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America's Last Prisoner of War

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The tensions came to a boil in January, when administration officials went to Capitol Hill to brief a handful of senators on the possibility of a prisoner exchange. The meeting, which excluded staffers, took place in a new secure conference room in the Capitol visitor center. According to sources in the briefing, the discussion sparked a sharp exchange between Senators John McCain and John Kerry, both of whom were decorated for their service in Vietnam. McCain, who endured almost six years of captivity as a prisoner of war, threw a fit at the prospect of releasing five Taliban detainees.

"They're the five biggest murderers in world history!" McCain fumed.

Kerry, who supported the transfer, thought that was going a bit far. "John," he said, "the five biggest murderers in the world?"

McCain was furious at the rebuke. "They killed Americans!" he responded. "I suppose Senator Kerry is OK with that?"

McCain reluctantly came around on the prisoner exchange, according to those present at the meeting, but he has continued to speak out against negotiating with the Taliban. Opposition has also come from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia who won election with a vicious smear campaign against former Sen. Max Cleland, a decorated Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs in the war. Chambliss, according to Bowe's father, has insisted that America shouldn't make a prisoner trade for a "deserter."

Some top-level officials within the administration, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are very wary about making a swap for Bowe. "Panetta and Hillary don't give a shit about getting him home," says one senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations. "They want to be able to say they COINed their way out of Afghanistan, or whatever, so it doesn't look like they are cutting and running." (Both Clinton and Panetta, by law, would have to sign off on any exchange.) As with Vietnam, many in the military are resisting any attempt to end the war. "Even after Robert Bales" – the Army staff sergeant charged with massacring 17 Afghan civilians in March – "they are making the argument that the war is turning a corner," says this official. "They don't realize that the mission is changing. We don't need all those U.S. soldiers there anymore."

Those in the Pentagon who oppose the prisoner exchange have insisted that the deal would send the wrong message to America's enemies. "The Pentagon is making the argument that American soldiers would become targets for kidnapping," says a senior administration official. "We pushed back on that. They already are – the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been using their resources to kidnap Americans for years." Prisoner exchanges take place at the ground level all the time in Afghani­stan, and Gen. David Petraeus, now the head of the CIA, has pointed out in discussions about Bowe that U.S. forces made distasteful swaps in Iraq – including one involving Qais Khazali, a Shiite extremist who orchestrated the kidnapping and execution of four U.S. soldiers in Karbala in 2007. Even a hard-line Israeli nationalist like Benjamin Netanyahu has recognized the value of a single soldier: In October, the prime minister agreed to free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli corporal who had been held captive by Hamas for five years. The move was overwhelmingly supported by the majority of Israelis. "The Israelis really care about the value of one life," says a senior U.S. official. "Does the American public?"

Despite the objections to the swap, U.S. officials involved in the negotiations this winter say they were on the verge of completing the deal to free Bowe. The White House had worked up talking points about Bowe, and was ready to go public about the exchange. (According to administration officials, the Pentagon insisted that the talking points note that Bowe had walked off base, to underscore that U.S. soldiers are not an easy target for kidnapping.) But at the last moment, the Taliban themselves balked at the deal, which stipulates that the detainees would not be allowed to leave the country of Qatar after their release. In March, faced with internal opposition over cutting a deal with the Americans, the Taliban abruptly suspended the peace talks. "Bowe Bergdahl has been a topic in any meeting we ever had with the Taliban," says a senior State Department official involved with the negotiations. "The Taliban suspended the talks on March 15th. We have not been in any contact with them since."

In a sense, Bowe represents a threat to anyone who wants to see the war continue – be they Taliban militants or Pentagon generals. Once the last American POW is released, there will be few obstacles standing in the way of a negotiated settlement. "It's the hard-liners on both sides who want to keep this thing going," says a White House official. "The Taliban is struggling with its own hard-liners. They need space, and this confidence-building measure could give them space."

There is still hope that a deal could get done – a hope that persists in the White House, in Bowe's old unit, and among Bowe's family. Over Memorial Day weekend, Bob and Jani Bergdahl traveled to Washington, D.C. A POW-advocacy organization called Rolling Thunder had asked Bob to give a speech at the group's annual gathering at the National Mall, the famous park across from the U.S. Capitol that hosted some of the most powerful anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam War. The parents accepted the invitation out of desperation. Bob has considered going over to Pakistan – he's grown a bushy beard, and he has sent his own YouTube video, directed at the Taliban, asking for his son's release. "I'll talk to them," he says. "I'll bring him home myself."

Bob and Jani had thought they might meet the president during their trip to Washington, but that didn't happen. Instead, Bob took to the microphone to speak directly to America, and, perhaps, to his son. In front of the podium crouched a man in a bamboo tiger cage, a symbolic piece of theater the organization presents each year to remind everyone of prisoners of war from another era.

"My son is not in a cage, but he is in chains," Bob said. "Bowe, if you can hear me, you are not forgotten, and so help me God, we will bring you home. Your family has not forgotten you, your hometown has not forgotten you, Idaho has not forgotten you, and thanks to all the people here, Washington, D.C., will not forget you."

When he was finished, he grasped the hand of the man in the tiger cage. The man looked startled. It seemed like a long time since anyone had stepped forward to acknowledge he was there.

Matthew Farwell, a former soldier who deployed to Afghanistan, contributed additional reporting to this story.

This is from the June 21st, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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