Bowe Bergdahl. AP Photo/US Army
This is the second installment of Robert Young Pelton's account of his involvement with the 2009 search for Private Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. Read the first part here, and skip ahead to the third part here, and the fourth here.
Events following the mysterious disappearance of Private Bowe Bergdahl from his Army base in Afghanistan were investigated thoroughly in 2009—but without Bergdahl providing any input. The report is still classified, but what we can be certain of is that, up until this point, the Army hasn’t uncovered anything serious enough to prevent Bergdahl from returning to active duty at a desk job in San Antonio, Texas. Then again, keeping him as an active duty soldier also means he remains squarely under the auspices of the military justice system. But despite his new job and promotion to Sergeant (as well as more than $350,000 in back pay), intense public and political scrutiny and outrage over the prisoner swap of the Taliban Five—as the five mullahs from the Taliban’s inner circle came to be known—means that Bergdahl now faced another exhaustive military investigation to endure alongside his pro bono attorney.
Discerning the truth—or at least an agreeable version of his motivation—about Bergdahl’s disappearance on June 30, 2009, is now wrapped up with outrage over the exchange of five Taliban mullahs for the safe return of the last American POW. What we will learn is that the seemingly opportunistic and hasty release of the Taliban Five from Guantánamo was going to happen regardless of Bergdahl’s fate.
What is acutely apparent is that many are passing judgment on Bergdahl without all the facts, including those regarding this young man’s life before his service in the military. This is exemplified by a court case currently under review in Hailey, Idaho, where as of today a judge will determine whether CNN has any merit in its suit against the Blaine County Sheriff Office and its decision to withhold, according to the prosecuting attorney, an “inactive law enforcement record” from November 1999 that did not result in any charges filed.
The record in question was requested by CNN, along with three other law enforcement records related to the Bergdahls that were released. The request for the fourth has been twice denied on grounds that releasing it would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” according to Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey and the prosecutor assigned to the case. But will a 20-year-old police record regarding Bowe Bergdahl as a minor teach us anything relevant about his kidnapping, or will it only serve as more fodder for the 24-hour “Two Minutes Hate,” as George Orwell described the generic focusing of hate on an unworthy individual?
It is important to look back and see how things have changed. Even when Bergdahl’s kidnapping was linked to allegedly walking off his base, he was a hero awaiting release. In February of 2013, John Brennan flashed a yellow Bowe Bergdahl bracelet during his televised Senate hearing before lawmakers voted on his nomination to become CIA director. US Senator John McCain, well known for his status as a former POW, staunchly defended the swap of prisoners for Bergdahl as late as February 2014 before flip-flopping on the issue when public opinion began to sway the other way. Even Paul McCartney and Queen Latifah wore Bergdahl bracelets as part of a PR partnership between veterans' groups and the Grammy’s.
During Memorial Day weekend of 2012, Bergdahl’s parents, Robert and Jani, were the focal point of more than half a million veteran bikers at a rally in Washington, DC. After years of frustration with what they viewed as stagnation on the part of the government and military, they decided to go public about their son’s kidnapping. President Obama finally called the Bergdahls that weekend to discuss the matter. The Bergdahls had been concerned about what they perceived to be negligence and inaction in the government’s effort to get their son released from his captors. The elder Bergdahls, whom Bowe has yet to speak to since his return, for unexplained reasons, were even invited to the Rose Garden at the White House upon Bowe’s release to publicly welcome him home.
It seemed all of America wanted Bergdahl back—until five bearded Pashtuns were included in the swap.
Following his release, the unspoken question that belies the media’s coverage of the debacle is whether everyone would’ve wanted Bowe back had they been briefed on the trade-off for his freedom.
Yet viewing Bergdahl’s release as a prisoner “swap” is not only injurious to Bergdahl’s position as the victim of a criminal kidnapping but also irrelevant. The five prisoners had been renditioned and imprisoned eight years before Bergdahl’s disappearance. President Obama’s repeated assertion ever since his election was that he wanted Gitmo closed and the policy of enemy combatants being held without charges behind us. The mullahs in question were captured fighting a war that had been going on for six years between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. They actually surrendered to the Americans. They would have either been deported back to their home countries—oddly enough, to Pakistan, where Bergdahl was held—or transferred to a facility in the States, or even the Hague, if charges were pressed. Had they been released quietly along with hundreds of other prisoners, most Americans wouldn’t even know who they were or why they were renditioned in the first place. But they were released without the consent of Congress—and quickly, in a very public manner.
It should be noted that it was the Taliban, not the US, who issued both the video of Bergdahl’s transfer and that of the mullahs’ joyous arrival in Qatar. Those videos, along with the five publicly seen videos of prisoner Bergdahl made under duress and during his kidnapping, have shaped the young man’s international infamy.
Contrasting the media frenzy, mostly from the right, was a June Gallup poll showing that America was split on the idea of prisoner swaps (an opinion that hasn’t changed much since a similar survey conducted in 1985). The media focused on the outrage, and those looking to embarrass the Obama administration in an election year fed the press stories that didn’t hold up to fact checking. The list of soldiers who apparently died or were wounded looking for Bergdahl include some tasked with guarding election polls and others engaged in routine patrols. If any American soldiers did die while specifically searching for Bergdahl, the facts have yet to be presented. But the area called RC East did engage in a frenzied attempt to run down dozens of dead-end leads long after all indications were that Bergdahl was in Pakistan—a fact known by July 2 to the military because his captors admitted it to the media.
Bergdahl’s release, then, is just the latest episode of confused frustration for a man who went adventuring and ending up losing his liberty in a war officially dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom.
The story of finding Bowe Bergdahl (the on-the-ground logistics of which are detailed in Part 1, published last week) started back in Afghanistan in the early summer of 2009. We were working out of a gaudy pink house in Kabul, helping the military to ping Bergdahl’s exact location twice on the day of his disappearance. Our network made it clear that the kidnappers were high-tailing to the relative safety of Pakistan, only 60 miles away. By the end of that week it was clear to our team and “TF,” or Task Force, that Bergdahl had made it over the border into Pakistan, well outside the official jurisdiction of NATO and US forces.
There was a desperate sense of urgency to stop Bergdahl from crossing the border. But when his predicament became known by numerous Haqqani and Taliban members contacting the media on July 2, it was too late—he was already neck-deep in a much more complicated (and darker) world.
Once word was on the street that an American soldier was missing, a massive wave of disinformation drowned out the few critical details needed to locate and collect him. Within hours of Bergdahl’s abduction, the same media outlets that had agreed to keep the kidnapping of the New York Times' Dave Rohde secret for seven months began blasting out highly critical articles and opinions, and pundits (some of whom even suggested that the Taliban shoot their captive) disparaged Bergdahl and his sympathizers’ credibility. Then, perhaps chastened by the rush to condemn the 23-year-old, other reporters who actually visited Bergdahl’s hometown and friends came away with a very different profile—CNN, for instance, titled their 2009 report on the POW "Bowe Bergdahl, an adventurer and gentleman.”
By July 2 or 3, between GPS-related pings from his kidnappers and on-the-ground intelligence provided by our AfPax network, we had numerous reasons to believe that Bergdahl had been taken to Pakistan after being sold to Mullah Sangeen and Siraj Haqqani, his direct report and the military commander for the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network. We also had reason to believe via our contacts that Bergdahl was being held in the same converted clinic in Miranshah, North Waziristan, as David Rohde, the American journalist who had escaped captivity just 11 days earlier.
We knew this because my team had been tracking Rohde’s location and condition at the request of his then pregnant wife. After seven months, she was mortified at the slow and arguably questionable handling of her husband’s release by contractors hired by the New York Times. The Haqqanis had been demanding seven Gitmo prisoners and $7 million for Rohde’s release, a ransom that had been reduced from $25 million and 15 prisoners. The New York Times could have been instrumental in releasing prisoners from Gitmo, but days before Rohde’s escape (or rescue), his hostage negotiation team had gathered around a million dollars in AIG insurance money to buy him back.
Now that Rohde had flown the coop, the Haqqanis had lost their “golden sparrow”—local slang for a lucrative hostage.
Despite all this horror, something even more disturbing was afoot. An operative coming out of the region, going by the name of “WILLI,” contacted one of our people because it was suggested to him that he work with us on what was supposed to be a lucrative subscription contract for the US military. The man claimed to be an American surgeon under contract by the kidnap-and-rescue insurance provider for the New York Times that was handling Rohde’s abduction.. We passed, but we did set up a meeting later on with Michael Furlong, the government contractor who was our go-between for WILLI, at the Meridien Hotel in Dubai.
During this meeting, the American surgeon described to Furlong how he had arranged someone locally to arrange for Rohde’s guards’ nan delivered bread to be drugged, and how he had also slipped a rope into the house to allow Rohde and his two Afghan friends to escape. The implication, as we were told, was that this covert bread-poisoning mission saved the New York Times around $1 million. David Rohde insists that no such rescue happened but also admits he has not told the complete story in his book or his three-part New York Times article. It is not unusual for local doctors to be used to gain access to militant hideouts, as in the case of the doctor who confirmed the location of Osama bin Laden.
Not coincidently, the person in charge of Rohde’s rescue or at least kidnapping was retired CIA officer and founder of the Agency’s counterterrorism division Duane “Dewey” Clarridge. The convicted (and, later, presidentially pardoned) perjurer is an outspoken dirty-trick specialist who at the time of Bergdahl’s capture was in his late 70s. He is famous, or infamous, for his involvement in the Iran-Contra disaster, the Contras, the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, his alleged linkage to the forged Niger Yellow Cake letters that contributed to the Iraq WMD debacle, and a long list of other questionable, geopolitically destabilizing, never dull acts.
Clarridge and Furlong insisted that his network of “Jason Bournes” brought together specifically for the New York Times could provide real benefit to our ground networks and the US military. Clarridge's byzantine and bizarre network included doctors, American contractors, cranky right-wing bloggers, and conservative celebrities (like convicted-former-Marine Corps-colonel-turned-conservative-pundit Ollie North and espionage-thriller novelist Brad Thor), along with a haphazard collection of hired Afghans and Pakistanis. Clarridge insisted this ad hoc gang assembled to free David Rohde could provide a robust flow of intelligence and public spin while keeping tabs on the movements of Bergdahl and the intentions of his Haqanni captors. The only problem was that the offer of services as citizen spies for the US military in Pakistan and Afghanistan was, and is, illegal. We were not in the spying business, and our offer to the commander for a paid subscription to AfPax had been through, and passed, the Title 10/Title 50 legal wringer. We were not about to work with spies, or Clarridge, and gave an emphatic “no.”
That didn’t mean that the US military couldn’t use Clarridge’s ad hoc network. In 2009 the US military command was quite honest about their lack of visibility on the ground in Afghanistan. Over the years, the war had shifted from a peacekeeping mission to a very active insurgency. Based on the success of the “Surge” and “the Awakening” (essentially hiring the locals to provide their own security) in Iraq, the mantra for US operations in Afghanistan became “counterinsurgency” and the winning of “hearts and minds.”
This was all fine and good, except the American military had no idea what was actually on the minds and in the hearts of most Afghans. US forces lived inside walled bases, drove around in six-ton armored vehicles, and had to pay experts a lot of money to glean what the Afghans were doing and thinking in response to US occupation. Worse yet, the war was being waged by fighters who came from Pakistan to fight as mujahedeen inside Afghanistan, the former, again, being a place where the US military was not allowed to operate.
In my 15 years of traveling to Afghanistan and Pakistan, I had built a network of major and minor contacts inside the hostile and friendly forces in both countries. My solution was simple: provide a 24/7 feed of Afghan and Pakistan news, which made understanding the region as easy as reading about a soldier’s hometown. We would work in Pakistan and Afghanistan and provide a fresh, unique source of in-depth information.
Keeping US-armed forces out of Pakistan was critical to American operations in Afghanistan, as well as ensuring that plainclothes spies were relegated to the CIA without any direct connection to the military (“Title 10/Title 50 issues” is the phrase commonly used to refer to this delineation). Any action by US forces inside Pakistan could have—and probably would have—been considered an act of war. Hence the interest in the AfPax network, as our primary objective was to collect good, local intelligence from trusted sources and stay as far outside of the military structure and workflow as possible.
But we would soon find out that this was impossible.
In this image taken from video obtained from the Voice of Jihad website, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Bergdahl sits in a vehicle guarded by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. AP Photo/Voice of Jihad Website via AP video
The problem, both in Afghanistan and in regard to Bergdahl’s capture, was not the lack of information but rather the oversaturation of bad information. If you were on the ground in the tribal areas, you didn’t need to be a spy to figure out where Bowe Bergdahl was or who was holding him. “The American” was the topic of teahouse chatter from Miranshah to Kabul. For some reason, certain elements within the American military refused to acknowledge this truth and continued their “search” for the missing private long after my team was told to back off our search after locating Bergdahl’s probable whereabouts.
And it wasn’t just our team and the local tribes who knew of Bergdahl and his captors’ location. As early as July 2, 2009, the US media connected the dots on its own. Taliban commander Bahram Khan Kochi called AFP, and Mullah Sangeen called Reuters and the Associated Press to relay specific details about how Bergdahl was captured while also taking the opportunity to chide the Americans for attacking the southeastern areas of Paktia and Ghazni (when it was clear that their hostage was being held in Pakistan). The public knows this because it was US military spokesperson Captain Elizabeth Mathias who relayed it all to the world media on on July 2.
Much of this information on Bergdahl was lost in the effort to promote the Afghan version of "the Surge,” a July 2 US-British military operation to retake Taliban-controlled Helmand, a dusty area in the south.
“They have put pressure on the people in these two provinces, and if that does not stop we will kill him,” Sangeen told Reuters over the phone. Sangeen also told CNN: “The US soldier visited a military post in Yusuf Khel District and got drunk. He was ambushed while returning to his car and taken to a safe place.”
Mullah Sangeen’s version of events was that Bergdahl had left the base and gone AWOL without any intention of joining the Taliban, as so many of his detractors have suggested since his release. But maybe Sangeen was slightly mistaken, since he wasn’t present at the kidnapping himself. The local version is that Bergdahl left the base to visit with his Afghan National Police buddies, or maybe less dramatic—as his kidnappers claimed—he was nabbed outside the base mid-crap, his pants around his ankles. Later on it would be discovered that this was not the first time Bergdahl had wandered off the base, nor was it that unusual for anyone to leave the tiny enclosure.
We tracked Bergdahl as he headed south and east, and not just because of our gut feeling that he had been sold to the same people who had held (but lost) David Rohde a few days before. One of the trusted sources told us he had an employee kidnapped in the same area by the same tribe around this time. We passed on those kidnapping routes to the secret team looking to find Bergdahl. Aerial-eavesdropping assets followed the phone signals as Bergdahl headed to Pakistan—directly contradicting the intense military attacks south of Kabul and elsewhere for weeks afterwards.
While we, along with some elite elements of the military command in Afghanistan, felt almost certain that we knew exactly where Bergdahl was being held, at the end of an intense week we were told to “wave off,” and his unit initiated a search-and-rescue campaign inside Afghanistan, chasing dozens of bad tips. Despite the evidence to the contrary, the military continued to insist that his kidnappers had initially planned to smuggle the soldier across the border into Pakistan, but due to their aggressive missile strikes and Pakistani bombing attacks on the region, they then decided to move him to Taliban-controlled areas south of Kabul. The military version of Bergdahl staying in Afghanistan beyond early June has never been proved to be true.
Although our initial call was that he had entered Pakistan early on, two weeks after my team (and, independently, others) had confirmed that Bowe was being held in Pakistan, his unit’s search-and-rescue mission continued unabated inside Afghanistan. Leaflets were still being dropped, doors were still being kicked in, and violence was used to intimidate the locals into handing over the kidnapped American. Even Mark Bissonnette, the SEAL Team Six member who participated in the bin Laden raid before authoring No Easy Day, has recounted his previously top-secret assignments to locate Bergdahl south of Kabul—all while it was known by others, including President Karzai and the commander of the US Special Forces, that he was being held in Pakistan. On July 14, 2009, Bergdahl’s kidnappers made a 28-minute video of their hostage. Four days later, it was posted online. The goal was to show the Bergdahl was being treated well, fed, and wearing local garb.
After his kidnapping, Bergdahl was first taken to the former clinic in North Waziristan because it was where Rohde and two locals were being held, a place where the Pakistani government authorities had just interrogated Rohde's kidnappers—and let them go. Then Bergdahl was driven northeast of Miranshah to Palasin. His captors kept him at a farm just off the road, guarded by the father of Sangeen.
On paper and in speeches, Pakistan was technically America’s ally in the war against Islamic fundamentalist violence. It was an extremely conservative Islamic nation that was largely established in response to the marginalization of, and violence against, Indian Muslims following World War II. The tribal areas along the west of Pakistan make for an odd frontier of clans that are linked to Afghanistan ethnically, but territorially divided by the Durand Line. (The creation of the Durand Line did not automatically separate the centuries of familial, tribal, or ethnic alliances that existed before. I spent many hours on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan watching armed tribal members exercise their legal right to stroll across the border without fear of being stopped. But the ISAF and US were forbidden from crossing this same border.) At the time of Bergdahl’s kidnapping, a covert war was just gaining momentum: the use of a rotating covey of unmanned aircraft to maintain persistent surveillance on targets who had been legally cleared by the CIA for targeted assassination. Since 2004, no more than four strikes a year had been launched. In 2008, more people would die from drone strikes than in the previous four years.
The CIA had a rapidly growing assassination program with what must have been a quiet blessing from the Pakistani government. But the initiative was seemingly separate from the efforts of the international forces in Afghanistan. This arrangement complicated the sensitive task of retrieving Bergdahl: Sending American troops to get him in Pakistan would cause great embarrassment and jeopardize this lethal but still secret program.
At the same time, the 2008 election had brought in President Obama, who pledged to scale down the war in Afghanistan. Privately, he was being asked by his theater commanders in Afghanistan to ramp it up. Obama called Afghanistan the right war, but he mistakenly thought we were winning. He didn’t like it when ISAF commander General McKiernan told him that things were going to hell and they would need 30,000 more troops in the country. Obama refused, McKiernan was forced out, and President Obama liked it even less when the general’s replacement, Stanley McChrystal, requested three times that number of troops. The president relented and McChrystal got the number his predecessor had demanded, and failed, to get.
Obama eventually agreed to McChrystal’s replacement, General David Petraeus, who continued the "Surge” after his predecessor resigned.
When General McCrystal resigned in the wake of Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone story, his CENTCOM boss General David Petraeus asked to be sent in to protect his Surge legacy.
Petraeus’s Surge was an attempt to push troops and trainers in to stabilize Afghanistan before the US began pulling out—a play taken directly from the Soviets who had tried to ramp up a large Afghan security force before they bailed. It was a calculated sleight of hand that looked like an escalation to the US voters but in fact was a way to cover America’s retreat.
But there was Pakistan. When the Soviets called it quits, they did so because America and Saudi Arabia had spent $6 billion sending in Russian-killing jihadists from Pakistan.
Pakistan was once again a safe area for what were now American-killing Taliban and other violent groups.
Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s solution was to recognize the support the Taliban had in the south and make peace with them—via our old/new "frenemy" Pakistan. The stability of Pakistan was a critical problem, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that all the insurgent groups—including al Qaeda, the Haqqanis, and the Taliban—enjoyed safe haven there. The continued presence of Bergdahl just made it glaringly obvious that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the issue.
This more sophisticated solution was why the late Richard Holbrooke was brought in. He was a large, brusque man, famous and respected for being instrumental in navigating the jigsaw puzzle that was the Yugoslav Wars and brokering peace in the Balkans. He was tapped for a newly created position: special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We were asked to help him monitor the chaos inside Pakistan during a brutal military attack on South Wazirstan. Part of his job was to negotiate a political settlement between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. As is traditional in the region, the first matter at hand was release of prisoners back to their families. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of Afghan and Pakistani prisoners were being held at Gitmo and other gray zones outside the jurisdiction of the Geneva Conventions. The other more simplistic demand made by the Taliban was that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan. Holbrooke had to deal with nuclear-equipped Pakistan falling apart, their misguided support of jihadist groups that fought in Kashmir and India, and the rather stark realization that he had been given a problem that equaled the Gordian knot. A problem so complex, interwined, divisive, and tightly wound that it would need someone like Alexander to simply cut through and ignore the thousands of argumentative strands that prevented movement.
But then, as if by divine intervention, there was Bergdahl. Had Bergdahl not been kidnapped, there would be no prisoner “swap"—only a ludicrous one-sided demand by a losing insurgency to release all their prisoners. But as we will see in part three, Bergdahl was the first pawn pushed onto the diplomatic chessboard that focused peace talks between the Taliban and the US, breaking this stalemate.
This was the situation in January 2009, when Holbrooke came aboard. It would be six months before Bergdahl would appear to change the peace talks' dynamic.
The following April, under Holbrooke’s watch, Barnett Rubin, a Pennsylvania native and political scientist considered to be an expert on Afghanistan and South Asia, began looking at how peace talks could be started with the Taliban. His conduits were a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and Abdul Salam Zaeef, a prisoner released from Gitmo in 2005 who had materialized all across the internet as the iPhone-waving spokesman for the talibs during the early days of the American insurgency. Rubin would go on to write the forward for Zaeef’s 2010 autobiography, which detailed the life of a man who had helped to establish the Taliban. It was clear that the Taliban were getting cozy with the United States again.
By early 2011, the kidnapping of Bergdahl had now created the opportunity for a prisoner “swap.” America would not be losing talib prisoners, and they would be winning a prisoner back. Through the efforts of Rubin, Holbrooke, Zaaef, and others, they had brokered a basic deal: Bergdahl would be returned safely for six of Mullah Omar’s inner circle, currently being held at Gitmo. If there were additional terms, they were not made public.
Then, perhaps inevitably, the unexpected happened. In December 2010, Richard Holbrooke died of heart failure. On February 2, 2011, during a particularly vigorous workout on a Gitmo elliptical machine, 49-year old Awal Gul, the sixth talib, died of cardiac arrest. Gul had left the Taliban a year before 9/11 and was working with the CIA on a surrender in Nangarhar Province before being renditioned to Gitmo in December 2001 on his way to meet American officials. There were more pressing problems than Private Bergdahl. Four months before Holbrooke was struck down, the CIA briefed President Obama that they thought they'd Osama bin Laden—in Pakistan. Any diplomatic efforts achieved with the double-dealing neighbor to Afghanistan were about to be flushed once the President gave the Agency and JSOC the go-ahead.
Then, on May 2, 2011 (May 1 in the US), a Special Mission Unit, the people we were warned not to talk to but who asked for our help in finding Bergdahl, swooped down on a large walled compound just outside the Pakistani military city of Rawalpindi. Once inside, the team shot Osama bin Laden in the face, zipped his body into a bag, collected as much evidence as they could carry, and then left in silenced helicopters.
Any attempts to use Pakistan to release Bergdahl were screwed.
US Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 7, 2013, in Washington, DC, while wearing a Save Bergdahl bracelet. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
By the following spring the Surge of US troops into Afghanistan was heating up. ISAF Commander General McChrystal and intelligence chief General Michael Flynn liked what my company, AfPax, was doing with its local network of information, news, and intelligence providers. They were trying to figure out a way for us to work together. Having easy access to the tribal violent hinterlands, we had direct connections to various leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan—which would have provided a largely ignorant policy situation much-needed insight into the violence that was beginning to envelop the region in a way that hadn’t been seen since the Afghans had fought off the Soviets. For various reasons (primarily our suitors’ increasingly apparent desire to use our intelligence to track hostile targets), we were unable to reach a satisfactory agreement. Our goal, which was synonymous with the theater commander's, was to simply let them know what the Afghans were doing.
Still, my team was kept busy putting out fires we didn’t start in the west, south, and north, such as when Special Operations called in airstrikes that could have killed dozens of our civilian contacts—people who would have otherwise potentially been on the scene providing direct connections and insight to the US command. Their intelligence could have perhaps helped tamp down the violence.
We tracked Bergdahl via a network of Zadrans and Kochi businessmen. We were able to keep tabs on his condition. Unlike most criminal kidnappings in Afghanistan, unless the impasse of Guantánamo Bay prisoners the Taliban wanted were released, a deal with Bergdahl wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. They also demanded the release of a number of detainees (at one point the list expanded to include almost 50 prisoners) held inside the secret US prison at Bagram, along with a cash payment of $25 million.
By spring 2010, the US government was in all-out Surge mode. At the time, “retreat” was not even in their vocabulary. No one was going home, at least not yet. In the fall of 2009, government contactor contact Furlong and his ex-CIA counterpart Clarridge were given a $6 million dollar slice of the $24 million that the command had requested to underwrite our AfPax network. Furlong then put together another bizarrely selected group of Czech video game producers, a former Delta Group commander, and a host of various “contractors” who set up shop at a luxurious Turkish-built camp near the Kabul airport—complete with a full bar and a palm-tree-decorated swimming pool. This group would then take Clarridge's network and feed it into the military-intel chain via a fusion center, much of it with the source stripped out.
On March 14, 2010, the New York Times printed a row of large photos above the top fold. One of them was a portrait of me. The headline read “Contractors Tied to Effort to Track and Kill Militants” atop an extensive article that identified a legal gray area in which civilians were allegedly profiting from providing intelligence in Afghanistan to the US military, supposedly with the goal of finding and killing militants. The article got it half right. It was written by Mark Mazzetti, and I spoke openly with him about my work in the region. Thankfully, the Times later corrected and amended the article, pointing out that I was a writer and not a government contractor. But the disinformation contained in the piece was effective—if the goal was to effectively terminate any beneficial relationship my team had with the military in Afghanistan, then it did its job.
There was also something decidedly strange lingering in all this mess. At the time I had never met one of the men featured alongside my portrait on the front page of the paper of record. The man pictured was former CIA officer Dewey Clarridge, and as has been made apparent by the details laid out above, a man I became very interested in after the Times article. I also knew that a very unusual group of individuals had appeared on the New York Times payroll about a month after Rohde’s October 2008 kidnapping, and I was even more certain that I wanted nothing to do with them.
In December 2008, the New York Times activated their kidnap, recovery, and extraction policy with insurer AIG in response to David Rohde’s kidnapping. In an effort to reduce their liability and protect their client, AIG subsidiary Clayton Consultants, a well-known hostage-negotiating firm started by Thomas A. Clayton, a former Foreign Service officer based mostly in Latin America, was assigned to handle the situation.
Clayton Consultants had been sold to Triple Canopy, a private US security company, in 2007, and someone decided to bring in Boston-based American International Security Corporation (AISC), headed by retired Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Michael Taylor. Taylor had been working on a multimillion-dollar government contract training Afghan commandos. He would later serve prison time after being convicted of rigging the bid. Taylor had been charged in 1995 by Robert Monahan, a Massachusetts State Trooper, with assisting drug traffickers by providing phony passports and doing a jailbreak in Florida.
After Taylor was brought in, he wrangled legendary CIA wild card Clarridge. Clarridge had a controversial past as the CIA’s loose cannon and was involved in a number of high-profile scandals that stretched from the Niger Yellow Cake letter the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors, which led to a embarrassing conviction of the United States by the World Court in the Hague. He was deeply involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and even indicted on nine counts of perjury and false statements by a US court in November 1991. As the former head of the counterterrorism branch of the CIA, Clarridge had worked South Asia before and was eager to get into the fight the best way he knew how: dirty tricks. Out of the CIA since 1987, he had outspoken opinions about his former employer.
Long retired, Clarridge worked out of his aging bungalow in bucolic suburb of Escondido, north of San Diego, California. He would cobble together a team that included a former Army doctor who did surgeries on child deformities in Pakistan, an ex-marine officer who ran a security company in Jalalabad, a feisty right-wing blogger and a gaggle of Reaganesque media supporters to create an ad hoc paramilitary and intelligence operation. Somehow they would find and potentially rescue Rohde if ransom payments could not be worked out.
By January 2009, the New York Times had only upped its offer to a million dollars for Rohde and his two hired Afghans. There was no way the media company or its contractors could secure the release of prisoners from Gitmo—the ponderous wheels of Western security, lawyers, and security consultants lost out. After waiting for a suitable offer from his employer and not getting it, it only took a week for the kidnappers of Rohde to flip him to someone who would drive a harder bargain. On November 17, 2008, Rohde was walked over the border and delivered to the most feared jihadist group in Pakistan: the Haqqanis.
The Haqqanis demanded a more reasonable $8 million, but they still wanted a group of prisoners held in Bagram and Gitmo released in exchange for Rodhe. At that time, the 800 to 1,200 prisoners held at Bagram were supposed to be “secret,” so kidnappers’ demand for their release was often swept aside as immaterial.
It wasn’t easy dealing with Rohde’s kidnappers. There were five faces, and each wanted $5 million: the original kidnapper from Ghazni Atiqullah, the Haqqanis, the Mehsuds, a tribal shura acting as middleman, and even the Pakistani government all wanted a slice of the $25 million total payout. In addition to the money, there were ten prisoners in Bagram that they demanded be released along with the five senior talibs in Gitmo. Then the demand dropped slightly to $10 million with ten prisoners from the Afghan prison Pul-e-Charkhi. And then it went down to $8 million.
At this point, Rohde was ordered to make a clumsy video in which he must cry—and the ransom was dropped to $5 million and only five prisoners. It is important to note that Rohde’s fate was kept secret by request of the New York Times and he was not used as a bargaining chip for any peace talks. But the demand for prisoners was problematic. The Times offered more money to compensate.
During his kidnapping, Rhode was first moved to central Afghanistan and then around North Waziristan. For a week after he was grabbed on his way to interview Abu Tayyab, he was driven between four different locations in Logar, Wardak, Ghazni, and Paktika provinces—until he was forced to hike into Pakistan on the night of November 17.
Once across the border in Miranshah—the home of the Haqqanis—Rohde remembered that he was held in at least five different locations. He was to later learn that “Abu Tayyab,” the low-level talib commander he drove south to interview in the first place, was the jihad name of Mullah Atiqullah (which was his false talib name). The real name of the man who sold him out to the Haqqanis was Haji Najibullah Naeem. Naeem was captured a year later and then released with a number of other Bagram prisoners. There was no attendant outrage from the media. According to a source in the Nation, the Pakistani ISI also arrested the guards who kept Rohde in Miramshah but then released them without charges. Once again the kidnappers and those who condoned them seemingly got off without any penalty.
By June 21, 2009, the New York Times staffer was safely in Dubai. Following Rohde’s dilemma along with the obvious interconnection between criminals, the Taliban, the Haqqanis, and Pakistan was a real-time exercise for our fledgling network.
It was at this point that an odd intersection of history occurred. As the Texas-based doctor working for Taylor and Clarridge was traveling back from Afghanistan to the United States with his family, he stopped in Dubai. He spoke with Furlong and our people about his recent work on locating Rohde and told a fascinating story.
Their version of the Rohde escape was that the American doctor had convinced a local doctor to drug their kidnapper’s bread and smuggle in an appropriate length of rope in a bag. Once again Rohde has publicly denied that he was assisted in his escape, but would confirm that his fixer’s version was correct. The fixer, Tahir Ludin, told the media that he had kept the guards up late until they fell asleep, allowing them to use a rope to climb over and down a 20-foot wall. After their daring escape, they were somehow able to avoid detection or capture and find a Pakistani base that would not tip off the Haqqanis. Like the Kurosawa film Rashomon, each person has his own view of what happened. But logic would dictate that the odds that all the guards fell asleep in sync after seven months of constant vigilance—and that a rope long enough to scale a compound wall was available—are hard to figure. A Pakistani police station that both sheltered the victims and interrogated the guards without pressing charges in a Haqqani-controlled area is also deserving of extra scrutiny.
Rohde wrote a three-part story for the New York Times, as well as a book with his wife titled A Rope and a Prayer, about his kidnapping, but he is careful to mention that although the book is factually correct, he deliberately did not provide all the details. Either way, by June 2009, David Rohde was free and the Haqqanis were not happy.
The March 2010 New York Times article had ended our run with the military and supposedly Clarridge's crew as well. The capture of David Rohde was long forgotten, and in May 2010 Clarridge had sent an “official” note to his military contacts that he was shutting down his network and laying off 200 people. I had moved on to other networks in pirate-infested Somalia. But Clarridge still persisted. The firm Furlong and Dewey used to funnel this was called International Media Ventures, based close to Joint Special Operations Command in Florida.
In a last-chance effort to revive his network, Clarridge scraped together a random collection of emails for Michael Furlong into a “Mega Deliverable on the Haqani Network.” His report, titled “Atmospherics and Contractor Open Contact Analysis on Haqani Network,” carried a disclaimer:
"This consolidated deliverable contains three series of IO (INFORMATION OPERATIONS) atmospherics reports. This effort supports IO and is not an inherent intelligence collection activity. It is based upon raw, open-source contact conversations. IO Atmospherics are not vetted contacts corroborated by all-source intelligence. The contractor analysis is also raw and not a finished intelligence product. Once the IO Atmospherics Cell (A-Cell) accepts these deliverables as government property, the information can be provided with traditional Open Source information to the J-3/J-2 Fusion Cell." (Emphases my own.)
The atmospherics designed for “force protection” ranged from insightful to pedantic to ludicrous. The email included suggestions on “What to do with the Haqani Network—Pragmatic Recommendations,” with advice like, “The Haqani Network should be targeted holistically, with a range of operations which encompass the whole spider’s web of the Network.” The 30-page, 8,660-word document starts off as formatted analysis but ends up being snippets of badly translated comments from local Afghans. In other reports, Clarridge's team, with the urging of the US military who felt their mission was being undermined by a lack of support for the Karzai family, then began to go after Hamid Karzai and his shady brother Ahmed Wali Karzai (who ruled Kandahar like a pasha). Clarridge was convinced that Hamid Karzai was a drug addict and even tried, Castro-style, to get his beard trimmings for analysis and proof. Wali Karzai would eventually be assassinated by his own bodyguard. More disturbingly, buried within his dozen or so anecdotal, atmospheric reports on Bergdahl were a number of damning, unsubstantiated claims that Bowe had joined the Taliban.
It should be made clear that the US military in Afghanistan desperately needed information it wasn’t getting. Major General Michael Flynn, the head of intel in Afghanistan, suggested in a major think-tank report that the military "retrieve information from the ground level and make it available to a broader audience, similar to the way journalists work. These analysts must leave their chairs," he believed, "and visit the people who operate at the grassroots level.” Which was exactly what we were doing and want they wanted us to do.
When AfPax was active, we stayed away from the earnest, overeducated COINdinistas that poured out of Iraq into Kabul. All those linked to General Petraeus were smugly confident in repeating their “Iraq Awakening meets Three Cups of Tea” agenda. Their view was that “talking to Afghans” was going to win this war. By July 27 of 2010, Petraeus had even written a manual for counterinsurgency. It urged soldiers to “confront the culture of impunity.” Along with this shift to “thinking” warfare, our military contact Furlong began to expand the role of Clarridge and his band of misfits. An uncomfortable mix of insight from intelligent people with access interwoven with the worst of local gossip made for a badly designed carpet of confusion. By May 11, only the right-wing blogs were picking up Clarridge's unvetted and unsourced "intel."
Magically, Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times wrote another piece on Clarridge on May 15: “U.S. Is Still Using Private Spy Ring, Despite Doubts.” Someone was clearly leaking information to the media in a desperate effort to get Clarridge's team out of the game.
Undaunted and unpaid, Clarridge began sending emails via HushMail to Flynn, and whomever else would listen to him, regarding the Haqqanis and Bergdahl. Although his main focus was not Bergdahl (13 out of 500 reports covered Bergdahl by the end of 2010), the information gleaned from local Zadrans around Miranshah and the Swat Valley was highly prejudicial and often fictional. The locals Clarridge had hired for intelligence provided wildly varying reports with no attribution or secondary sources. Creating “atmospherics” under the label of “force protection,” Furlong sought a loophole that would get Clarridge covered under a SOLIC contract vehicle. Clarridge's reports, many of which portrayed Bergdahl as a collaborator or sympathizer of his captors, were never confirmed but added to the concern that he might not be a victim.
There was another problem: The CIA’s covert war against the Taliban inside Pakistan was picking up. In 2007, there had been five drone strikes inside Pakistan; in 2008 there would be 35, and 53 in 2009. The month after Bergdahl was kidnapped, drone strikes accelerated. This number more than doubled in 2010, with 117 recorded strikes. Bergdahl’s presence in the exact areas targeted by the Agency was an inconvenient truth. In October 2009, Siraj Haqqani began discussing prisoner swaps for Bergdahl in earnest. The demands were identical to those for David Rohde, the hostage they had just released: big money and a dozen prisoners.
To remind the world that an American prisoner of war was still alive in Pakistan, on December 25, 2009, the Taliban sent another one of their quirky videos of Bergdahl. This time he was wearing sunglasses and a US-issue helmet and digital camo uniform while seated on a prayer rug.
Where Clarridge did provide benefit was tracking the Haqqani Network, which was now directly targeting Kabul with suicide bombers. By June 2010, the military had throttled back its efforts in tracking Bergdahl. Michael Hastings had published an article that effectively ended the career of General McChrystal. By the end of the month the human dynamo and “man-who-would-save-Afghanistan” was gone. The one man in the region who fully understood intelligence collection and wide-net input via video conferences with 600 people, the lean hard-charging Ranger turned general who knew how to get people out alive in the dead of night, was gone.
His champion and CENTCOM boss, General David Petraeus, parachuted in as commander of ISAF to save his “COIN” legacy in Afghanistan. A year later, he too would be out. The sense that America would “win” the war in Afghanistan was gone. The Taliban had won. As the Taliban had predicted, they simply outlasted and drained the American effort—exactly as they had done with the Russians.
In March of 2013, Clarridge’s group brazenly reported that Mullah Omar himself had been arrested by the Pakistanis. They didn’t seem to know that the Pakistanis would arrest Taliban members to show their displeasure as they had done when arresting the number-two talib, Mullah Baradar. Baradar had made overtures to the US just before he was discovered and arrested Karachi by Pakistani forces along with US elements. Baradar would be released a few months later, but it was Pakistan’s way of reminding the Taliban that they were guests. When the intel world cocked an eyebrow, Clarridge brought in fiction author Brad Thor to tell the world that Mullah Omar had been captured. (Thor has since removed his “scoop.”) When the media and intel response was silence and a few snickers from the spooks, Clarridge's asked pal Oliver North to “confirm” the arrest. When that landed like a lead balloon, Dewey himself worked the phones as “a former intel officer” to show how wired his spy network was.
The Pakistani authorities finally calmed everyone down and denied they had arrested Omar. But right or wrong, Clarridge still was up to his dirty tricks.
In February, while Clarridge's informants were insisting that Bergdahl had converted to Islam and joined the Taliban, the Taliban shura was publicly declaring that Bergdahl had gone on missions to kill Afghans, and as such that he deserved the death penalty. The US also decided to get aggressive—Mullah Sangeen had been targeted for a drone strike but (according to the CIA) he was surrounded by women and children, so the decision was made to pass.
In March, the Taliban suspended talks, blaming the “aggressor” Americans for delaying the release of the Gitmo Five. Then Karzai tried to shoehorn himself in and bring in the Saudis. The simple hostage swap as a way to move forward peace talks was not working out so well.
A third video of Bergdahl was released on April 7, 2010. This time more Gitmo and Bagram prisoners were requested. In the video, he is fit but talks about being “pretty lost in my life. I love my family. I haven’t shown it very well, and I haven’t given my family the love they have given me.” That summer Bergdahl was moved between the Shawal area and Degan. A number of locals knew about the American, but none would come forward for the $25,000 reward. Even when Bergdahl managed to escape his captors in June for five days, the villagers brought him back and his kidnappers put him in a cage. Desperate to escape from his jailers and labeled a collaborator by an over-the-hill spy, Bergdahl must have been at one of the lowest points in his life. In September 2010, the father of Mullah Sangeen Zadran, Bergdahl's keeper, was killed by a drone strike. Now Bergahl had become an omen of death to his kidnappers. It would be fair to say that Bergdahl was hated and despised by captor and savior alike.
Then, a ray of hope. That same month the High Peace Council of Afghanistan was created to negotiate peace with the Taliban, with the prisoner swap as part of the discussions. In the first real breakthrough, the United States handed over control of the Bagram jails to the Afghan government. The total number of prisoners held by the US in Afghanistan who had not been charged with crimes ranged from as many as 4,000 to as few as 200, and now the Afghans would be in charge of deciding their fate. Not only is it common for relatives to buy prisoners out of jail, but Karzai was under pressure from thousands of Pashtun families. In an effort to appease the Taliban, the prisoners begin to trickle out.
Ten days later, the prisoner releases and peace talks with Afghanistan that might have freed Bergdahl suddenly crashed. In September 2011, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the Afghan peace council, was killed in a massive explosion in Kabul. The most likely culprit was Pakistani intelligence or al Qaeda, who had been methodically targeting members of the Northern Alliance since Massoud was killed in 2001. But the Haqqanis had the logistics to make these massive suicide and vehicle bombs work.
In January 2011, more troops were being sent to Afghanistan. If things weren’t complicated enough, Blackwater contractor Raymond Davis was arrested in Lahore, Pakistan, after shooting and killing two local men. It turned out he was working as security for CIA teams searching for targets inside Pakistan, including members of the Haqqani family. Pakistan ordered all Blackwater employees (who also load the Hellfire missiles on the drones) out of the country. On January 22, the New York Times writer Mark Mazzetti ran a third article on Clarridge, finally knocking the former spook and International Media Networks out of the game. With the Eclipse Group no longer providing tips, the Haqqanis’ attacks on Kabul began to increase. The man who brought Clarridge into the game, Furlong, was put under investigation for contract fraud and went on to resign in July 2011 with no charges filed. On September 2, 2011, the US filed charges against Michael L. Taylor, the owner of AISC and the man the New York Times ended up hiring to find Rohde. He was under investigation for fraud with his $54 million training contract in Afghanistan. The media and legal assaults on those who kept tabs on Bergdahl and the Haqqanis were effective.
Clarridge's crew of Jason Bournes were finally out of the game.
Continued in Part 3.