Photo illustration ©2014 Robert Young Pelton, all rights reserved
This is the fourth 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, the second part here, and the third here.
In August 2010, I traveled to Kabul for meetings with the stringers who worked for my online news outlet, AfPax, which provided information on Afghanistan to NGOs, private-sector players, and US officials. As usual, I made time to drop by the big green fortress of General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
It’s always important to check in with Afghan power brokers. Once they know you’re in town—there are no secrets in Afghanistan—you must stop by to say hi, or else it might be considered an insult. In November 2001, I traveled with Dostum and the Green Berets of ODA 595, who in the months following 9/11 had ridden together on horseback, decimating the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Despite Dostum’s subsequent roller-coaster career, we had remained friends.
As I waited for my meeting with Dostum, I relaxed on an overstuffed couch, sipping tea and nibbling stale pistachios. Three swarthy Afghans wearing magnificent pastel turbans were eyeing me from another couch. They were members of the Zadran tribe, and they probably were wondering what I was doing in the inner sanctum of a notorious warlord.
“Are you an American?” one of the Zadran elders asked gruffly in bad English.
Then he blurted angrily, “Why don’t your people want your soldier back?”
The soldier’s name wasn’t necessary. The elder was talking about Bowe Bergdahl, the Army private who, a year earlier, in the predawn hours of June 30, 2009, had wandered away from his outpost in Paktika province. A few hours later, the US military had asked me and my AfPax intel team to track the missing soldier before calling us off in a flustered attempt to take control of the situation. Any semblance of control, however, would not emerge for five long years.
In the meantime, Bergdahl’s fate was not the lingering mystery the media would later make it out to be. On July 2, the Taliban organized a big news day as they and Mullah Sangeen, an Afghan militant from Paktika, went public about the missing private, telephoning reporters for Reuters and the AP in Kabul with confirmation that insurgents had captured Bergdahl and sold him to the Taliban-linked Haqqani Network. The Haqqanis were holding Bergdahl in the Zadran city of Miranshah, a few miles over the Pakistani border.
My AfPax team was not the only outfit tracking Bergdahl the day he disappeared. Brigadier General Edward Reeder, who was then commander of the US Special Forces in Afghanistan, called a former Taliban governor who told the general that the private had been smuggled into Pakistan and handed over to the Haqqanis. According to Linda Robinson, who wrote One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare, Reeder remembers relaying the information up the chain of command, and he was puzzled when there was no follow-up.
A week later, according to Reeder, President Hamid Karzai’s older brother, Qayum, called him to relay the Haqqani ransom demands for Bergdahl: $19 million, plus the release of 25 Talibs detained at the largely unsanctioned holding pens at Gitmo, in Cuba, and Bagram Airfield, north of the Afghan capital. The elder Karzai also mentioned that he had something else: a videotape of Bergdahl, dressed in Pakistani clothes and asking to be released. Reeder relayed the demands via the appropriate channels, but there was no official US response.
The kidnappers waited a few days, and then allegedly asked Qayum to relay a second ransom offer to Reeder: $5 million, with no mention of a prisoner swap. But once again, the US did not enter into negotiations with the kidnappers. By this time my network had deduced and pinged Bergdahl’s movements, and Reeder had confirmed the private’s location in Pakistan. So why did the top US command ignore what was considered “actionable intel,” and continue to chase its tail by searching for Bergdahl in Afghanistan for months to come?
A year later I had forgotten about Bergdahl, like most Americans. The Zadran elder reminded me that the private was still out there in the boonies.
“Sirajuddin [Haqqani] is very angry at the Americans for refusing to take back their prisoner,” the elder told me, referring to the Haqqani tribal leader who was presumably footing the bill for Bergdahl’s internment. “There are many expenses, and he has been there too long.”
I assumed he was referring to the aspect of the Pashtunwali, the unwritten Pashtun code that deals with keeping an enemy soldier alive. It is considered a favor and deserving of compensation.
“Sirajuddin is eager to make the exchange before [the holiday of] Eid because he needs the funds,” the elder continued, “and has lowered his price to $3 million.”
It was also not unusual for Afghans to call in their chits before Eid to help shoulder the burden of the many gifts and parties that come with the end of Ramadan.
The Zadran elder seemed to assume that since I was American, I somehow had the authority and the ability to purchase my fellow tribesman’s freedom. I explained to the elder that this was not the case, and said that if he gave me his cell-phone number, I would relay the ransom demand to the appropriate authorities.
Later, during my meeting with General Dostum, I mentioned my exchange with the elder, and that things seemed to be going badly in the bid to get Bergdahl back. The general knew of Bergdahl’s predicament and apologized that he didn’t have the money to pay the ransom. He added that, even if he did, he didn’t think the Americans would reimburse him. “This is a game America has to play with Pakistan,” he said, summarizing the dilemma.
I later gave the ransom information and the Zadran elder’s phone number to the American military secret squirrels that I knew in Kabul. It wasn’t surprising when I heard nothing back.
Bergdahl had slipped away from the pubic consciousness. His name would emerge briefly in the media from time to time, and then it would disappear. The increasingly frustrated Taliban would continue to release proof-of-life Bergdahl videos. But it would take a lost war to bring the private back into white-hot focus.
Four years after my strange encounter in Dostum’s compound, Bergdahl was released. He is a now a sergeant with a paper-wrangling job at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where his responsibility is centered on homeland security.
A tidal wave of hatred directed at Bergdahl swelled after his release, cresting with his return to the United States. Over the years, a wide variety of pundits criticized the Obama administration for neglecting America’s sole prisoner of war. Many also pointed out the president’s failure to follow through on campaign promises to close Gitmo's detention center. Ironically, when Bergdahl was liberated, these criticisms morphed into a debate over the terms: Was the young private’s freedom worth the release of five Taliban from Gitmo? According to the polls, most Americans thought it was a bum deal.
Bergdahl’s story runs parallel to the dead-end path of America’s war in Afghanistan—a war we never figured out how to win, in part because its ill-defined objectives were dictated by the even murkier “war on terror.” This is a war that, alongside a misguided campaign in Iraq, seems to have only amplified the problem it was supposed to solve. The power vacuum left in its wake has been filled by an assortment of monsters and opportunists. It could be argued that with the prisoner swap, the once almighty United States had lost its grip, fatigued by dual wars. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that just few months later, Russia’s disingenuous occupation of Ukraine has all but bankrupted the former Soviet republic, while the Islamic State has established a brutally violent caliphate that stretches across a swath of Iraq and Syria.
Berghdahl is also a reminder of the irony of the Afghan war: The enemy—Taliban insurgents and al Qaeda jihadists—were largely based in Pakistan; the troops—America and its allies—were in Afghanistan. By the time American officers deployed to Afghanistan grasped this dynamic, they were rotated out and sent back home. Those who understood relations between the two countries soon learned the mantra: The Department of Defense owns Afghanistan; the State Department and the CIA own Pakistan. Everyone else, butt out. It was a turf war that further complicated an already convoluted situation.
Although the peaceful release of what appeared to be a healthy but emaciated Bergdahl created shock waves, America has since been exposed to more disturbing images of what can happen to hostages. Since mid August, the Islamic State has released videos of its members beheading American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as British aid worker David Haines. A group that claimed to be an Algerian branch of the Islamic State beheaded a French mountain guide, Hervé Gourdel. The staged videos flashed around the globe within hours, gruesome reminders that Bergdahl could have met the same fate.
The graphic videos also triggered an immediate American response, including airstrikes. Given the instability throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, it’s not hard to imagine a similar slippery slope that could draw the US back into an escalation in Afghanistan in the same way that it has been drawn back into northern Iraq.
Bowe Bergdahl. Image courtesy US Army/via Flickr user Global Panorama
When Bergdahl went AWOL, the US military and the media, of course, did not view his disappearance as a catalyst for peace talks. Instead, it was considered an isolated incident that was overshadowed by a much larger event: the Afghan surge. On July 2, 2009, the same day that the Taliban and the Haqqanis were calling reporters in Kabul to claim credit for Bergdahl’s abduction, the US and its allies were conducting their own media event, the first big show of the escalation—Operation Khanjar, a carefully orchestrated attack intended to clear the Taliban out of the poppy-growing region in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.
The military command asked my AfPax outfit to tell them everything we knew about the next area on their hit list: the poppy fields of Marjah. They were frank that their learning curve started at zero. I was hesitant to point out that the irrigation used to nurture the flowers in Marjah were courtesy of a 1950s American development program. Back then, the area was known as Little America, complete with wide streets built by the giant American contractor Morrison Knudsen.
Operation Khanjar was designed to win hearts and minds, but it only ended up pissing off more Afghans. It turned out that, much like the California fields of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Helmand provided income for migrant workers. With the poppies gone, so were the jobs.
The surge was supposed to be the last big push for stability—the deployment of additional troops (30,000 American, 10,000 NATO) to fight a growing Taliban-led insurgency in southern and western Afghanistan. It was a make-or-break effort to stabilize the region and push out Islamic fundamentalists so the US could declare victory and exit. The surge, championed by a bookish senior Army officer named David Petraeus, had worked in Iraq, in 2007. Now, with General Petraeus in charge of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), the question was whether a surge could buy enough time to justify an American military drawdown in Afghanistan.
The strategy dated back to November 24, 2009, when President Obama held an evening meeting with his top national security advisers to decide the future of Afghanistan. Presidents don’t like long wars with ambiguous outcomes, and Obama had had no problem quickly shutting down Bush’s war in Iraq. The American public knew they had been fed a bunch of bullshit about yellowcake, aluminum tubes, and weapons of mass destruction, but Saddam and his sons had been executed, and the oil-rich country was trending toward peace. A week later, Obama announced a schedule for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, which he had promised the country when he took office.
Obama was not so sure about Afghanistan. Like much of the public and the military, he saw direct links between 9/11, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, the turbaned fundamentalists who had defeated Afghan warlords in 1996 and brought a harsh peace to the country until the US invasion after 9/11. The Taliban were not wild-eyed jihadists intent on conducting international terrorism; they were often uneducated rural veterans of the Soviet conflict who wanted to install an Afghan government based on traditional religious principles. Confident thanks to their ouster of the Soviets and steeped in historical narrative about defeating the British before that, they saw time as their best weapon. They were willing to bet that the invaders would simply grind themselves down under the friction of their own effort. In late 2009 and early 2010, the Taliban were right on the money. But they couldn’t shake the terrorist image and move toward political legitimacy.
The Taliban knew that their biggest mistake was allowing Osama bin Laden to set up his al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan after the Saudi and his operation were booted out of the Sudan. Osama probably didn’t even know about the Taliban when he landed in Kabul in a chartered Ariana 727 on May 18, 1996. We now know that the self-professed mastermind of 9/11 was actually a Pakistani named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had studied mechanical engineering in North Carolina in the late 1980s; the hijackers were mostly Saudis. After the US invaded Afghanistan, al Qaeda fighters and jihadists from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya, Iran, and other countries joined the Taliban’s attempts to repel the US forces, hence the conflation in the minds of many Americans, who considered the Taliban and al Qaeda to be one and the same. However, it is worth noting that no Afghans or Taliban were directly involved in 9/11.
But these kinds of intellectual and geographic subtleties were too complicated for American politics. So politicians developed a less nuanced storyline: The bearded, black-turbaned, often one-legged Taliban were the bad guys. Got it?
The Taliban played to type, finding only four countries that supported them: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan. They were featured in numerous NGO documentaries as Darth Vader–ish religious fanatics who oversaw the highly publicized destruction of the sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan, along with symbols of the contemporary world—television sets, cassette players, white socks, and kites.
As a presidential candidate in 2007, Obama talked about Afghanistan as “the war that has to be won,” insisting that al Qaeda still operated in the country. The truth was that five years earlier, al Qaeda, foreign jihadists, senior Taliban officials, including the organization’s reclusive leader, Mullah Omar, all had hightailed it into Pakistan. Every summer, the Taliban sent supplies and troops across the border into Afghanistan to harass US forces and their allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
By 2008, Afghans appreciated the billions of dollars in free American money, but they still saw the ISAF as meddlers, occupiers, and harassers. Violent attacks and local grievances against central government political appointees turned village after village toward the Taliban. The corrupt and inept US-backed Karzai government was undermining the chief principal of counterinsurgency: You don’t win the hearts and minds of the people by preying on them. Locals may not have liked the Taliban, but they had brought peace and stability during their five years in power.
Afghanistan was a beggar nation, and America, the invader, was its main source of sustenance. In such a shattered country, the US military saw peace as attainable only if it were bought on a small scale—village by village, region by region—and never on a macro scale that would bring security to the entire country. Be our friend and get money; dislike the Taliban, and that means you like us—this was the faulty binary narrative in which fealty was exchanged for payments and economic development.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believed that the US should focus more on Pakistan, the fractured ethnic tinderbox that possessed nuclear weapons. Obama agreed. In February 2009, just a few months into his new presidency, he announced that he was bringing in former CIA official Bruce Riedel, seasoned diplomat Richard Holbrooke, and think-tank star turned Pentagon planner Michèle Flournoy to overhaul US policy in the region.
Twenty years after the Soviets were defeated by US-backed jihadist groups supplied via Pakistan, it may seem stunningly obvious, even to the unsophisticated, to include Pakistan in the Afghanistan equation. But remember the mantra: The State Department and the CIA handled Pakistan, and the Pentagon handled the fighting and peacemaking in Afghanistan. It was a tag team from hell, since Pakistan relied on US money to prevent it from sliding into the abyss, while it used that same money to pull Afghanistan into the same fundamentalist quagmire.
Conflict in this part of the world makes strange bedfellows. The CIA was already running a covert war against al Qaeda in Pakistan in conjunction with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, Pakistan’s spy agency. The ISI had funneled US money and matériel to the Afghan mujahedeen who drove out the Soviets back in the 1980s. It was also the directorate that had supported the Taliban when they were in power. And it was the ISI that reputedly continued to work with al Qaeda and the Haqqanis. Pakistan needed radical Islamists like bin Laden and Mullah Omar if they were to have any influence inside Afghanistan and against India once the US left. The irony of the CIA joining forces with the Pakistani security apparatus that reputedly supported America’s enemies may have been lost on the American public, but it would become increasingly obvious over the next few years.
In 2008, General David McKiernan, commander of the ISAF and US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), was becoming alarmed by reports of increased violence in Afghanistan. My business partner had introduced McKiernan to Obama the candidate, and when the general wanted to make a strong statement to his new commander-in-chief—we are at war in Afghanistan—he came to us.
The gruff former tanker was not a fan of PowerPoint, so he asked me to put together photos of Afghanistan that I had taken on multiple trips to the country since 1995, when I first interviewed the Taliban, an organization virtually unknown to the West at the time. My partner and I backed up the emotional punch of the images with simple statistics. The object of the exercise was to demonstrate that violence was increasing, and the way to stem it was greater engagement with the Afghan people. America was not on a peacekeeping mission. America was at war, battling Pakistan’s proxies.
The general presented the material as part of his request for 30,000 additional troops to stem the rising tide of insurgency.
No sale. Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly turned down McKiernan and, in May 2009, Gates fired the four-star general, saying he needed “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes” on Afghanistan.
As it happened, McKiernan’s successor, General Stanley McChrystal, also agreed with our assessment. “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors,”McChrystal wrote in a 66-page report to Gates, “have given Afghans little reason to support their government.”
McChrystal upped McKiernan’s ante, privately asking for 80,000 to 90,000 additional troops. After detailed discussions and a review of the policy overhaul led by Riedel, Holbrooke, and Flournoy, the president approved an Afghan surge that immensely increased the size of the American commitment—21,000 US troops for a total of 68,000, along with 10,000 more from the ISAF. The surge would start in the summer of 2009 and peak in December 2010, with more than 100,000 troops in the country. In addition, a flood of contractors, training and development programs—and money—would magically turn “bad Taliban” into “good Taliban.” In just 18 months, those extra troops and civilians would supposedly alter the course of one of the world’s poorest countries, one that had been at war for 30 years.
The surge brought with it a new energy in violence. Counterinsurgency tactics are carrot and stick. The “stick” was rapidly increased pressure on violent actors. The “carrot” was money provided to villages or regions that agreed to play nice. The increased attacks dramatically escalated military and civilian casualties. As best as can be estimated, in 2008, before the surge, 153 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. In 2009, that number jumped to 310 fatalities; in 2010, it increased to 496. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since the arrival of American troops was 2010, with 2,777 killed. Another 3,000 were killed the following year, most of them by the Taliban.
Despite a decade of escalating violence, the number of Taliban insurgents inside Afghanistan remained fairly low, numbering only about 20,000 to 30,000 fighters. Contrast that with more than 100,000 US and allied troops post-surge, along with more than 112,000 contractors. As the Taliban predicted, the weight of the effort and the lack of short-term benefits were beginning to buckle American resolve. The Afghans’ centuries-old view of warfare was proving to be the correct one.
And one of the stubborn facts that showed how powerless America was in the region remained the ongoing, uncomfortable story about a young soldier from Idaho still sitting captive in Pakistan.
Bergdahl’s best hope was McChrystal, the aggressive, smart, and gung-ho Ranger-turned-four-star general. But at the midpoint of the surge, McChrystal was taken out, not by an IED or a sniper, but by an obtusely sourced yet damning article, “The Runaway General,” written by Michael Hastings and published in the July 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. In it, McChrystal and his aides criticized the State Department, Obama, and his strategy; accused the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, of betraying McChrystal; and mocked Vice President Joe Biden
Obama promptly sacked McChrystal and replaced him with General David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief and the architect of the surge in Iraq. This was the man who wrote (or, at least, co-wrote) the book on defeating insurgencies, along with James F. Amos and John C. McClure—US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The tactic of “driving out” the Taliban from the “white spaces” to allow the “government to flow in” may have worked in Iraq—temporarily—but in Afghanistan it would prove to be a total fiction.
At the funky, yellow, quasi-Germanic house that passed for ISAF’s headquarters in Kabul, Petraeus surrounded himself with boisterous “COINdinistas,” or counterinsurgency wonks. They were typically DC-based think-tank pundits who parachuted in for a quick whistle-stop tour of military operations, and then jetted home so they could tell journalists, politicians, and high-paying Beltway clients that they had “just come back from the war” and were ready to share what they had learned.
They were overwhelmingly right-wing, hawkish and abstractly philosophical in approach. Their insights were usually rooted in archaic, unrelated wars like those in Malaysia and Vietnam. Petraeus liked them because they insisted it would take 12 years to end the insurgency…and a lot of money. All Petraeus had to do was trot out his crew from Iraq to wax poetic about “white space, engagement, metrics, microhydro, rational legal authority, and COIN, or counterinsurgency.”
America had already been in Afghanistan for almost nine years and spent billions. Under Obama’s surge-and-drawdown schedule, however, the general only had 18 months to turn things around. Obama had already decided he was done with Afghanistan.
McCrystal as a tactician had ignored most of these pundits’ advice, but Petraeus knew these highly visible experts could help shape and generate support for his efforts, not with the Afghans but with the American public. After all, Petraeus was considered the thinking man’s general, a warrior statesman with his eye on the White House. He liked plans, analysis, statistics, and polls, and he liked selling success. And the trick Petraeus knew was that winning a war halfway around the world was really about convincing Americans back home that you were winning.
About this time, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations . . . One School at a Time, became an improbable must-read for AfPax policy wonks. The emotional book described Mortenson’s transition from mountain climber to humanitarian committed to educating girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and allegedly included a few stretchers, like the time Mortenson was supposedly captured by the Taliban. As a template for building peace in Afghanistan, the book had some fatal flaws that the military didn’t pick up on. One was that the schools Mortenson built in Pakistan were in Shia areas, not in Sunni, Talib-controlled ones, and that much of the book was complete bullshit designed to raise funds from starry-eyed audiences. Long before Three Cups was exposed as a fraud, it was heresy for me to point out its failings in front of newly arrived COINdinistas and senior officers brought in by Petraeus (then still the commander of the CENTCOM theater). In late 2010, the book and its mantra of talking to the Afghans were very much in vogue. The idea was that if you talked to the locals (and, of course, paid them), they would be less inclined to kill you.
Like the Vietnam era, CIA-run Phoenix Program, the cuppa-tea approach included an element that armed local militias while entering into a dialogue with them. The concept hid an equally robust program of targeted killing and capture. Chatting with local militias over tea provided better intel to target Taliban fighters, money men, trainers, and IED instructors. Soon, shadowy Afghan operators who worked by night began filling up a secret detention center at Bagram Airfield.
There was another small group of civilian advisers, mostly outsiders who knew the players in Afghanistan—educated, bookish, NGO-ish people who had been in the country during the pre-Taliban era. They offered a different perspective to the military, which usually ignored their advice and insights. Unlike the braying, cuppa-tea brigades who hoped to replay their Iraqi success in Afghanistan, this was a quieter crowd.
The British aggressively used some of these odd people to structure peace deals in Helmand province in the south. And it worked, at least until Karzai found out and reversed their gains. No one was going to get between Karzai’s cronies and a loose development dollar. My small group had helped pacify the west and the north simply by bringing adversaries together and cutting through the layers of partisan politics and badly researched reports that had polluted American thinking in-country.
The military even approached me to write detailed guides to hostile regions, as I had done in my book The World’s Most Dangerous Places. This approach meant removing the post 9/11 labels clumsily applied to local power brokers and working closely at ground level to effect change. Every war is local. We were working in real time with real issues—no money, no backroom deals, no rosy promises. It was a matter of forging trust face-to-face and, most importantly, delivering on promises. We worked the carrot end of the solution, hoping that the existing power brokers would lightly apply the stick to incalcitrants.
Bowe Bergdahl. Image courtesy of AP/the Bergdahl family
Late in the evening on Friday, August 22, 2008, at a time when the intensity of American airstrikes was at its highest, a special operations team decided to act on intel that claimed a senior Taliban commander was attending a religious ceremony in the village of Azizabad, in the Herat province of western Afghanistan. The event was being held to honor the memory of a former deputy police commander, Timur Shah, who had been killed a few months earlier.
As the Marines and Afghan commandos rolled into Azizabad, the village guards began firing back, and soon the entire place erupted in gunfire. The Marines called in air support. An AC-130U gunship was on station, and began pounding the mud structures where the gunfire was coming from. The gunship’s 40 mm grenade launcher and 105 mm cannon soon turned eight homes into rubble. Predators armed with missiles and Apache gunships were also said to have taken part in the raid. By 8 AM the fighting was over. The villagers collected the bodies of the dead and brought them to the mosque. As is customary, many of the dead were taken back to their villages and buried the next day.
In the original after-action report, the Marines claimed they had solid intel that a Taliban commander named Mullah Sadiq was in the village. Based on the Marines’ report, the Pentagon originally said that 30 Taliban were killed in the raid. One week later, US Lieutenant Nathan Perry, an ISAF spokesman, issued a clarification: “Among the 30 bodies, five of them we believe now were not combatants—two women and three children.” Perry said that they were family members of Mullah Sadiq.
By September 3, the US was still dismissing a UN report that supported the local version of the events—that the fatalities included 60 children, 15 women, and 15 men. According to testimony collected by the Afghan government, there were no Taliban in the village. The regional Afghan commander in charge, General Jalandar Shah Behnam, claimed that the Americans were confused about their target and had used bad intelligence before the attack. The Afghan commander also confirmed the death toll. President Karzai was furious and demanded dramatic curtailment of how the US was running the war.
The State Department responded by calling the villagers liars, insisting that the Taliban had spread false rumors. In a Washington Post story, a military spokesperson characterized the casualty claims as “outrageous.”
General McKiernan turned to us to find the truth. It wasn’t pretty. Our Afghan intel team confirmed that not only were there significant casualties, but that the after-action report had not truthfully described the full extent of damage and death. The Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) had been tricked by a Karzai-appointed commander.
The locals had cell-phone videos of dozens of dead children and, as one would expect, knew the name of every casualty. The gunfire and airstrikes had killed a total of 61 children sleeping in their homes. Fifteen men and 15 women also died. It turned out that an Afghan commander named Mohammad Nader insisted that a senior Taliban was in the village. Our analysis: He apparently used the special operations team to wipe out his competition.
When General McKiernan’s staff asked us what should be done, we suggested that they should talk to the real power players, like General Dostum in northern Afghanistan and Ismail Khan, the famous warlord, in western Afghanistan. In 1979, Khan was the first muj commander to attack the Soviets, at Shindand air base, kicking off the ten-year jihad. The short, silver-bearded Tajik was a legend, and the CIA and Special Forces had supported his successful bid to overthrow the Taliban in late 2001. He had been deliberately ostracized and defanged, however, to make room for Karzai’s flunkies. We suggested that someone on McKiernan’s staff needed to go to Herat province before Karzai made political hay out of the tragedy.
On May 4, 2009, disaster struck again out west. A B-1B was called in to support another MARSOC mission. The strategic bomber, along with F-18s, dropped loads of 500- and 2,000-pound bombs on the village of Granai, in Farah province. The airstrike killed more than 120 civilians, as well as an unknown number of Taliban fighters. Among the victims were 90 children. The policy at the time was that the military, through the Afghan government, pay $2,000 in blood money for each dead civilian and $1,000 for each wounded one.
It was not enough. MARSOC, a newly formed Special Operations Unit that had been deployed to Afghanistan in 2007, was using overwhelming kinetic force. They had nicknamed themselves Taskforce Violence. MARSOC was directly responsible for the extraordinary number of civilian deaths in Azizabad and now in Granai. After both these events, President Karzai, a man who literally owed his life and his position to US forces, began to forcefully condemn American military action in his country.
General McKiernan dispatched our team to calm things down. To show we meant business, we secretly flew in with one of McKiernan’s one-star generals to meet face to face with Khan and others.
The general had been part of previous meetings that we had set up with the Taliban, whose members had traveled to Kabul for discussions that were held on the top floor of my friend’s Italian restaurant. I attended the meetings unarmed, but some of my team consisted of former commando officers, who sat quietly with their hands on their weapons.
Learning grievances directly from Taliban commanders quickly taught the military that anger at corrupt and ineffective Afghan government appointees drove the dynamics of war. In addition, there was a shadow war in which more than 2,000 Afghans on the Joint Priorities Effects List were targeted for capture or assassination. Afghans never knew whether the US considered them friends or enemies.
We flew out west and met with all the senior government and warlord officials, and then flew back to Kabul.
When a CIA contractor based in Herat heard about our program, he was impressed. “You met with everybody, flew a bird out here, brought in a one-star, and we [the Agency] had no idea you were here.”
With Karzai and his government discredited, America had lost the linchpin to counterinsurgency. In 2001, a Gallup Poll showed that only eight percent of Americans thought the war in Afghanistan was a bad idea. Ten years later, a Gallup poll revealed that 39 percent of Americans thought it was a mistake. Inside Afghanistan, the population was even more emphatic in its opposition to continued fighting. By 2010, an Asia Foundation poll showed that 83 percent of Afghan adults supported peace talks with the Taliban.
The surge was not working. “The right war” was going very wrong.
US army soldiers herding sheep in Afghanistan's Herat province in 2011. Photo via Flickr user The US Army
In the spring of 2009, Barnett Rubin arrived in Afghanistan and didn’t like what he saw. At the time, Rubin was a 59-year-old political scientist, Fulbright Fellow, and author of eight books who was known for his insight into the region. The Yale-educated scholar had traveled to Afghanistan dozens of time over the years. His immersion in the subject, his knowledge of Dari, and his first-name relationships with many of the Afghan players made him an ideal choice to become senior adviser to the UN during the 2001-02 Bonn agreement that put Karzai in power. He advised on the new constitution and the development strategy for Afghanistan. He knew how things worked.
When Karzai had floated the idea of a peace council in 2004, the US promptly swatted down the Afghan leader’s trial balloon. The Afghan president tried again in 2008, first with a casual, post-Ramadan dinner in Saudi Arabia between his brother and King Abdullah. The idea was to hold exploratory talks between Karzai and moderate ex-Taliban. Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the onetime international spokesman for the Taliban, Abdul Salem Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazel Hadi Shinwari were among the leading Afghan figures who met with the Saudi monarch to discuss the proposal. The problem was that the members attending were ex-Talibs who were not likely to have any influence on Mullah Omar and his inner circle.
Rubin remembers, "I tried to get the US to support Afghan efforts to achieve a political settlement because the Taliban was not Al Qaeda. A military victory was impossible, and you couldn’t conceive what a military victory would look like.”
Unlike many post-9/11 experts, Rubin knew the roots of Taliban violence, and grievances were limited to Afghanistan. The lack of enthusiasm for the Taliban’s overly conservative cause based on rural tribal traditions forced them to accept the support of al Qaeda and darker elements of Pakistan’s terrorism groups. Those were the only supporters of the Taliban’s bid for a Pashtun nationalist government. Perhaps if the US could see past the simplistic view of the Taliban as evil supporters of Al Qaeda, a deal could be reached. Perhaps if the Taliban could emerge from the seventh century and embrace modern politics, they could meet their enemies halfway.
The Taliban had other problems—ones that made them challenging as potential partners in peace. They were mostly illiterate and rural, and prone to shifting tribal alliances. The structure of the Taliban inside Afghanistan was cellular, loose, and confusing. The Taliban groups inside Pakistan were more centrally organized, but opaque and erratic. To make matters worse, few people inside the Taliban had ever seen the Taliban leader, the one-eyed Mullah Omar, let alone talked to him. He had no fixed address or formal diplomatic corps. He was rumored to be inside Pakistan, where he was the head of the shura, or tribal council, in the city of Quetta, in Balochistan province. The US wanted to find him so badly that they had put a $10 million bounty on his head. And yet after a decade no one seemed to have a good fix on the reclusive spiritual leader.
An insider who was part of the attempts to start US peace talks with the Taliban told me, “We knew that communications were going in and coming out from a person who called himself Mullah Omar.”
But was there an actual person with that name?
Back in 1995, when I was researching the first edition of Dangerous Places, I tried to meet Omar, but he wouldn’t talk to an infidel. So I hired a Turkish TV journalist friend, Coskun Aral, to interview the Howard Hughes of mullahs in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Aral later told me that although the other mullahs agreed to be interviewed on camera, Omar would agree only to a voice-over; in the segment that was broadcast on Turkish TV, viewers could only hear his voice, not see his face. Perhaps he was embarrassed about the appearance of his sewn-shut eye.
To make matters even more complicated, the spiritual leader’s lack of sophistication had created some bizarre forms of outreach when he was the head of the Taliban government. In August 1998, two days after President Clinton launched cruise missiles at bin Laden’s training camps in Khost province, in eastern Afghanistan, Mullah Omar made a cold call to a mid-level US State Department official for Asia and the Near East in Washington on an open phone line. Speaking via a translator, the mullah had nothing in particular to say except that he wanted proof of bin Laden’s crimes and was open to dialogue. He did have some unsolicited advice for the State Department official on the other end of the call: The US government should force President Clinton to resign, and it should remove its troops from Saudi Arabia. American military strikes “would be counterproductive,” Omar said, according to the declassified record of the exchange, and would “spark more, not less, terrorist attacks.”
His cranky call was ignored. That was the last time Mullah Omar ever spoke directly to America.
In the spring of 2009, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, suggested to an American civilian adviser that someone should set up an office where the Taliban and the US government could communicate, but that the facility should not be located in Pakistan. Launching into talks with a holed-up insurgent group without including Pakistan—or the Karzai government—would be tricky. Saudi Arabian intelligence has always worked closely with Pakistani intelligence, so Pakistan could be kept in the loop that way… when appropriate. The problem, as stated in a secret May 2009 meeting between Richard Holbrooke and the Saudis, was that “the US might be able to live with some degree of instability in Afghanistan, but not with an unstable Pakistan.”
Around this time there were a few false starts in the peace process. President Karzai appointed his elder brother Qayum to handle talks with the Taliban. Qayum, the longtime owner of a Baltimore restaurant called The Helmand, was responsible for bringing his brother Hamid to the attention of the State Department and the CIA after 9/11 as a potential leader. Qayum also made sure that his thuggish half-brother Ahmad Wali was the CIA’s main contact in Kandahar. The Taliban, quite understandably, viewed the Karzai brothers as American puppets, but they were at least a known quantity since Karzai was suggested as the Taliban ambassador to the UN (Mullah Omar nixed the idea).
Qayum and the Saudis agreed to host a Taliban go-between. One of the first things discussed was a “confidence-building” measure. The Taliban allegedly suggested that the Americans release the six senior mullahs being held in Gitmo. To the Taliban, this seemed like a lay-up request. After all, hadn’t President Obama said he was going to close Gitmo by the end of the year? But the government of Afghanistan was powerless to convince the Americans to spring prisoners from Gitmo, or free the hundreds of detainees at Bagram. The Brothers Karzai failed to build a path to peace with the Taliban.
It wasn’t so much the surge that rekindled interest in peace talks, but rather the knowledge that after the surge the Americans would be getting ready to leave, and that would create a power vacuum. It sparked a series of odd and secret Afghan-Taliban peace talks, beginning in 2010.
The most bizarre meetings were held in January in the Maldives, an archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean. The Maldives normally cater to rich European honeymooners, so the sight of black-cloaked Talibs strolling along the beach must have seemed strange to vacationers.
It turned out these Iranian-sponsored boondoggles were only between low-ranking, ex-Taliban Afghan government politicians and splinter groups based in Pakistan, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezbi Islami. The only significant outcome was that the secret peace talks seemed to show up overnight in the New York Times, courtesy of an aggrieved American three-letter agency.
Obama was concerned by the failure of the surge, as well as by Afghan efforts to forge a separate peace and the meddling of arch-enemy Iran. He convened a national security meeting in February 2010 at the White House with Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Gates, and national security adviser Thomas Donilon. According to Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden wandered in toward the tail end of the discussions. Also in attendance was General Douglas Lute, Obama’s chief military adviser in Washington. Lute’s mantra: “Everything in a counterinsurgency has to do with the political outcome, not the military outcome.” His contribution to the meeting was to pitch what was by then the staggeringly obvious idea that the surge in Afghanistan was not going to work.
The group discussed peace talks with the Taliban as a way out. Turkey and Saudi Arabia were suggested as possible venues. The American government was running out of time. If it couldn't come up with an exit strategy by the following summer, Afghanistan was going to look a lot like it did in 1992 when the Soviets bailed. Simply packing up and removing foreign troops would plunge the country into the hell it had endured from '92 until the Taliban brought peace in 1996.
Although the US government insists that formal peace talks with the Taliban began just last year, they actually started in 2010, although not very auspiciously. In the summer and fall of that year, the allies flew a senior Taliban leader named Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour and two other Talibs from Quetta, Pakistan, to Kandahar for three meetings with Karzai’s Afghan High Peace Council. Mansour was the minister of civil aviation during the Taliban’s rule and now was the second-ranking Taliban commander, after Mullah Omar. It’s not clear who ponied up the multiple payments, but someone gave Mansoor $64,000 per meeting.
That quickly began to look like a bad investment. In November, a British military aircraft was used to fly Mansour to Kabul, where the senior insurgent leader was brought to the presidential palace and ushered in to meet President Karzai. Two senior Afghan officials, however, claimed that the man was not Mansour. He was an impostor—possibly a shopkeeper from Quetta. Or a ISI spy who wanted to know what Afghanistan was putting on the negotiating table. Or a con man looking to make an easy buck. It was difficult to know. The Washington Post quoted one of the officials as saying, “He was a very clever man.”
The embarrassing incident underscored how tricky it was going to be to forge a deal with the Taliban. The US and its allies—even officials in the Afghan government—would be trying to negotiate with shadowy characters from an underground movement, some of whom had not been seen in years. And what guarantee would America have that the Taliban who cut the deal would be viewed as legitimate by the Afghan people? After a decade of fighting the Taliban, America now had to go find their enemies and negotiate instead of shooting them.
The way to answer these questions would lead back to none other than Bowe Bergdahl. Whichever group could prove that they were in control of the Haqqanis and could release the private was the group that had the power to enforce the submission of other powerful insurgent groups across Pakistan and Afghanistan.