Supporters of freed prisoner of war US Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl—including representatives of the ANSWER Coalition, CODEPINK, and March Forward—hold up a poster of Bergdahl during a rally in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on June 10, 2014. Photo via SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
This is the first installment of Robert Young Pelton's account of his involvement with the 2009 search for Private Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. Read the second part here, the third part here, and the fourth here.
Private Bowe Bergdahl is the personification of America’s lack of purpose and clarity in its decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The narrative thus far is this: An introverted but adventurous 23-year-old neophyte soldier becomes disenchanted with the war he has eagerly signed up to fight. Then, within weeks, he wanders off base and ends up kidnapped by the Taliban. He becomes our singular POW, a soldier held against his will for five years—at some points in a cage. According to the kangaroo court of public opinion, though, he is a deserter.
The overall tone of the saga is overwhelmingly negative. Bergdahl is victimizer, responsible for the deaths of solders who never even set foot in Pakistan, the country in which the government and military knew he was being held. Yet this once idealistic, sensitive young man has emerged from five years in captivity in a foreign land to a cycle of social brutalization that has the potential to be even more crushing to his psyche. He has faced accusations that he is a traitor, deserter, Taliban-lover, turncoat, and perhaps even one of them.
The other side of this bifurcated stream of white-hot hate is caused by the anger of the American public suddenly discovering that five senior members of the inner circle of Taliban leader Mullah Omar were kidnapped and held for more than 13 years without charges in Guantánamo Bay and are now on their own recognizance in a luxury villa in Qatar. As we will learn, however, all five had surrendered or were working with the Americans before they were kidnapped. The concern is that they are “terrorists” and will be “recidivists.” The Taliban have never been labeled as a terrorist group, but there is clear evidence of men released from Gitmo returning to their violent ways.
Coiled inside, around, and throughout this story is the truth and, even more curiously, my involvement with some elements of that truth in the early days of Bergdahl’s disappearance. A truth obfuscated by a topic that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention or analysis as its byproducts: the actual criminal act committed by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
In 2009 I was in Afghanistan and was involved in the search for Bergdahl from that first June morning he went missing. Tasked by a secretive military group to provide minute-by-minute information on his location using my network of local contacts, I quickly pinpointed Bergdahl’s whereabouts. We then predicted which routes Bergdahl would be taken along, knowing full well he would be sold to the Haqqanis in Miranshah, Pakistan, and whisked across the Pakistani border. Thankfully, the military’s Task Force was able to put a spy plane on target and monitor two phone calls made by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
Strangely, after a few days of gathering granular data in real time, my team and the eager group of hunter-killers tracking Bergdahl were told to “wave off.” We were ordered to stand down and let the 501st, the paratrooper unit who “owned” Bergdahl, take over the search. The directive was bewildering given that we had already confirmed Bergdahl was being held in Pakistan, a captive of the same group (the Haqqanis) and at the same location as the previously kidnapped New York Times journalist David Rohde.
Just 11 days prior to Bergdahl’s capture, Rohde and his two local fixers had escaped their captors and fled Pakistan’s tribal areas. We were told that just hours before a million-dollar ransom was to be paid, a doctor had drugged their guards’ food and inserted a rope into the walled compound where they were held. Later, in his book about the incident, Rohde would go on to deny emphatically that he had been rescued—he did, however, include a disclaimer that he had omitted certain details surrounding his capture and detainment to protect sources or tactics.
And this is the beginning of the strange five-year saga of how Bowe Bergdahl became the focal point of the government’s desperate attempts to bail out of a dead-end war.
A tattered and faded yellow ribbon hangs from a post at the edge of a driveway, a short distance from the boyhood home of freed Afghan POW Bowe Bergdahl on July 13, 2014, in Hailey, Idaho. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Bowe Bergdahl was born in 1986 in Sun Valley, Idaho. He was raised Calvinist and home-schooled. His father, Robert, originally from California, was an avid bicycle rider and worked for UPS for 28 years. His mother, Jani, also rode bikes and loved horses. Bob and Jani had escaped to an idyllic life in Idaho in 1980 to get away from the hustle and bustle, and they raised their son to survive, be strong, and question things.
As a boy, Bergdahl loved adventure (Bear Grylls was a hero). He read survival guides, such as those written by former Special Air Service member John “Lofty” Wiseman and the US Army Ranger Handbook. Bob taught his son to be self-reliant and fostered Bowe’s outdoorsman skills during hunting and camping trips. His mother, who homeschooled him, also instilled in him a sense of morality and courage, resulting in a dutiful young man who was known as a bookworm and a bit of a dreamer. When Bowe left home he worked as a barista at Zaney’s coffee shop in Hailey, Idaho, while forming a close relationship with his godmother, Kim Harrison Dellacorva, and her two children (one of whom was his best friend).
As a young man seeking adventure, Bergdahl had ideas. At age 20 he told everyone he wanted to join the French Foreign Legion. They turned him down. He settled for the Coast Guard but lasted only a month before being discharged for psychological issues. He then set his sights on the US Army, enlisting in June 2008 on a waiver and graduating from boot camp later that year as the War in Afghanistan continued to rage at a fever pitch.
Bergdahl was assigned as a SAW gunner in Afghanistan in a godforsaken Hesco and concertina-wire outpost near the western border of Pakistan. He was part of the December 2009 troop “surge,” the halfhearted attempt by the stressed US military to stem the rising influence of the Taliban against the US-backed government of Hamid Karzai. They solved it by throwing more soldiers at the problem, mixing fighters fresh off a tour in Iraq with new recruits like Bergdahl.
By March 2009, Bergdahl had finally found an adventure he could get behind. He was assigned to a Tatooine-style hellscape called Yaya Kheyl, where he would join 25 men of the Second Platoon, Blackfoot Company, FirstBattalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment at a dusty outpost on the border with Pakistan. The famous paratroopers turned ground-pounders had been tasked by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Regional Command East (RC-East), with preventing insurgents from leaking across the border.
Bergdahl, now in the thick of it, was unable to see the big picture from his vantage point in the dust-blown southeast of Afghanistan. Emails sent to his parents and friends around this time reveal a growing frustration with America’s geopolitical role and goals in the region and an increasingly negative attitude toward the locals. Those who served with him saw him as eager, never shirking his duty. His nickname was “SF,” or Special Forces.
The platoon’s tiny observation post straddled two towns, Mest and Malak. The high point overlooked a remote crossing at the bottom of a wadi, or long barren valley, about 20 miles southwest of Sharana, the capital of Paktika. When they weren’t stationed at the post, Bergdahl and his two dozen cohorts patrolled the area in armored vehicles while the Afghans in the valley below ran an intersection checkpoint. To the east was a dramatic view of the mountains that formed the border of Pakistan. It was here that Taliban fighters would trickle over from Pakistan in the spring to absorb into larger fighting units inside Afghanistan. The small base was simply a way to shoehorn American presence into areas controlled by the Taliban and to set up local police units to strengthen the Afghan government’s presence. This was something the Taliban was going to resist with IEDs, attacks, and constant intimidation of the locals.
The base wasn’t designed for comfort. While others worked out and listened to heavy metal, Bowe preferred to hang outside the base with the local Afghan police force, making clumsy attempts to speak their language and learn their culture. It was hot, they were bored, and they made do.
In June 2009 the ramshackle base of the Second Platoon, Blackfoot Company, was chosen to host an English reporter from the Guardian. Photographer Sean Smith documented the life of young men surrounded by hostile locals as they carved out a base and supported the inept Afghan National Police (ANP). In these images we see an eccentric-looking Bergdahl smoking his pipe and wearing a scarf. Other soldiers are in and out of uniform, frustrated by army life, the Afghans, and their task. The photos Smith shot at various outposts throughout the region depicted the boredom, confusion, and harassment of the locals by the ANP and the US soldiers.
All the while, Bowe kept a diary on his computer and made regular entries. Before he disappeared, he sent his writings and laptop to Dellacorva, his godmother from Idaho and the mother of his best friend. Bergdahl had lived with her after leaving home, and he frequently kept in touch with her by post and email during his time in Afghanistan. In an entry title “My Army Memories,” Bowe wrote, “Compared to hell of the real wars of the past, we are nothing but camping boy scots [sic]. Hiding from children behind our heavy armored trucks and our c-wire and sand bagged operating post, we tell our selves that we are not cowards.”
The photos captured by the photographer also broadcast a narrative of slovenly, undisciplined soldiers, which in turn provoked an angry response from the top of the 501st command. This led to demotions, transfers, confiscations, extra guard duty, and a crackdown by superiors. Morale dropped within the 501st and beyond.
Bergdahl came to despise the brigade commander, stating as much in his letters sent back home. One of his unit’s fellow soldiers described their position and assignment as “a good place to be if something bad was going to happen” in a story published on the US Army Alaska website. “We had three companies to defeat a growing insurgency in an area half the size of Connecticut," 501st Commander Lieutenant Colonel Clint Baker was quoted as saying in the same story. “Many of the districts we took over had already been lost to the insurgency.”
When a young 24-year officer from the 501st named Brian Bradshaw was killed in an IED blast in late June 2009, the sense of mortality sunk in. If Bergdahl still held any romantic ideas toward the military life, it was lost the instant an IED was triggered. In the days following his young lieutenant friend’s death, Bowe’s transmissions to the outside world shifted from introspective emo to angry disillusionment. What followed was a damning collection of thoughts and deeds by Bergdahl that convinced everyone at home and on the base that he was going to do something rash.
Bergdahl’s father, Robert, reacted to his son’s disenchantment by simply advising him to “obey his conscience.”
Robert Bergdahl speaks at the the annual Rolling Thunder rally for POW/MIA awareness, in Washington, Sunday, May 27, 2012. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Bergdahl’s last email on record, dated June 27, 2009, prophetically announced: “I know this is not right. I know that there is light in this darkness, and that I can actually reach it if I keep walking, keep moving to it.” The next day, while back at FOB Sharana, Bergdahl mailed his laptop, diary, and other personal effects to the home of Dellacorva. Bergdahl asked his commanding officer whether he would get in trouble if he brought his weapon and night-vision goggles off base. His officer affirmed that he would, and later the same items Bergdahl had inquired about were found on his bed. It seemed that the young, sensitive Bergdahl was in conflict with the soldier’s life. His voluminous writings showed that he was a 23-year-old who wanted to test himself or, perhaps, to find himself. That chance would come very soon.
Very early on June 30, three days after the death of Bradshaw, the popular media version of the narrative emerged—maintaining that Bergdahl, who had been upset, demoralized, and keen to do something, decided to take action in accordance with his conscience, drawing on all his survival knowledge and leaving the base with just a pack, knife, compass, diary, and camera. But that accepted version is, quite possibly, far too simplistic.
I had first come to Afghanistan just after the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. I used a forged visa to enter the border and spent a month meeting the mullahs on the front lines and generally seeing what life was like under the Taliban. I also spent time with their enemy, Ahmad Shah Massoud, when he was holed up in the Panjshir Valley, with al Qaeda in Pakistan. Five years later, I was on the ground with the US Special Forces who fought on horseback with General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and two years after that spent time out on the border looking for Bin Laden. Afghanistan was a fascinating place that I returned to often. I still keep a black Lexus SUV there and visit the mountains with friends to spend all night listening to the old mujahedeen tell stories. I can appreciate Bergdahl’s fascination with the country, and my time in close proximity to US military exposed me to a lot of the frustrations the Army life creates. But did Bergdahl abandon his post and desert? Did he just sneak out with local friends? Or was he kidnapped while on duty? These are questions only Bergdahl can answer.
Bergdahl was missing from the 6 AM roll call the morning of June 30. It is not entirely unusual for a US soldier to go temporarily AWOL during peacetime, but it can be quite terrifying to military command when a young new soldier disappears in “Indian territory,” as some referred to the Taliban-controlled region around Mest. Veterans of the War in Iraq had seen the beheading videos and the tortured bodies. At first there was disbelief, and checks were carried out at all of the local bases to make certain that he hadn’t ended up elsewhere.
Less than five minutes after Bergdahl vanished, a series of procedures were ordered to block the immediate roads. By 9 AM, his group had confirmed that Bergdahl was not to be found. Within five minutes of that determination of DUSTWUN (Duty Status Unknown), a series of procedures were ordered to block the immediate roads. It was shortly after that time that my cell rang in my makeshift office in Kabul.
My AfPax team was made up of myself, a former Special Air Services officer, a former Army Special Forces officer, a media executive, and a network of about 1,200 freelance Afghans whom we pinged whenever we needed answers to some obscure local question or reference. I was in the country setting up our online news service—essentially a ground network of locals who allowed us to work outside the bubble of mainstream media and publish grassroots journalism. All created with an eye towards reducing conflict and violence. At the time of Bergdahl’s disappearance, we were living on the second floor of a rambling multi-story house rented by former South African mercenaries. Although we normally provided only news and insight into the region, we were asked to help find a missing soldier. We did.
Two and a half hours later, a Predator drone was zooming across the sky in search of the missing private. At the five-hour mark, a search team with tracking dogs arrived in Mest. Just after their arrival, a specially equipped Beechcraft King Air twin-engine plane flew over the area, sucking up cell-phone and radio traffic. The crew aboard the Beechcraft picked up cell-phone chatter from the car carrying Bergdahl, southeast from his base, heading directly toward the Pakistani border. Someone in the car with Bergdahl was on the phone speaking to someone else in Pashto, trying to find someone with a camera who spoke English so they could make a hostage tape. During that period, kidnapping was epidemic in Afghanistan and all negotiations began with a “proof of life” video—usually featuring the hostage begging for his release in a poorly orchestrated cellphone recording. We knew because we had inserted some of our people as cameramen into these predictable scenarios. In the English translations of the official logs, the chatter of the kidnappers was somehow misinterpreted as though Bergdahl was making these requests: “an American soldier is talking and is looking for someone who speaks English. Indicates American soldier has camera.”
Our AfPax group worked across Afghanistan and inside Pakistan’s tribal areas, where my decade of experience had forged friendships on all sides. The hunger for real information was so high that when my business partner met with the commanding general of the ISAF to judge his interest in a major subscription buy-in to AfPax, we were instructed by General McKiernan to start work “that day.” In addition to the steady flow of local news and in-depth reports we received from our network, we also found ourselves to be the go-to team whenever a disaster occurred in the region.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
The urgent request from the “pipehitters” covert operators whom we had been warned to stay away from was simple: “Could we spin up our network and see whether we could find anything on a missing soldier?" As a former hostage who had held captive with a couple of 22-year old Americans in Colombia, I knew the fear and terror that a 23-year-old would be going through. I said yes. I was also very familiar with the area, having conducted a search for Bin Laden along the border a few years earlier and knowing many Afghans who had worked the region. My team had experience with the media and other big players of the tribal areas inside Pakistan.
Luckily, or unluckily, one of my Afghan NGO contacts had been kidnapped in that area a few months back. We identified the gang and laid out the path the kidnappers had used and were able to direct a twin engine Beechcraft ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft above Bergdahl’s kidnappers. We knew where Bergdahl was headed: Pakistan. Thankfully, the roads were primitive and slow-going, and the kidnappers had to make a rendezvous with the Haqqanis, who would take the hostage across the Pakistani border.
To communicate to the military in their own language, we liaised with two very sharp former senior members of a group who had worked with what is known in the military as “the Activity.” Intelligence support was provided by a high-speed, low-drag combination of electronics experts, analysts, aviation jockeys, and shooters who aided Special Mission Units, or SMUs (pronounced “Schmoos”). SMUs were blended, multi-agency Special Operations groups who could spin up and get their feet on the ground in six hours or less. Their concern was always hard, actionable intelligence that did not carry the potential to unnecessarily risk lives or result in collateral damage.
On June 30, 2009, the entire focal point of the Regional Command—which handled the violent part of Afghanistan that included the border with Pakistan (RC-East)—was finding Bergdahl, and time was not on their side. The Pakistani border was only a few hours away, and it was not yet quite clear exactly when he had disappeared. (It’s important to note that we were not privy to military information, which was fine with us, as we preferred fresh information from our network of local Afghans, NGOs, and Pakistanis.)
We stayed out of the military’s lane, remaining indifferent to offers of various clearances, access badges, or relocating to a nearby base. We worked out in the countryside, in the hostile areas, and even directly with the Taliban, the warlords, and the smorgasbord of disenchanted parties inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, openly gathering information that would be published via our subscription news feed. When the military had a serious problem they would give us a call; we might not be able to solve problems like killing a hundred locals in an airstrike, but we could put the right people in a room to try to work it out.
Afghanistan was not scary to us or even many special operations soldiers. So we had a sense that when we were told that a soldier—who we would soon learn was Bowe Bergdahl—had apparently walked off the base, we had no problem believing that he had done it voluntarily. Much like my weekends in the remote mountains enjoying local food, festivals or stories of the Soviet war, Bergdahl could have easily snuck out to socialize with the local Afghan police who were stationed with him and lived in the surrounding villages.
The military also mentioned that they’d found a letter Bergdahl had left behind in his bunk. While they didn’t read it to us, they made clear that Bergdahl might have been determined to be the “next Adam Gadahn,” as they described it. Gadahn was the former goat farmer from California who had joined the Taliban to become Ayman Zawahiri’s spokesperson. The military also used the word “knucklehead” frequently during our discussions, in reference to Bergdahl and the motivation for his disappearance.
The long and short of it was that we had to run down multiple scenarios to get to the bottom of what had happened, and ultimately where Bergdahl might be: Was the young soldier violently snatched, or did he get into a taxi with local friends? Had he tried to hike across arid, dusty plains to get to China as he boasted, or had he been naively lured outside by a ruse or—worse—had he been killed? We quickly got to work.
Emails published by Bergdahls Godmother have shown that the idea that Bergdahl may have been on some misguided journey of discovery is not too hard to believe. He was curious, independent, and seemingly enjoyed adverse conditions. He was a student of knowledge, or as the Afghans would later call him, a talib—a seeker of truth (in Arabic “talib," or the plural form “Taliban.") The same name taken by the violent insurgency group that surrounded Bergdahl in Paktika, a region named after the Pashtun or Pakhtuns. The sparse southeastern area of Afghanistan where Bergdahl went missing is ruled by Pashtun tribes sympathetic to the Taliban cause of conservative Sunni nationalism. In essence, they were an extension of the Taliban.
The Taliban were originally religious students, the sons of Afghan refugees who had gone to school in the madrassas or free Islamic seminaries. Millions of Afghans lived in refugee camps that had sprung up along the border since the wars began in the late 70’s. Although it was normal for Afghans to attend school in Pakistan during the winter, the war with the Soviets had created entire cities of refugee camps of Afghans who were educated in madrassas and poured back into Afghanistan during the summer to fight inside Afghanistan.
Of the five major schools in Pakistan, the Saudi-funded Deobandi madrassas were where the talibs—the Pashtun religious students—had emerged and been recruited since the Soviet conflict in the 80s. Madrassas traditionally gave the title of mullah to students after five years of religious studies, but as the region was increasingly destabilized during the 90s and afterward, it soon became an almost honorary title for jihadist commanders who had fought on the front lines.
In the mid 90s these “Taliban” appeared a few miles south of Paktika. They were led by Mullah Omar and his inner group of 30-something Pashtun madrassa students—all rough-hewn veterans of the CIA- and Saudi-backed jihad against the Soviets. They adopted an ultra orthodox, rural form of law and order against the corrupt western backed warlords. Mullah Omar and a dozen followers began their attack in Spin Boldak in spring of 1994 (just a few hours south of where Bergdhal disappeared) and by September of 1996 the Taliban controlled Kabul. For the first time in two decades the Pakistani and Saudi-backed Taliban brought law and order to Afghanistan, controlling the central government for seven years until the US began bombing on October 7, 2001. A protracted battle north of the Hindu Kush had almost eliminated resistance until the Americans arrived to bolster the northern ethnic groups. Three weeks after US bombing started, the Taliban army surrendered at Qala-i-Jangi in Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban leaders in attendance included Mullah Fazl, who was the newly appointed head of the Taliban military in the north, along with the Taliban appointed governor of the north, Mullah Noori. I was roomed with those two mullahs and interviewed them during the violent uprising in Qala-i-Jangi, where I eventually interviewed al Qaeda member John Walker Lindh.
Although the mullahs had agreed to surrender and were promised safe passage home, the reversal of the deal by the CIA and their rendition to Gitmo without charges or chance of trial taught every Taliban leader not to trust the Americans or Afghan government. Secret prisons on Bagram began to fill up with suspects, usually Pashtun and usually loyal to the Taliban. Thus began the tale of two of the Gitmo Five who would be swapped 13 years later.
After the renditions of three other senior Taliban mullahs from inside Mullah Omar’s inner circle occurred, an insurgency slowly spread. By the time of Bergdahl’s disappearance in mid 2009, the conflict had transformed the entire south and east of Afghanistan into hostile territory.
Screenshot of video obtained from Voice of Jihad website. Bowe Bergdahl (right) stands with a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan. AP Photo/Voice of Jihad website via AP video
But this is a simplistic and recent overview of the region. Yes, Bergdahl had disappeared in Paktika, within a greater region known as the Loya Paktia, after the Pahktun or Pashtuns who had lived there but the southeastern corner of Afghanistan and the Pakistani areas beyond was an area controlled by a much older, deadlier and far more effective group: the Haqqanis. A transnational group of tribesmen united under one of the oldest mujahedeen groups in Afghanistan.
The Haqqanis are primarily members of the black-haired, dark-eyed Zadran tribe. Their 75-year-old leader, Jalaluddin Zadran Haqqani, the son of a wealthy landowner, controls the Afghan-Pakistani border from Pakistan to Kabul, with the key city being Khost. Jalaluddin took the family name Haqqani from Darul ul Uloom Haqqania, the Deobandi madrassa he had attended along the Kabul river in Akora Khattak, east of Peshawar. He took an Arab wife (who lives in the UAE) and also has a local Afghan wife from the Zadran tribe. His Zadran wife was killed in a US airstrike inside North Waziristan in September, 2008. Haqqani worked with Saudi, Pakistani, and US intelligence fighting the Russians in the 80s, and continued his long association with Saudis, Emiratis, and Gulf donors through the Taliban period and beyond. The eldest of his 11 sons, Nasir, handled the money. Jalaluddin hosted Osama bin Laden’s training camps for foreigners, and after the US attack on Afghanistan his group still shelters a number of Uzbek, Saudi, Yemeni, and other foreign fighters to this day. The Zadrans are the critical link between central and eastern Afghanistan, as well as the southern Taliban based in Quetta. The Haqqanis are, at heart, a self-financed, self-secured logistics and political organization that controls the shortest route to Kabul from Pakistan—a massive network that includes soldiers, informants, and infiltrators.
As an avid reader and recent arrival in the country, Bergdahl would have had a general, very Kiplingesque sense of what was going on around him. His interest in the local culture and the Afghans would have taught him of the dual allegiances and shifting loyalties. His habit of wandering off his base to hang out with the ANP shows that he was intrigued and unafraid of the ancient society.
Bergdahl was frustrated by the feeling that being in the military—wearing the helmet and uniform and traveling in armored vehicles—was preventing him from truly understanding and experiencing what was going on. All around him was an exotic, romantic mix of images, sounds, and cultures. Had he dug a little deeper, he would have thought twice about straying from his tiny base. The Americans’ arrival in March to disrupt the flow of insurgents from Pakistan had not gone unnoticed by the Haqqanis. As a political organization representing and defending the tribes and Taliban fighters, they would be under pressure to get back prisoners. A rapidly escalating number of Pashtun fighters and prisoners had been captured in the dead of the night and spirited away to secret prisons. Since the patriarch of the Haqqani clan was ailing, those requests for bringing back missing family members were directed to the second-oldest son, Siraj.
Forty-year-old Siraj Haqqani Zadran was the military commander of the Haqqani network. Siraj, or “Sirajudeen,” as he is called out of respect, learned the business of warfare as a young boy three decades earlier. He had watched his father set up training camps in 1988 for Bin Laden in Khost, and fighting the Russians in Jaji prior to that. Siraj spent time sitting in on jirgas, or tribal meetings, and chatted with hundreds of foreign fighters his family hosted in guesthouses on their way to the mountains to fight the Soviets. The Haqqanis controlled the sole paved mountain road that winds from Miranshah in Pakistan to Khost and Gardez and Kabul. They made money from taxes and guarded their economic lifeline well. Weapons and supplies would go in, and contraband like opium gum, the only real export of Afghanistan, would go out. They were in the logistics-and-security business, but they also settled local land and tribal disputes. The Haqqanis were continuing to leverage their influence around Khost and Miranshah by funding madrassas, running feeding centers, and building mosques.
As his father aged, Siraj grew into a tall strong man whose power and good standing in the community meant that he was the go-to mediator to solve local disputes. The Haqqanis were originally from Paktika in Afghanistan but had moved to Pakistan in the 70s after a falling-out with the Afghan government. During the jihad in 1991, they attacked the Russians in Khost and took control of the town. Later, the Haqqanis built a massive mosque in Khost and named it after Jalaluddin. But the locals took to calling it “Osama’s Mosque,” knowing that only Gulf money could have afford so large a structure.
When the Taliban formed in the mid 90s and asked Jalaluddin for help, he stayed out of the fight. The elder Haqqani was not supportive of Mullah Omar’s draconian view of Afghan culture. But after they took Kabul in 1996, Jalaluddin accepted the position of minister of borders and tribal affairs and Governor of Paktia under the Taliban regime. Still, there was friction as the more homespun and international Haqqanis chafed against the Kandahari politics of Mullah Omar and his Durrani-based Mullahs. In late 2001, the CIA tried to rekindle old Soviet-era alliances and urged the Haqqanis to fight against the Taliban. Instead of siding with the CIA as he had in the 80s against the foreign invaders. Jalaluddin chose the home team. He welcomed and harbored the fleeing foreign fighters from across the border.
He made his position clear: “We will retreat to the mountains and begin a long guerrilla war to reclaim our pure land from infidels and free our country like we did against the Soviets… We are eagerly awaiting the American troops to land on our soil, where we will deal with them in our own way… The Americans are creatures of comfort. They will not be able to sustain the harsh conditions that await them.” Three weeks later, the Americans began bombing Jalaluddin’s home and would later kill Siraj’s family in Gardez.
The Haqqanis became staunch supporters of Mullah Omar and sworn enemies of America.
The local commander in charge of the area around Mest, the base Bergdahl and two dozen Americans were supposed to man, was 30-something Sangeen Zadran Sher Mohammad,or “Mullah” Sangeen. Sangeen was the shadow governor of Paktika and reported to Siraj. Young but audacious, Sangeen had planned the assassination attempt on Karzai in April of 2008. He had also successfully terrorized the most luxurious hotel in Kabul, the Shia-owned Serena, right across from the US embassy and Palace compounds in the capital on January 14, 2008. The Haqqanis, along with aggressive Afghan commanders like Sangeen, had the ability to move suicide bombers from their camps in North Waziristan into safe houses in Kabul and then create high-profile attacks that gripped the world’s attention. Not surprisingly, in March of that year the US put Sangeen and Siraj on their list of terrorists for their part in the “Kabul Attack Network,” a group that not surprisingly began with the “surge” of troops into Paktia and Paktika and would function with frightening efficiency by mid 2010.
The ANP in Mest were part of a program to help local security. The Afghans were recruited locally and paid very little. Their ability to function as police was as abysmal and disappointing as their habit of making money any way they could, and soon ANP officers were pariahs. Bergdahl was stationed with a group of ANP that his platoon “mentored.” The young private’s proclivity to hang out with the ANP soon became a defining characteristic of his interactions with the locals, and it wouldn’t have taken long for one of his more enterprising ANP buddies, or their friends, to see whether this tendency could be monetized.
Soon enough, the Taliban knew that a tall, fair-skinned American liked to sit with them outside the base and practice his language skills. Sangeen knew this because someone directed a local tribe known for kidnapping to see what they could do. Kidnapping incidents had exploded in 2008, with local businessmen blaming the police. Ransoms were cheap for Afghans, but foreigners, especially journalists or businessmen, could bring millions. Just in the last few months, American, French, and Colombian aid workers had been nabbed. Germans, ICRC employees, South Korean missionaries, Italian journalists, and German engineers had been grabbed. All had been ransomed, escaped, or rescued with no demands for release of Taliban prisoners. There was also another hostage whose existence was being kept a secret by the media: David Rohde. As an American, his captors wanted millions of dollars and a dozen Taliban prisoners released.
Kidnapping a soldier, of course, meant incurring the full wrath of the military—unless, that is, that soldier was taken to Pakistan, where the US military was forbidden to operate, except under conditions where they were following an enemy in hot pursuit. It would take someone particularly daring to pull off such a kidnapping.
The pivotal point in Bergdahl’s damnation is not just his disenchantment with military life but his alleged desertion. You will find few Americans who would consider his tedious duty at a tiny outpost their idea of fun. But you will find even fewer who actually desert their fellow soldiers. AWOL, or Absent Without Leave, refers to when a soldier is found missing but turns up within 30 days. It’s quite a common offense and dealt with accordingly. Desertion, on the other hand, is punishable with death in time of war under Article 85. Its key determinant here is “shirking duty,” or an “intent to remain away permanently.”
Only Bergdahl can tell us whether he left the base meaning to come back by dawn, or whether he was nabbed while on guard duty, or whether he simply wanted to walk to China. My sources at the time of his disappearance told me that he would walk off the base for a short term adventure or to fraternize with the locals Afghans.
Even the most charitable analysis of the evidence available so far shows that despite the gung ho statements made to his teammates, Bergdahl had been privately disenchanted with his service in Afghanistan, and that he was quite vocal about it among the men of his company.
What is known is that during the intense early search for Bergdahl along with three Afghan police officers were missing, assumed to be kidnapped by a local tribe. The three Afghans that disappeared with Bergdahl have never been included in the investigation or even found. Whoever had grabbed them spent the next few hours desperately trying to find someone who spoke English so that they communicate with their captive beyond his broken Pashto. The first intercept of their cell-phone conversation put Bergdahl in a car with the kidnappers at 2:42 PM, ten miles southeast on a dirt track in the Shinkay hills and heading straight towards the border with Pakistan.
The kidnappers were then told by their handlers to make a proof-of-life video. But the kidnappers were on the move, and they were having trouble finding a suitable English-speaking Afghan with a camera. The number of aircraft in the sky above and rapidly increasing checkpoints they were told to avoid made the abductors nervous.
A "Bring Bowe Home!" sign honoring Bergdahl is seen through a POW/MIA flag in Hailey, Idaho, Saturday, June 22, 2013. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
The next intercepts from the elated kidnappers, using their CDMA or RUIM phone while still inside the vehicle, provided the first real piece of evidence on how Bergdahl was grabbed: “We were attacking the post. He was just taking a shit. He had no gun with him. He was taking a shit. He has not cleaned his butt yet.” “Attacking the post” was a stretch and probably meant to cover the duplicity of the three Afghans who had supposedly been kidnapped with Bergdahl.
There would be no room in the small white car for Bergdahl’s three Afghan friends, the kidnappers and Bergdahl. Regardless of the conversation, those intercepts ten hours after the first hard ping on his kidnappers location put Bergdahl just off the road, 20 miles southeast of Mest, 40 miles outside of Pakistan—something that told us they had stopped driving and were waiting for a rendezvous with another vehicle. Quite likely a Haqqani truck with Pakistani plates.
On the day that one of their own went missing, the US military reacted with impressive capability, instantly sending Reapers, Predators, boom-tail Shadow drones, F-15s, ground troops, and specially trained Pathfinders units to locate their man. As my team had suspected, the kidnappers took the shortest route to the border of Pakistan, or at least cut across the 20 miles to the main road that parallels the border. But that scale of effort and broad vacuuming up of intelligence would suddenly conspire against the desperate effort.
Through a previous kidnapping by the same gang, we had guessed that the kidnappers would be running the ancient southern Haqqani rat line that runs from the Spera and Kowchun valley in Pakistan through Yaya Khel. They would link up with the Haqqanis and the captive would disappear into North Wazirstan, Pakistan’s turbulent tribal-controlled areas.
That evening we learned that the cat was out of the bag; our local contacts were now “informing” us that an American had reportedly gone missing.
Down below, under the high tech armada of intel-gathering aircraft, it quickly become impossible to guess which one of the thousands of “white cars” contained the captive.
On July 1, 2009, the Mest Afghan police commander said the Taliban had called him and wanted to swap the American for a list of forthcoming demands. The next day, at what the military calls a KLE, or key leader engagement, two tribal elders from where Bergdahl had vanished offered the Americans a potential deal. They announced that Bergdahl could be exchanged for 15 prisoners, in addition to a ransom to be negotiated at a later date. This demand sounded similar to what kidnappers had requested when David Rohde was first captured. The American military had to go up the chain of command. The search had stalled as they awaited orders. In the meantime, the kidnappers were looking for a bigger offer. That critical gap of inaction allowed the Haqqanis to make their move.
We correctly guessed that Bergdahl was, at the earliest, inside Pakistan by July 3, and by the middle of the month we were almost certain that this was the case. Part of the reason we had guessed this so early on in the search is that, according to our network, Bergdahl sightings were being reported to the military by tip-hungry Afghans going every direction which way except “heading to Pakistan.”
Once the word got out that the US was looking for a missing soldier, every Afghan shopkeeper, kochi nomad, and government official potentially knew something valuable, and they were all cashing in payments made for tips at the same time. An avalanche of intel flowed into the US military. The new anecdotal and unconfirmed flow of information was that Bergdahl and his captors were headed northwest, toward the area south of Kabul where Rohde had initially been grabbed before he was sent to Pakistan. A few Afghans had insisted that they saw Bergdahl with a bag over his head, being escorted by talibs to a village due north called Chawni. Others insisted he was in another village, another said they were traveling in a white car, and yet another Afghan insisted that Bergdahl’s dead body had been seen… and on and on. RC-East and Task Force were now on a wild goose chase. Missions were launched and doors kicked in by SEAL Team Six, the same group that would rescue Captain Phillips from Somali pirates and kill Bin Laden. I am sure that after July 2, when the locals knew the Americans were hunting for a missing soldier, and my crew knew he had been hustled into Pakistan, the Taliban enjoyed every minute of the confusion.
Long after they knew Bergdahl was in Pakistan, RC-East would continue to look for him in Afghanistan—dropping leaflets, shaking locals down, and attacking villages. Despite our early success in tracking the missing soldier, by the end of the first week of June we were told to stand down. Task Force, the secretive military group that we were helping to track Bergdahl, told us, verbatim: “The people that own him are going to find him.”
In the weeks that have followed Bergdahl’s release on May 31, 2014, some have claimed that American soldiers died looking for Bergdahl. That statement is hard to square up with the dates and missions related to the incident. Bergdahl was most likely inside Pakistan within the first day, and had absolutely crossed the border by mid August 2009, at the latest.
Other numbers and facts also belie this claim of life lost in the search for Bergdahl. Seven men were killed in Bergdahl’s Alaska-based unit during their 12-month deployment: First Lieutenant Brian Bradshaw (KIA June 25, 2009), Staff Sergeant Clay Bowen (KIA August, 18, 2009), Specialist Morris Walker (KIA August 18, 2009), Staff Sergeant Kurt Curtiss (KIA August 26, 2009), Specialist Matthew Martinek (WIA, and KIA on September 11, 2009 from injuries sustained a week before), Second Lieutenant Darryn Andrews (KIA September 4, 2009), and Staff Sergeant Michael Murphrey (KIA September 6, 2009).
Lieutenant Bradshaw had been killed five days before Bergdahl disappeared. Bowen and Walker were killed by an IED while guarding election polls. Murphrey was killed on a recon mission unrelated to Bergdahl’s search. Martinek, Andrews, and Murphrey were also killed long after both the Haqqanis and the US military had confirmed Bergdahl to be in Pakistan.
More disturbingly, back in 2009, toward the end of the first week of July when my team was told to stop looking for Bergdahl, a strange of cross section of contractors, misfits, and pariahs entered the search for him.
Continued in Part 2.