The electrifying video below depicts the tense moments before, during and after Bowe Bergdahl's transfer between Taliban and US Special Operations and possibly CIA or State Department personnel. Here's a breakdown of what it means.
It starts with Bergdahl, a five year captive of NW Pakistan's mafia-like fundamentalist organization known as the Haqqani Network, being shown sitting in the back of a Toyota Hilux pickup truck that is surrounded by Taliban fighters armed with AK-47s and RPGs. Bergdahl can be seen cleanly shaven (for either Taliban propaganda purposes, US identification purposes, or both) squinting and blinking his eyes rapidly, which makes sense as he was most likely blindfolded f0r the trip to the extraction point.
One, and then two MC-12W Liberty Information, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft can be seen loitering high overhead as the militants arrange themselves on the hillsides and wait for the Americans to arrive. These aircraft were specifically built for operations in Afghanistan and provide unarmed over-watch, communications intercept and relay functions for ISAF forces. It is very logical that these aircraft were watching the exchange point long before the Taliban arrived and possibly communicating with the Taliban principal seen holding a large radio in the video. These aircraft have the ability to data-link what they are seeing and hearing back to a ground station within line of sight or up to satellites overhead. In other words, the MC-12Ws was the eyes and ears of the operation.
The two Taliban vehicles in the video, the silver Toyota truck and a white van, both have their hoods popped, which was most likely part of the terms for the exchange so that US forces could identify them as "in the loop" when it comes extraction. It also separates the vehicles from possible strays that could have unknowingly stumbled upon the tense military operation. Also, having hoods popped during the fragile exchange would leave the Taliban fighters in a slightly less ready state would they have decided to run or execute an ambush on the incoming extraction helicopter.
Next, the Taliban fighters close to the truck get together for what may be the worst military chant of all time, after which Bergdahl's handler comes over to him to give him what looks like final instructions and possibly positive reinforcement before the hand-off. At which time "Don' come back to afghanistan" is branded onto the screen. Then a Blackhawk helicopter can be seen off in the distance. It performs some observation passes a couple miles away before making its approach, at which time Bergdahl is seen standing outside of the vehicle and flanked by the two Taliban principals, one carrying a stick with a white flag on it and the radio, the other with a small GPS or cell phone in his hands.
The Blackhawk makes its cautious approach to the landing zone and it becomes clear that it is not a plain Army "slick" UH-60, but an MH-60M. This late-model special operations modified Blackhawk is flown by the 160th SOAR "Nightstalkers," the same unit that flew their stealthy Blackhawks full of DEVGRU operatives into Abbottabad to take down Bin Laden. Another helicopter can be seen briefly in the distance as the main MH-60M makes its final approach to the landing zone.
Meanwhile Taliban fighters armed with AK-47s and RPGs can be seen scattered around the landscape, their muted clothing colors blending in extremely well with their surroundings. At this point it appears clear that the MH-60M is a sitting duck. If the Taliban wanted to destroy it they probably could have with ease, along with everyone on-board.
The MH-60 makes soft landing maybe 75 meters from Bergdahl and his two escorts. They then move forward while three non-uniformed, presumably unarmed Americans run towards them after disembarking the waiting helicopter. Bergdahl is seen carrying a plastic bag with contents in it. The six men meet in the open space between the helicopter and the trucks, they shake hands, wave and have a quick verbal exchange with one-another.
The risk surrounding that moment in time, where the plain-clothes operatives approach the Taliban escorts and Beghdahl was massive. One cannot help but draw some parallels to this exchange and the ambush suicide bombing conducted by a terrorist triple agent doctor at Camp Chapman in 2009, which was also located in Khost Province not far from where this exchange was said to have occurred.
Bergdahl is very lightly frisked by the main American representitive, and the Americans wave goodbye gleefully and make haste back to the MH-60 which has a mini-gun at the ready and has a couple troops in uniform standing by its main cabin door. Before getting into the helicopter, one of the American operators fully frisks Bergdahl, presumably for explosive devices, and tosses his plastic bag full of who knows what on the ground. Once everyone is back on-board, which only takes seconds, the helicopter makes a nose-low, low-altitude departure from the scene.
Total time that the MH-60 was on the ground: 60 seconds
The full version of the video, which can be seen at the bottom of the page, ends with the same "Don' come back to afghanistan" copy as was seen in the middle of the video.
So, we got our guy back, whether he is an honorable soldier, a deserter or a traitor is another story, and the Taliban got five of their supposedly most valuable players back in exchange. Whether these men remain an actual threat to America after 12 years of captivity is unknown, but they surely represent one hell of a propaganda coup for the Taliban, and you would think that they will want something in return for their bought freedom.
What remains unclear is what exactly the Haqqani Network, which is more Tony Soprano than Usama Bin Laden, gets out of all this. They held Bergdahl for five years, something that ties up resources and costs money. I would be flabbergasted if there was not some sort of dollar figure involved here in regards to satisfying their side of the deal. Maybe the U.S. did not pay them, but the Taliban could have. Under such a "deal structure" the Taliban would have bought Bergdahl from the Haqqanis and in turn they would have exchanged him for five main figures held at Guantanamo Bay. Either way, a known terrorist organization may have ended up with a serious load of cash in the process of making this deal happen. This is not to mention that the U.S. has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists when it comes to ransoms has now been shattered, which could have negative implication for Americans, especially those in uniform, traveling or working abroad.
The Taliban also got the tape we have broken down here, which is a huge propaganda tool considering where America stands now in regards to its force posture in Afghanistan. Some may see this exchange, and the video that goes with it, as a first step in reconciliation and normalization in relations between the Taliban and the US, while others will see it as America looking extremely weak in the eyes of a culture that does not see time, technology or the value of human life in the same light as we do in the west.
The video clearly feels like this exchange was made on the Taliban's terms. They held the ground, they had the firepower ready to kill every single American in that helicopter at a moments notice, and these were not just any Americans, they were special operators and potentially CIA or State Department operatives. That helicopter, and the MC-12Ws loitering above, with all their capabilities, were really quite helpless in that environment if things did not go according to plan. Basically all the Americans involved had their lives temporarily in the hands of the very enemy we have sworn to decimate over the last decade.
Even the overtly friendly demeanor on behalf of the Americans during the exchange could be easily perceived as a sign of weakness to many in that part of the world. Bergdahl was being held captive and was used as collateral for releasing high value individuals being held at camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, so these men were not our friends no matter how many smiles and handshakes those operators gave them. They are the same people who stone girls for getting raped and hang people for flying kites. This was simply a good business deal for the Taliban and the Haqqanis, nothing more.
Then there was the final scene of the video, the low, plodding departure of the Blackhawk helicopter as the Taliban stand there seemingly without a worry in the world. We left their area of operations with the prisoner they decided to give us. Literally, the MH-60 turned tail an left. Imagery of iconic US helicopters made to look broken and feeble are a staple of America's worst military endeavors abroad. The evacuation of Americans from South Vietnam, Operation Eagle Claw and the Blackhawk Down incident in Mogadishu are all burnt into America's consciousness. Now, with the winding down of Operation Enduring Freedom and the rise in violence in a place where we have spilled blood in for over a decade, the Afghan people's freedom is in no way guaranteed. Some would argue that the very best outcome at this point in Afghanistan would be a feudal narc0-state, not a flourishing democracy.
As the lumbering Blackhawk thumps away from the scene slowly, the screen says "Don' come back to afghanistan." This may be much more than just a message to Mr. Bergdahl, it may be an ominous prophecy of things to come as our presence in that war torn country dwindles down to just a handful of soldiers over the next year. A metaphor I have heard more than once concerning our strategy in Afghanistan vis-a-vis the Taliban comes eerily to mind after watching this video that depicts not just a standoff between enemies, but one seemingly between the ages:
"America may have all the clocks, but the Taliban have all the time..."
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com