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Serial Season 2, Episode 3 and 4: recap and the questions that need answering

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Spoiler alert: Do not read what follows if you've not already listened to the first four episodes of Serial season 2

Just before Christmas, we learnt how Beau Bergdahl survived his first year with the Taliban. This is a solider, by the way, who had very little training in how to do so. Still, survive he did and we hear the finer details of those initial 365 days.

As a military debriefer clarifies, there were three phases to Bergdahl’s containment: torture, abuse, and neglect. He was blindfolded, and shackled, spread eagle, on a bed, with diarrhea for three years. But he quickly learnt how to get by: don’t ask for things (they’re likely to be withheld), make yourself stink (so your captors won’t want to come near you) and appear weaker than you might actually be. Also, observe everything. Bergdahl paid attention to any scrap of detail: the daily patterns of his captors, their voices, the sound of drones flying overhead, that might indicate to where he was imprisoned. He figured out that he was in North Waziristan because a boy took off his school cap.

Then he tried to bomb it out of there – twice. For those still convinced Bergdahl was a Taliban sympathiser, this should seal the he-wasn’t-a-traitor deal. His first attempt, which lasted 10 minutes, resulted in a beating with a rubber hose and copper cable. Second time round he planned a bit better, spending month’s collecting tools —an eight-inch length of PVC pipe, a nail, a key. He then escapes, falls off a cliff face, injures the entire left side of his body and spends nine days hiding in remote northwest Pakistan. The Taliban, of course, find him. As Bergdahl explains: “that escape was the last time I saw stars until the night Special Forces picked me up. That was a long time.”

Host Sarah Koenig finishes the episode by promising to delve into what it took to bring Beau Bergdahl back home. Or, in her words: “these huge military and diplomatic forces about to kick in.” Is that what we get in episode four? Not exactly. If the previous episode detailed the first year of Bergdahl’s life, what came next is “the rest of it”. That “long time” Bergdahl refers to is four more years in captivity, when the Taliban decided it was best to keep their prisoner in a six-foot-wide metal cage.

This episode gets into the nitty gritty. The sort of episode where you have to keep pressing the 15-second rewind button to keep up. Just us? Anyway, Bergdahls’ retelling of his life as a prisoner of war is pretty confined: he was locked up for most of it, couldn’t move, and couldn’t speak his captor’s language. So to help us imagine what life was like for him, Koenig speaks to David Rohde, a journalist and author who spent seven months in captivity after being kidnapped outside of Kabul in 2008. He, and Koenig, point out several times that his conditions were far better than Bergdahl’s. For one, he was held alongside two Afghans, his translator and his driver, so he could understand what was going on around him. All three escaped, just weeks before Berghdahl’s capture, which may have contributed to the harshness of Bergdahl’s experience: they weren’t going to let an American slip through their fingers twice.

What Rhode does help with is the geopolitics occurring outside Berghdahl’s tiny cage. Bergdahl was captured by the Haqqani family, part of the Taliban (they use the same stationery), in 2009. They operated in North Waziristan, the region of Pakistan where he was held. But the family is Afghan, their roots are in Afghanistan. At this time, they played an intermediary role between Afghanistan, the Pakistani government and the Taliban. In other words, they Haqqani’s are an extremely powerful, militarily affective organisation. The New York Times calls them “the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war.”

It’s all pretty complicated. And detailed. Which is fine, but, at this point, it feels like a lot of filler. We can only presume (and hope) that these details will become important at a later date, even if it’s not clear what those are right now.

We also learn about Bergdahl’s torture: sessions of 60-70 slow cuts on his chest by a man who never removed his mask, and mentally, by depriving him of any determinable schedule. Interestingly, Bergdahl never lost his mind. As a psychologist explains in the episode: “If you’ve survived captivity you’re more or less psychologically healthy. PTSD maybe, but not crazy, because as soon as you start to lose your mind your chance of surviving goes down.” The guy went through some seriously tough times, but we already knew that, right? And we’ve semi-established he’s no Taliban sympathiser – so what’s the fuss? Where’s the face-slapping twist?

The questions that need answering:

  • When are things going to heat up? Seriously. This is basically a series on the geopolitics of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. And how the Taliban fitted in to that. Where’s the heated debate? The agonising back and forth?
  • What’s actually new? He deserted his post, no one is disputing that fact. But is there anything Koenig can add to the story that we can’t Google ourselves? (Minus recordings from Bergdahl himself).  
  • Did the US care about bringing him home? Though, that looks set to (finally) be the topics of next week’s episode. 

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