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Taliban Wants to Exchange U.S. Soldier for ‘Lady Al-Qaeda’

Last week, a jury in a New York federal court convicted Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui on two counts of attempted murder. In 2008, while detained in Afghanistan, Siddiqui grabbed a rifle and fired at Army officers and FBI agents. Now, in the newest twist in the saga of the female terrorist dubbed “Lady al-Qaeda” by the New York press, Siddiqui’s family members have appealed to the Taliban to facilitate her release. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared last week:

Give us Siddiqui and we will give you captured U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

Bergdahl’s story is its own strange tale, rife with rumor and conjecture. Accounts vary as to how he wound up a prisoner of the Taliban in the first place. The Taliban’s Mujahid says his fighters kidnapped Pfc. Bergdahl last June from Afghanistan’s Paktika province near Pakistan’s border with South Waziristan.

But KTVB-7 in Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, has a different version of the story. They say that the 23-year-old soldier “befriended some natives” while serving in Afghanistan, and “while out with them during his time off, he was taken hostage.” Shortly after his capture, Fox commentator Ralph Peters called Bergdahl a “deserter” and said that he deserves what’s coming to him. “The Taliban can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills,” Peters said.

Following Peters’ comments, Malcolm Nance — a 25-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community’s counterterrorism efforts — came to Bergdahl’s defense. Nance said that analysts who dared second-guess a soldier’s actions “are a disgrace.” He insisted that far more important was the fact that Bergdahl had managed to survive as long as he had. That was seven months ago.

Like all hostages, Bergdahl is under immense psychological stress. … His fate rests on the unknown and his life and freedom are in the hands of others. Already, he has managed to make it well past a point where other, more hardnosed soldiers would have been killed.

The Pentagon denies that Bergdahl deserted. After speaking with senior military and Pentagon officials in Washington and in Afghanistan, NBC’s Pentagon correspondent, Jim Miklaszewski, offered these strange details about what Bergdahl did before he left base:

He did leave his post by himself. He came off his post on June 30, dropped off his weapon and his body armor, grabbed a bottle of water, a compass, and a knife and took off on his own. And it was sometime after that, apparently, that some local militants grabbed him and turned him over to the Taliban. Now should he have left his post alone? Of course not. But it doesn’t make him a deserter.

Finally, the Army confirms that it has opened an investigation, called an AR 15-6, into the circumstances leading up to Bergdahl’s disappearance. But the Army also stresses that only Bergdahl’s personal testimony can truly fill in the gaps of information about why he left post and how he was captured. But the question is: will we ever get it?

Last week, the Taliban said it will execute Bergdahl if the exchange with Siddiqui is not agreed to. Bowe Bergdahl, they say, has been tried and convicted in an Islamic court — found guilty of participating in military raids in Afghanistan, and for that, he was sentenced to death.

The Pentagon, Malcolm Nance clarifies, sees Bergdahl as a terrorist hostage, not a prisoner of war:

Despite the nature of the conflict, Bergdahl is not a prisoner of war — he is a terrorist hostage. The difference is important. The United States government classifies persons held against their will in several different categories, depending on the captor and the circumstances of conflict. In a war where one state is a signatory of the Geneva Convention, the soldiers taken off the battlefield are prisoners of war. In an insurgency war against irregular and unlawful battlefield combatants — bandits, terrorists, or even armed civilians or vigilantes — soldiers captured are considered hostages.

Which makes the exchange improbable. Historically, the government has made a number of high-profile prisoner exchanges throughout history, the Gary Powers/Rudolf Abel spy swap of 1962 comes to mind. But to exchange a convicted criminal for a soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, held hostage by a terrorist organization, would be opening a whole new can of worms.

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