By Chris Nashawaty
Updated March 03, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
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Credit: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images
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When we last left off two weeks ago, Serial seemed to be losing whatever steam it had built up so far. It had become maddeningly elliptical, occasionally glib, and well, just not as compelling as I think a lot of holdover fans from season 1 had hoped. Season 2 has been frustratingly up and down; sucking tus in one week only to make us wait and wait then push us away with the next installment. It’s pretty much been the definition of inconsistent. But in this week’s chapter (which was made available today), the Bowe Bergdahl saga got back on track with what was a fascinating tick-tock timeline about the years of covert, behind-the-scenes fits-and-starts diplomacy between the U.S. government and the Taliban leading up to the Army sergeant’s release after five years in captivity.

The episode begins with the May 31, 2014 release of Bergdahl in a top-secret exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Bergdahl is picked up by U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan and whisked off in a helicopter. He’s still in rough shape after so many years as a prisoner. He couldn’t talk right away. He wasn’t able to successfully make the words travel from his head to his tongue. Meanwhile, the five Taliban detainees in orange jumpsuits are flown in a C-17 military plane to Doha, Qatar and freedom. Back in the U.S., the response of many when they hear the news of the prisoner exchange is anger and disbelief: We negotiated with terrorists (something, as a government policy, we simply don’t do) and gave them five inmates for just one U.S. soldier?! And not just any U.S. soldier, but one who many felt (and apparently continue to feel) was a deserter?! The main question of this episode becomes: How did this develop into the solution to get Bowe Bergdahl home?

Host Sarah Koenig refrains from her occasional lapses into snark and editorializing to give us just the facts – and it helps “Trade Secrets” become one of the best episodes of the season so far. In order to tell us how we got to May 31, 2014, she has to backtrack and unpack the long, snarled history of mostly-failed diplomacy between the U.S. government and the Taliban. A lot of this has already been reported elsewhere. In fact, quite a bit of it can be found in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2014 memoir about her years as Secretary of State, Hard Choices. But let’s treat it like it’s new here. Koenig begins by explaining the frustrations and tensions faced by veteran U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke – the same Bill Clinton administration statesman who brokered the Dayton Accords for the Balkan crisis in late 1995. Working directly for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2009, Holbrooke was a believer in opening diplomatic talks with the Taliban despite the misgivings of his ultimate boss, President Obama. Obama believed in a military surge instead. The Obama White House was a house divided when it came to the path to peace in Afghanistan.

Not everyone in the Obama administration wanted to talk with the Taliban. But, surprisingly, it turned out that the Taliban was interested in talking to us. Holbrooke established back-channel communications with a Taliban rep, whom he nicknamed “A-Rod.” The U.S. then held a secret meeting with the Taliban just outside of Munich in 2010 – a year after Bergdahl had been captured. Bergdahl, however, was not the top priority (or a priority at all) in those initial sit-downs. The U.S. demanded that the Taliban stop fighting, that it break with Al Qaeda, and that it support the Afghan constitution, including rights for women and girls. For their part, the Taliban wanted some of its prisoners released. At first, they requested four prisoners being held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. And just when things were looking up between the two sides at the tail end of 2010, Holbrooke died from a ruptured aorta. The fragile first steps of diplomacy died with him.

Whatever progress was made in the last days of Holbrooke’s life was finally scrapped when, in the summer of 2011, the Washington Post and Der Spiegel revealed the identity of A-Rod, our diplomatic partner from the Taliban. This enraged the Taliban, and their demands were upped. They no longer wanted the Bagram prisoners, they wanted five prisoners (of their choosing) from Gitmo. This is when progress skids to a halt … for more than two years. Then, in 2013, talks resume. At this point, Bergdahl had been a prisoner for four years. And now, the Taliban run a new set of demands up the flagpole. They want a diplomatic office set up in Doha, Qatar, thus giving them a sort of legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Easy enough. But the problem is that by giving them this symbolic bit of real estate, the U.S. will spark the anger of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. With some assurances to Karzai, the office is set up in the summer of 2013. But the situation immediately goes pear-shaped as the Taliban uses sovereign language on a sign on the front of the building that they were told not to use. It’s just the latest in a daisy chain of diplomatic snafus. Once again, talks go mute.

In 2014, the Taliban once again approach the U.S. saying they want to make a deal. Not for the peace plan the Americans are hoping for as they eye the door on the way out of Afghanistan. But instead, they want to put the prospect of a prisoner swap back on the table. The call was Obama’s to make. The U.S. requested proof of life for Bergdahl before moving forward. And they got it. A video of the sergeant from Hailey, Idaho, that showed him to be in pretty bad shape. According to Koenig (who didn’t see the video, but spoke to people who did), Berghdahl’s speech was incoherent. Physically, he looked like he might not last much longer. It was getting urgent. If this was going to happen, it was going to happen soon – preferably before the U.S. completely pulled up stakes in the country. With the Qataris as the intermediaries, the deal is hammered out. The Taliban will get the five specific Gitmo prisoners they handpicked and, in return, we would get Bergdahl. On May 29, 2014, the swap is set into motion – but it doesn’t go off without nail-biting snags and stalling.

Diplomacy of any sort is a game in which someone wins and someone loses. Good diplomacy is when both sides feel like they lost. But Koenig, quite rightly I think, suggests that this prisoner exchange was a game that the Taliban won. This is not to downplay the importance of getting Bergdahl back safely and soundly. Not only did the U.S. violate its long-held policy to not deal with terrorists, it also didn’t walk away with any sort of peace deal with the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Taliban got five of their members back, a headquarters in Qatar, and relieved themselves of the burden of a prisoner they didn’t much want in the first place.

The episode ends with an audio clip of Obama in a Rose Garden press conference announcing Bergdahl’s release. It’s clear that he’s spinning it as a moment of diplomatic triumph. The sting in the tail of the whole thing is that Bowe’s long-suffering parents claim they have been promised that when their son returns home he won’t be punished as he’s already been through enough. Which, of course, is not how things shook out since Bergdahl now faces the prospect of a court martial and possible long stretch behind bars.

Serial

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