. The idea of negotiating with the militant group has already started raising hackles on radio and TV talk shows.

A member of a POW support group shows off her Bowe button. Photo by Jessica Robinson

“We're now negotiating … with terrorists!” Fox & Friends said. 
“And I'd like to add that I'm, as a woman, incensed that my government is talking to the Taliban,” On Point caller said. 
“We also have to be very careful about releasing people who are the worst of the worst,” Michael Chertoff said on CNN.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is speculation about how Bergdahl was captured in the first place. Early reports indicated he walked off his base in southern Afghanistan.

But that didn't stop hundreds of members of veteran and POW support groups coming to the Bring Bowe Back rally. Some rode more than a thousand miles by motorcycle. Navy vet Bill Atkinson has helped raise money to put up billboards of Bergdahl outside Chicago. He says he doesn't care what agreement the U.S. has to make for the soldier's safe return.

“I mean there's always deals being made by this country," Atkinson said. "And to not do whatever we can to get him home, I think is sinful.”

From the stage, Bowe's father, Bob Bergdahl, described a son who sought adventure and joined the military because he wanted to help the Afghan people. Since his son's capture, Bob Bergdahl has studied the Quran. He's let his beard grow out, giving him a resemblance to how Bowe's captors look in Taliban propaganda videos.

Bob recited a message to the crowd in the Pashto language.

“'May the peace of God and the blessings that come from God be upon you,'" he said. "May we somehow, after 12 long years, find peace in Afghanistan, so that our soldiers and our American personnel come home. Can we push this forward and make this happen, I plead to Almighty God.” 

In his 10-minute speech, the normally reclusive Bergdahl addressed the Taliban directly. He asked them to look at him just as father hoping to see his son again.

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