This is the third 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 skip to part four here.
On July 14, newly promoted Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl returned to a dull desk job at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. It’s not quite the life of adventure the 28-year-old Idaho native had hoped for when he joined the army, but in between processing paperwork and coming to terms with a society he hasn’t been part of for five years, Bergdahl is concluding his second military investigation. It was led by Major General Kenneth Dahl, the deputy commanding general at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.
The first investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance, conducted shortly after he went missing in 2009, concluded that the then private deliberately left his tiny base, leaving behind his weapon and body armor. The previously classified report also concluded that Bergdahl did nothing that would stop him from being promoted, receiving five years of back pay, or being put back on active duty. Bergdahl can now speak for himself to help the Army understand whether he was outright kidnapped (perhaps while taking a crap), went temporarily AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave) and then was abducted, intended to desert and was then kidnapped, or some heretofore unconsidered fourth scenario in which he wound up in the possession of his captors.
When considering these matters, it is important to distinguish the legal definitions of AWOL versus desertion of duty in wartime. The only real clues that have been offered to the public so far have been press debriefings and the release of a selection of personal notes, emails, and recollections of conversations that seem to clearly depict a young man disenchanted with military life. There’s nothing particularly unusual about Bergdahl’s sentiment in the context of America’s longest and perhaps most convoluted war in history, but did he plan on simply vanishing from his tiny group of 25 fellow soldiers posted in the remote and hostile Southeast of Afghanistan? If so, why? The answer to this question, if it’s even the question to ask, will go a long way to sate an enraged public that is demanding the truth.
In fact, the only thing we know with absolute certainty is that Bergdahl sensed that there was some greater adventure awaiting him outside the walls of his base, and on the moonless night of June 30, 2009, Bergdahl joined three Afghans and wandered into the hinterlands without telling anyone.
Part 1 of this story details the frenzied search for Bergdahl. Part 2 takes us inside the motivations and questionable actions of the players involved on both sides of the kidnapping, and its aftermath. In this third installment of the increasingly complex tale of the fate of Bowe Bergdahl, we will meet the Taliban who were swapped for him. And it may turn out that Bergdahl spent five years as a prisoner in a hellhole simply because of political agendas.
Retired General Stanley McChrystal, the wide-net, pinpoint action leader of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force at the time of Bergdahl’s kidnapping, defended the military’s response: “After [Bergdahl] came up missing, we did a huge number of operations to stop the Taliban from being able to move him across the border,” he said in a June 4 interview with Yahoo News. McChrystal was privy to the wide-reaching—and often disorganized and contradictory—intelligence gathered in the search for Bergdahl. His advice for the enraged masses? “We’re going to have to wait and talk to Sgt. Bergdahl now, and get his side of the story.” This is coming from a man who led the hunter-killer teams of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a man of action whose legacy of leadership includes having hunted down and killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, whose activities in Iraq helped destabilize the region and killed scores of Iraqis. McChrystal is also unequivocal about America’s need to secure the release of prisoners of war; however, he’s dubious of the largely inexplicable method and decisions that resulted in Bergdahl’s release. “There will be a lot of discussion on whether the mechanism for getting Sgt. Bergdahl back was right—and I’ll leave it to people to argue that.”
Labeled by some as dangerous terrorists, the five senior associates of Taliban leader Mullah Omar exchanged for Bergdahl had very separate and relatively minor trajectories when compared with the thousands of much more deadly captives who had already been released from prisons in Afghanistan to secure a peace deal—a deal that will hopefully allow the US to pull virtually all of its troops out of the country by 2015 with a political arrangement with the Taliban in place. We will also delve deep inside some of the Herculean, on-again, off-again negotiations that eventually led to Bergdahl’s release. A narrative emerges that suggests Bergdahl’s release was compelled by a chain of uncoordinated events that rapidly intertwined into a perfect storm of forced decision making—an 11th-hour Hail Mary to rectify a shitshow, and one that may have forced his commander-in-chief to break the law.
But make no mistake about it: Bergdahl may have broken the law, too. The residual political heat and pressure coming off his release, and subsequent accusations of collusion with the enemy, have netted Bergdahl a pro bono lawyer who also has been a visiting lecturer at Yale, where he teaches military law. Bergdahl’s potential savior is Gene Fidell.
No stranger to controversial cases involving the armed forces, Fidell previously represented disgraced former Guantánamo chaplain James Yee, who in 2003 was imprisoned on espionage and other charges after a customs agent found a list of detainees and interrogators in his personal belongings. The initial accusatory narrative was that Yee, who had converted to Islam in 1991 (long before his service), was an extremist sympathizer—until his charges were downgraded due to a mishandling of classified information, and later dropped. He eventually received an honorable discharge, but is still awaiting an apology from the US government.
Fidell also has been a harsh critic of Guantánamo in general. Since before President Obama took office, Fidell has criticized how the US government has handled detainees since they were brought into Gitmo in 2001. Fidell has described the parameters of torture defined in the Bush administration’s "Military Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside the United States" memo as "a monument to executive supremacy and the imperial presidency, a road map for the Pentagon [to avoid] any prosecutions.” His wife, Linda Greenhouse, won a Pulitzer in 1998 for her reporting on the Supreme Court for the New York Times.
In other words, Fidell has no problem going to the media to state his case and will not do so unless he is certain they will listen and reflect.
The great irony is that while Fidell’s background dictates that he sees the continued release of Gitmo prisoners as correct in the murky realms of international law, he now finds himself on the other side in his defense of an American battlefield detainee who was held without charges in a country outside the technical jurisdictions of “war.” Bergdahl barely served two months in Afghanistan as an active private, contributing to a great cause from which he would later be repelled. What he could not have known is that his rash decision to leave his base, and the subsequent effort expended to bring him back, would have a singular impact on the conclusion of America’s longest war. He was America’s sole POW, and later became an imagined vessel for hearts and minds—one who is starkly contrasted by what amounts to 5,000 or more prisoners of war held captive by the US in its decade-long campaign in Afghanistan.
All along, the US was careful to maintain Bergdahl’s “active duty” status, which positioned him squarely outside the realm of civil law and under the military’s more rigid Uniform Code of Military Justice.
While the penalty for willful abandonment of duty during wartime is a serious crime punishable under court-martial, the US military hasn’t condemned a wartime deserter since Eddie Slovik was executed by firing squad in 1945. “They're not shooting me for deserting the United States Army,” he said in the face of his impending execution. “Thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody, and I'm it because I'm an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that's what they are shooting me for. They're shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old."
You may find it interesting to note that CNN recently sought and was quietly denied a 15-year-old police record relating to the Bergdahl family on the grounds that the release of any portion of the requested document would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Any major or further persecution of Bergdahl would have a significant political impact as others would begin to dig into why exactly Bergdahl sat without hope for five years, easily in reach of the military—and perhaps more importantly why Bergdahl’s analysis of the war after only a month in the country matched exactly that of his commander-in-chief after ten years of deliberation.
The “intent not to return” is critical in proving the legal definition of desertion—a decision that it appears Bergdahl’s kidnappers negated when they bundled Bergdahl into a Toyota sedan and drove off with him into the hinterlands. It is also an intention that after nine hours of answering questions (with Fidell present), only Bergdahl could incriminate himself on, and given the pedigree of his lawyer when it comes to the military, this scenario was unlikely.
This frame from the Taliban propaganda video released on Friday, December 25, 2009, purportedly shows US soldier Bowe Bergdahl. AP Photo/Militant Video
To understand the rage over the release of five formerly “high-ranking” Taliban from Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, it is essential to grasp their importance, or, more accurately, their lack thereof.
Guantánamo Bay is a leased US naval base situated on the communist island of Cuba. The facility known as Camp Delta was opened in January 2002 to hold battlefield detainees (a.k.a. terror suspects) during interrogations, after which they would either be cleared or imprisoned indefinitely. The idea was this facility was for “dangerous” prisoners who, if released, would continue attacking Americans, and therefore the laws and rights of America do not apply.
As soon as it opened, Gitmo was quickly filled with Afghans and foreign fighters captured in the initial 2001 attack on Afghanistan by the CIA and Special Forces. Many of the men had been held in ad hoc sites, including hospital bays on Navy ships, black sites in foreign countries, or in secret prisons until Gitmo was open for business. The official line was that the island prison was simply the most efficient way to hold on to foreigners who went by a bewildering laundry list of aliases. Legally, the foreign facility at Gitmo was created because America simply did not know who was a terrorist, who was a freedom fighter, or even who was an innocent farmhand who had just been turned in maliciously for the US bounty.
Before and just after 9/11, “al Qaeda” or “the Base” was a loosely defined organization, and its association with the Taliban seemed symbiotic. In the very first days of the war in late 2001 and early 2002, American paramilitary operators issued bounties on the heads of foreign fighters, the most famous being the $10 million for Osama bin Laden (which was eventually increased to $25 million), down to a mere $5,000 for run-of-the-mill jihadists. The early enthusiasm for finding suspects was also a way for locals to settle scores or for frustrated intelligence agencies to punish recalcitrant prisoners. America was not officially “at war,” but we were damned sure going to "get our man." President Bush sought “justice” and was fond of using Western-film vernacular to describe the hunt for “who did it." Without any trial or formal evidence, in September 2001 the United States made Osama bin Ladin their target. He was wanted dead or alive. There were networks of people, according to President Bush, and their goal was to “defeat the freedoms we understand." Accordingly, the Wild West mentality was extended to Green Berets riding to victory on horseback and the Taliban—perfectly cast with eye patches and black turbans—being brought to justice.
Foreign nationals aged anywhere from 13 to 89 who had been caught on “battlefields” around the world soon flooded into Gitmo's cells and prison yards, though only 8 percent of them were later determined to be bona fide al Qaeda by the US. This lawless facility and brutal late-night camera-phone dispatches leaked from places like Abu Ghraib in Iraq soon became a glaring beacon of American injustice in what was quickly being viewed as a blatant war of misguided revenge. Suspects were held without charges and submitted to soul-searing torture methods that twisted hearts and minds into a specter of neoconservative regret. At this point, not even the Executive Branch was suffering from the delusion that things were working out.
As early as May 2006, President Bush began stating his intention to close Gitmo. By 2008, shutting down the legally questionable prison and restoring an acceptable level of legal treatment to its prisoners was a major election platform. But despite President Obama’s promise to shutter Gitmo during his 2008 campaign and beyond, it still remains open and in full operation while the decade-long war that made it necessary draws to a close. Currently there are still around 150 prisoners holed up there, half of which have been perpetually scheduled and rescheduled for release for years. The very presence of foreign nationals held without charges for more than a decade is a black mark on the concept of American justice and the nation's mandate in what is less and less being called the "War on Terror.”
In addition to Gitmo, the CIA continues to maintain so-called black sites where suspected terrorists are kept after being kidnapped from one country and flown to another. In this hazy, ill-defined post-9/11 world of non-uniformed combatants, there still exists the continuum of truly evil people and those who are completely innocent. In the rapidly evolving and spreading world of Islamic violence, extinguishing an al Qaeda insurgent from a member of a nationalist insurgency in the field is becoming more and more difficult—unless, of course, those suspects were not only unrelated to 9/11 but also frozen in time thanks to being taken off the battlefield. Bergdahl was a uniformed soldier captured and held by the Taliban, the former unrecognized government of Afghanistan, for five years. But he was kidnapped and never allowed to be processed in a normal prisoner exchange or release—something that would be typical of traditional wars.
The five talibs swapped for Bergdahl were at one time members of the aforementioned unofficial government of Afghanistan, and they all have one thing in common: At one point or another, each and every one surrendered to or was working with the Americans or CIA. The caliber of intelligence proffered from these exchanges may never be known, because they were all kidnapped and eventually held without charges in Gitmo. Essentially, we turned the “good Taliban” into "bad Taliban."
The Taliban Five, as they have come to be known, were involved in an earlier conflict to liberate Afghanistan from warlords and criminal gangs. Some have history that goes back to the war before that, in which, from roughly 1979 to 1989, Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government fought against fundamentalist mujahideen in the countryside. In the end, these talib fighters were forced to flee from their homeland to the refugee camps of Pakistan.
America was the major ghost player in this proxy extension of the Cold War, beginning with its support of seven groups to train and arm young men recruited out of sprawling mud-house camps from Quetta, in Pakistan's south, to Peshawar, in the country's north. Efforts accelerated in 1986, when the CIA provided surface-to-air missiles using secret British SAS trainers and increased the funding of logistics groups like the Haqqani Network. The Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia matched us dollar for dollar, bankrolling young men like Osama bin Laden, who funneled Arabic-speaking jihadists into Afghanistan to kill Afghans and Soviets. The Islamic State of Pakistan and their ISI intelligence group were the “cut-out” for these covert funds, which is unsurprising considering they would favor ethnic and religious groups that supported their Pashtun and Sunni view of Afghanistan. The tribes that controlled the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan had become tactically efficient and well armed.
Mujahideen forces were finally able to ambush and dismantle the Soviet supply network that had allowed landlocked Afghans and Russians to advance in the region. The Soviets, resigned to what was quickly becoming a dead-end war, decided to create a 400,000-strong local security force before pulling troops out. On February 15, 1989, a decade after the USSR had parachuted and dropped into the area, the last Russian troops rolled their trucks and armor across the ridiculously named Afghanistan–Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge, north of Mazar, in a highly publicized event.
Soviet funding for the Afghan government and its security forces continued until 1992, when paychecks to the military and police were cut and the entire country collapsed into chaos. Local ethnic groups, a large swath of whom would constitute the CIA-backed Northern Alliance in America’s War in Afghanistan ten years later, began pulverizing Kabul and fighting among one another for power. Anarchy reigned from 1992 until 1995, when the Taliban rolled in from Pakistan and headed north.
It wasn’t until 1996, when the Taliban arrived in Kabul and took it over without firing a shot, that Afghanistan finally found peace—at least temporarily. Then the Taliban unwisely decided to conquer north of the Hindu Kush. The Taliban were potentially only weeks from victory until the events of 9/11 allowed the CIA the justification it needed to expand its support of the Northern Alliance and America’s longest war commenced. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden escaped into Pakistan. The penniless and now defeated Taliban, once allies of America, realized that the presence of Osama bin Laden and his foreign mercenaries had destroyed their dream of an Islamic, Pashtun-ruled Afghan nation. Many fled home, some went back to Pakistan, and some quickly made the best deal they could with their old 80s jihad friends, the Americans.
This time line was at the forefront of the Taliban Five’s minds when the deal for their swap for Bergdahl was made. They see themselves as fighting for freedom from foreign meddlers, de facto prisoners of war waging a 30-year battle for sovereignty. If the conflict with America is over, then they are no longer combatants, and they should go home. In late 2001, all of these men viewed themselves as part of the Afghan government—a government that had just surrendered on the battlefield. The winners were the old post-Soviet coalition mujahideen government of the Northern Alliance (which by this time had been relabeled the United Front) that included General Dostum, the Tajik forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Hazar, and the CIA-funded flunkies.
By November 2001, the Taliban army was routed by massive US bombings and merciless Afghan attacks. The first official Taliban surrender was held on Friday, November 22, 2001. In early December, the tenuous rule and rudimentary ground forces of the Taliban had been geopolitically recalibrated. This resulted in surrenders in Mazar, Kandahar, and other regions. By mid December, Osama bin Laden, his family members, and a group of approximately 50 fighters had crossed over the Spin Ghar mountains and into Pakistan. By January 2002, Mullah Omar had also fled for Pakistan. By early 2002, Operation Anaconda in the Haqqani-controlled mountains showed that those foreign fighters and talib commanders who remained inside Afghanistan had no guarantees of clemency, or even of staying alive.
The five mullahs who were eventually swapped for Bergdahl constituted the nexus of this confused rout. Up north, Mullah Noori, the former tailor, farmer, domestic worker turned governor of the north, and Mullah Fazl, who was the Taliban's deputy defense minister, had surrendered to General Dostum at a videotaped ceremony in Qala-i-Jangi on November 22, 2001. It was a surrender that began on November 15 as the Taliban were surrounded in Kunduz. They had seen firsthand what US airpower could do to mechanized columns and untrained troops in fixed trenches. They were finished.
Mullah Noori, the governor of Balkh Province under the Taliban, after surrendering to General Dostum in a ceremony with the CIA. Taken during an interview with Robert Young Pelton in November 2001, Koda Barq, Northern Afghanistan. Photo by Robert Young Pelton, all rights reserved
Mullah Noori is typical of an unsophisticated “senior” Taliban. His father was an iman at a mosque in Shajoy, not too far east of where Bergdahl disappeared. Although labeled as a “mullah,” or religious leader, Noori spent his youth doing odd jobs and reportedly only spent two years studying the Qur'an—far less time than it usually takes for one to earn the title. Looking for work in 1999, he went to join the Taliban army, but rather than join the military wing, at age 33 he ended up as houseboy and guard for senior talib governor and commander Mullah Abdul Kabir.
Kabir was an original member of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura and became military commander of the east. In early 2000, Noori must have stayed awake at his post for a week straight, or tossed a particularly tasty plate of naan, because he was soon sent up north to work for the governor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani. Osmani was Mullah Omar’s right-hand man, whose claim to fame was overseeing the destruction of the Bamyian Buddhas in March, 2001. Noori knew how to read and write well, and had a knack for solving tribal disputes, mostly over irrigation. By the summer of 2001, Noori was promoted to governor of northern Afghanistan—just ahead of the American invasion. Noori may have been book-smart, but he had never fired a gun or even held a military position when he met military commander Mullah Fazl for the first time during the surrender talks in Kunduz on November 17. He just didn’t want to get killed.
Fazl is the most senior military member of the Taliban Five. In direct contrast to Noori, he had completed six years of religious training while living as a refugee in Quetta, Pakistan. In 1996, at the age of 27, he traveled to Kandahar to join the Taliban as a foot soldier. By 2001 he had risen from a simple grunt to commanding 3,000 men. He was promoted to head of the army primarily because, a few days earlier, the Americans had vaporized his boss, Mullah Razzak, in an air strike. He coordinated his rapidly dwindling talib army with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) chief Juma Namangani, who commanded the 1,200 or so foreign fighters in the north. Terrorized that he would be obliterated like his freshly dead boss, he fled to Kunduz and eventually surrendered in a deal negotiated by local Pashtun horse trader Shamshullah.
Unlike his four fellow and now infamous Gitmo inmates, Fazl is a bastard. His war crimes are well documented by the UN, and if anyone can claim to be justified in their anger over a bad apple in the swap, Fazl should be the focal point. These are crimes he can easily be put on trial for in an international forum. Sitting in Gitmo simply sheltered him from justice for a decade and a half. Among his alleged crimes is being in charge of Taliban military operations when eight Iranian diplomats were executed in Mazar-i-Sharif. He was also in charge during the murder of hundreds of Shia Hazara in Yakalong at the hands of Mullah Dadullah and his men. I personally witnessed the charred bodies of Hazara civilians, still locked in their shop stalls and burned alive by the Taliban.
Traveling from Kunduz to the 19th-century garrison of Qala-i-Jangi, just west of Mazar-i-Sharif, mullahs Fazl and Noori cut a deal with the then head of the Northern Alliance/United Front, General Dostum, that allowed them to return home in exchange for handing over the foreign fighters under their control to the UN. It was clear to everyone that the foreign fighters, who had brought about the downfall of the Taliban, were relegated to a unpleasant ending. Some were killed by American air strikes that targeted a Mazar-i-Sharif all-girls school they had taken over; others who had been trapped in Kunduz drove to Mazar-i-Sharif and were disarmed only after a lengthy Mexican standoff. Taken to the garrison of Qala-i-Jangi, they then staged a horrific uprising and were all wiped out except for a few dozen survivors. During my time in Afghanistan, I had many conversations with mullahs Noori and Fazl in the Soviet-built Koda Barq suburb next to Qala-i-Jangi fortress. They confirmed that the mullahs were dour, dull, uneducated, and unrepentant men. Their early association with and loyalty to Mullah Omar far outweighed any intellectual or meritorious reasons for their position.
After the bloody Taliban-prisoner uprising at Qala-i-Jangi was put down by December 1, 2001, the two recently converted “good guy” Taliban mullahs, Noori and Fazl, began to get comfortable being chauffeured around to cut deals with the remaining Taliban stragglers who were hiding out in Pashtun-controlled pockets up north. In January and February 2002, I traveled along with Mullah Fazl, General Dostum, his ramshackle army, and a US Special Forces detachment to extinguish one hot spot after another; the metallic-gold painted, Taliban-stickered Land Cruisers driven by the surrendered mullahs were a common sight. The mullahs came in handy in helping Dostum to cut peace deals between the Northern Alliance and local Taliban groups. The three others traded for Bergdahl had a slightly different history: They were captured while trying to save their skin by using their connections to betray Mullah Omar and the Taliban. In hindsight, this move will not endear them to Mullah Omar during an expected homecoming to Afghanistan next year.
According to a “SECRET” Gitmo file—part of the massive dump thanks to former Army Private Bradley Manning—one of those three, Abdul Haq Wasiq, even asked for a GPS unit and instructions on how to contact the CIA once he located Omar.
Robert Young Pelton and General Abdul Rashid Dostum with the mullahs at Qala-i-Jangi, viewing the destruction after the battle in late November 2001
It’s debatable how long the mullahs could have continued to bring stability to the north, but it was clear that the US had a different agenda. All the former Taliban who would one day be known as the "Gitmo Five" were suddenly and roughly renditioned and held without charges—or, to be more precise, kidnapped. They were ushered aboard the USS Bataan, stationed off the coast of Pakistan. Wasiq had traveled to Kandahar with the intention of selling the location of Mullah Omar to the CIA. But in November 2001, the day after making this offer, Wasiq was arrested. Questioned and held for a year, the two mullahs and Wasiq showed up at the new Gitmo facility on January 11, 2002.
It is not coincidental that the list of Taliban prisoners the Afghan High Peace Council compiled and recommended for release as a gesture of good faith is identical to the prisoners the Haqqanis had been demanding in exchange for New York Times reporter David Rohde, and then Bergdahl.
From Mullah Omar’s point of view, these men had never declared war on America, were never officially charged with any crimes, and were thankfully preserved in the time capsule that is Gitmo while most of their madrassa alma mater had been splattered across some rocky outpost by Maverick missiles.
As outlined in Part 2 of this story, there was a sixth man whom Mullah Omar wanted back in exchange for Bergdahl: an electrician turned small-time Taliban commander, Awal Gul, who died of a heart attack inside Gitmo in early February 2011. Gul had personally handed his letter of resignation to Mullah Omar, a year before the Americans were on the ground in Afghanistan, but was suspected by the US of helping bin Laden escape from Tora Bora. Gul was captured by Special Forces–backed warlord Hazrat Ali, who was also suspected of aiding bin Laden’s escape into Pakistan while simultaneously accepting “suitcases full of cash” from the US in exchange for a dog-and-pony show during which he had very little direct interaction with his American “allies.” Unfortunately, Awal Gul had been instrumental in convincing local Taliban commanders in Jalalabad to surrender to US forces with the hope of landing a position in the new government. Gul’s militia, however, vehemently disagreed with the terms of a deal that would result in all foreign fighters being handed over to the US. Ali provided a de facto compromise to these negotiations by arresting Gul with charges that he was a supporter of al Qaeda.
Like Karzai, Khairkhwa is a member and former leader of the Popalzai tribe. The Karzais supported the Taliban in its early days, to the point that a young Hamid was handpicked by Mullah Omar to serve as the Taliban’s representative to the UN. The US even issued a “démarche," or State Department diplomatic order, to Karzai in 1996 in a failed attempt to persuade the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden.
Luckily, Karzai passed on the official Taliban government position and hitched his star to the CIA. During the Taliban era, Khairkhwa was appointed interior minister and later became governor of Herat Province, even though he had no formal education. In Herat, Khairkhwa was the main liaison to Iran, and some say a “major opium drug lord” who controlled western Afghanistan.
When the Taliban was defeated by US forces in 2001, and it looked as though Karzai could become an international player, Khairkhwa fled to Pakistan and asked Karzai for a job and protection. Karzai referred him to his brother, Ahmed Wali, who was running Karzai’s deals, minding his PR, and serving as a liaison to the CIA out of the Pakistani border town of Chaman. Then the Pakistani Border Authority arrested Khairkhwa on his way to meet Wali Karzai and his CIA handlers. After being detained in Pakistan for five months, he was flown to Gitmo.
Mohammad Nabi Omari is the only member of the Taliban Five who can be directly associated with the Haqqani Network, which held Bergdahl for all those years, and he was arrested much later than the fellow talibs with whom he was imprisoned at Gitmo. A former policeman, he resigned from the Taliban to return to his life as a farmer near Khost.
According to his "SECRET" Gitmo file, in the spring of 2002 an Afghan friend of Omara’s introduced him to a CIA officer named Mark who gave the former talib $500 and a cell phone. The idea was that Omari would travel to Pakistan, where he would try to link up with his boss, the head of Taliban intelligence, and find Mullah Omar. After a few meetings with CIA handlers at the airport and no action, his handler had him arrested and sent to a prison in Bagram. For whatever reason—perhaps his interrogators were not getting the answers they wanted—Omari was shipped off to Gitmo by October 2002. Under interrogation, it was discovered that Omari was not only aligned with a CIA warlord, Pacha Zadran Khan, but also involved in smuggling weapons and men across the border. According to his leaked Gitmo file, Omari has not been a good prisoner, with 37 infractions ranging from throwing his crap in the face of guards to generally being a dick. He is the bad boy of the Gitmo Five and probably the only one who will be back in business running contraband across the borders.
Omari was arrested on September 14, 2002. What seems to be missing from the Gitmo Five narrative is that all of these men had proved their eagerness to betray Mullah Omar and the cause—even if that might have been a ruse to save their own skin.
Despite the attempts of the media to portray the Taliban Five as dangerous terrorists, it is safe to assume that none of the five prisoners used as bargaining chips either for peace talks or the safe return of Bergdahl were captured with blazing machine guns in hand, or in the confusion that follows a malfunctioning suicide vest.
One other common factor is that at the time of their arrests in early 2002, the Taliban Five were badly educated, 30-something toadies who had moved up the food chain by virtue of their direct bosses being eliminated or fleeing. Ergo their immediate desire to find employment or security with the “enemy."
This frame taken from a Taliban propaganda video released Saturday, July 18, 2009, shows Bergdahl as a POW. AP Photo/Militant Video
So let’s get back to the question at hand: Why did it take so long to swap five aging and traitorous Mullah Omar sycophants who surrendered while fighting a long forgotten war? Why were five former members of the Taliban used as a bargaining chip for Bowe Bergdahl?
We now know that these talibs were part of a suggested ransom/prisoner deal for David Rohde, the kidnapped Times reporter, back in early to mid 2009. We know that the Taliban quickly inserted Bergdahl as a way to release prisoners within days of his kidnap in June 2009. We know that our own president very publicly promised to close Gitmo in his 2008 election campaign and even set a time line of a year to release or deal with all detainees. We now know that Bergdahl was being held a few miles inside the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan and that the military and CIA received frequent updates on his condition, location, and jailers. So why wasn’t Bergdahl rescued or quietly swapped for the five former Taliban?
The answer is disturbing. Bergdahl became a tainted political pawn that the military viewed as a traitor, a man who had willfully abandoned his post, possibly joined the Taliban or al Qaeda, and might be a stinging embarrassment once rescued. CENTCOM had used SEAL Team Six (DEVGRU) to rescue Captain Richard Phillips, an American missionary in Somalia, and other high-risk ventures, like killing Bin Laden. So why not recsue a young uniformed soldier held by terrorists?
To understand, it is important to look at Bergdahl’s status and evolution in the public eye versus the private, secret opinion of his liability. Bergdahl, who, along with his previously known negative views of the war, had been described by Dewey Clarridge’s sources as “declaring jihad” and joining the Taliban, would dramatically contrast the American military mantra of “winning” in Afghanistan.
Then, in early July 2008, the Haqqanis bought Bergdahl. It is common for kidnappers in Afghanistan to negotiate a piece of the ultimate ransom payments or accept cash for handing over a high-value snatch. The Taliban’s ideological strategy had been flanked by the mounting American “surge," the same surge that had brought Bergdahl to Afghanistan and was making the US military and intelligence community nervous. Although Obama made the commanding officers of Afghanistan tip over like dominoes, Generals McKiernan, McChrystal, and Petraeus fell on their swords to convince the administration to assign them more troops. And as they got them, it became embarrassingly obvious that Pakistan was where the enemy was finding safe refuge.
The Taliban were actually being cleared out of areas they had once controlled, and the American military presented hard proof to the Pakistanis of their complicity in fortifying the Taliban. All along the border areas, Pakistani Taliban thwarted their government. Pakistan realized that the proxy virus they had helped incubate might now be infecting them. Osama bin Laden was confined to a large compound near the main military nexus of the country, and Pakistan began to make life difficult for the exiled Taliban in Quetta.
Although Obama had been elected in 2008 while supporting the fight in Afghanistan as the "right war," he soon found out it should have been fought in Pakistan. Privately, Obama knew it was time to tamp down the fire. Polls showed that 70 percent of the members of the Democratic Party opposed the war, and half of America wanted out. But the public announcement sounded very different. On March 27, 2009, three months before Bergdahl’s disappearance, Obama publicly announced that America needed a “stronger, smarter, and comprehensive strategy” in Afghanistan. He then hung himself on the horns of a dilemma, escalating a war he knew he was going to lose. He announced the appointment of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan with the goal of pressuring Islamabad to stop supporting al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Haqqanis while telling General Petraeus to step up attacks inside Afghanistan. He authorized 17,000 troops out of the 30,000 requested by General McKiernan and began a halfhearted surge. Obama also said that "we will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces." Or the exact same strategy the Soviets took when they decided they would bail on Afghanistan when they were only five years into their ten-year war. It had taken America eight years to come to the same conclusion, and it would take at least three years longer to get out.
What the public didn’t know was that Obama had decided it was time to bail on Afghanistan. He gave Petraeus a one-year window to establish an Afghan security apparatus and tasked Holbrooke with finding a way out by setting up peace talks between the US and the Taliban. A very public rescue of Private Bergdahl from inside the safe haven of Pakistan would make those delicate talks very difficult.
In May 2011, a fifth video of Bergdahl was sent out. It went mostly unnoticed. The election cycle inspired promises of troop drawdowns starting in the spring. The military in Afghanistan and the CIA in Pakistan were dealing with the tidal wave of backlash from the cross-border raid to kill Osama bin Laden, who was discovered living a few blocks from a major military installation. The US Special Operations community had shown they could very easily find, reach out, and touch any human in any hostile location. So why not Bergdahl?
Interpreting the silence from the unpopular government as inaction, a frustrated Bob Bergdahl decided to circumvent the government and go public with the full scope of his son's story. He stopped shaving when Bowe was kidnapped, growing his beard in solidarity, and began studying Pashto as he contemplated heading to Afghanistan himself to find his 26-year-old son. He then produced a homemade video in which he was wearing a salwar kameez, the traditional garb of Pakistan. He described Mullah Sangeen and the Haqqanis as “sheltering” Bergdahl as a guest. He referenced all detainees, from both sides of the war, as being the crux of how to solve his son’s—and his country’s—involvement in a battle that no one seemed to be capable of winning. “I feel that I have to do my job as his father,” he said. “I’m working toward a diplomatic and humanitarian solution.”
A brass POW bracelet used during the Vietnam War rests on a red anodized-aluminum POW bracelet for Bergdahl. PRNewsFoto/Memorial Bracelets
Bob Bergdahl then made a widely publicized appearance on Memorial Day at a POW event during Rolling Thunder, an annual gathering of half a million motorcyclists in Washington, DC. He addressed the crowd, saying, "So help me God, we will not leave you behind.”
That June, not coincidentally, Michael Hastings, the same man who had torpedoed General McChrystal’s career and Bergdahl’s best chance for a rescue in “The Runaway General” for Rolling Stone, wrote a 10,000-word follow-up of sorts on Bergdahl’s kidnapping. The article, “America’s Last Prisoner of War,” depicted Bergdahl as being under intense mental pressure as part of a sad-sack group of soldiers. Hastings portrayed Bergdahl as confused and disappointed and, without any hard evidence, suggested that Bergdahl had abandoned his post. Despite this, support to bring back Bergdahl became a mantra of the anti-Obama right wing as T-shirts, rubber bracelets, stickers, and other items to bring attention to Bergdahl’s plight appeared. Getting Bergdahl back became a rallying cry for veterans and the patriotic. His long absence and continual abuse by his captors was largely and increasingly blamed on President Obama. Bergdahl was now a political weapon of the right wing to show the inaction, incompetence, and lack of military conviction of the Democratic president. Bergdahl had become a symbol of Obama’s inability to successfully prosecute the War on Terror.
Unknown to most and only revealed in hazy rumors, the unthinkable was occurring: America was rumored to be in peace talks with the Taliban, further inflaming the idea that Afghanistan might be another Vietnam, another war in which lives and treasure were wasted. The general public did not realize how much Bowe Bergdahl had become the focal point of those talks. Mullah Sangeen, Bergdahl’s minder, was put on the US terrorist list.
But then Bergdahl attempted to escape. Using his survival skills, Bergdahl had spent months building up trust with his captors. By the summer of 2011, Bergdahl was allowed to walk around unchained. He had gained the trust of his captors and even learned basic Pashto, allowing him to escape them for a period of three days and two nights. He tried to hide in a ditch covered with leaves after failing to find any civilians to aid in his escape. On September 27, 2011, the US made moves to show the Haqqanis and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence that they meant business by capturing Haji Mali Khan, the most senior member of the Haqqani Network next to his eponymous patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani, in a joint operation conducted by US and NATO forces inside Afghanistan. A month after Mali Khan had been captured, he was designated a terrorist. This meant he could then be treated very differently from what he was—a POW—and held in any CIA black site his captors desired, where he would be subjected to “enhanced” interrogation methods.
By late 2011, Bergdahl’s future looked hazy, if he was even still alive. Behind the scenes, the major turning points and bungled political moves to negotiate the release of Bergdahl were kept hidden from the American taxpayer. The Taliban also insisted on absolute secrecy to hide their departure from their previous hard-line stance. If the Taliban rank and file discovered that Mullah Omar was selling out the dream of a caliphate, there would be a mutiny.
America was also undermining its hard-line stance against the Taliban. While American and NATO troops were fighting and dying for the surge, well-dressed diplomats were undermining their efforts in Bavarian luxury homes and plush palaces. And Bowe Bergdahl, the focal point around which this whirlwind of diplomacy and duplicity spun, remained lonely, abused, and waiting in the forests of North Waziristan.
Continued in Part 4, coming soon.