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By several credible accounts, this is the real story on Bergdahl.
It was June 2009. I was working off the grid in and around South-Eastern Afghanistan. I had built a very effective Afghan network: local elders, merchants, NDS commanders, Afghan Army CI, etc. Word came down that a soldier from the 501st INF had gone AWOL. The name of the soldier was quickly known: Bowe Bergdahl.
Within hours of the reported “DUSTWUN” (Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown) the RC-East Commander initiated a total gag order, preventing any Army unit or Embedded Training Team (ETT) / Police Mentor Team (PMT) team from sharing intelligence with the Afghans. His order was based on his command’s stated belief that the Afghans were complicit in the taking of Bergdahl. The actual motivations came out later in private meetings behind closed doors: he wanted to protect his chances for promotion to O-7 (One Star General).
The Commander’s order didn’t affect me, and I frankly had little care for being involved in the search for someone as obviously stupid as this kid. My feelings, bluntly, were that Darwin’s laws should be let to play out and the Taliban’s desires to turn young boys into sex puppets was this kids earned destiny.
Almost immediately the rumor mill was in full swing. I returned to my Area of Operations (AO) and stayed to my own business. Nothing was flying or moving unless it was part of the search. So I took some days to read, catch up on emails and listen to the chatter in the mess hall as I sucked down my cups of bad coffee and powdered creamer. Mid-way through the second week I ran into one of the PMT mentors. He was furious about having to deal with the gag order; rightfully describing how the lack of sharing was undermining his teams relationship and trust with the Afghan Police units they were mentoring. His frustration got to me; it pissed me off to be more to the point. I knew this kid Bergdahl could be found. Not through the might of every US military asset in Eastern Afghanistan, but through tribal connections and traditional ways of doing business in Afghanistan…something Regular Army commanders never understood. I left the encounter with the PMT mentor, returned to my AO and walked into my Colonel’s office.
“I will make you a bet I can locate this kid in a week.” He looked at me and said nothing. He knew how I worked and I walked out.
I began by walking into the office of an Afghan Intelligence Officer I knew. He greeted me as always; welcomed me in and offered me Chai. We had not seen each other for well over a month. We shared stories, we discussed insurgent tactics, new TTPs, his family, my travels. Then I asked him the question I had come for, “Colonel…where’s our boy?” He looked at me and just stared back. Then he said, “You don’t want to know.”
I was taken aback and frankly irritated. I had had enough of the games over this kid’s search. “What do you mean I don’t want to know! We are friends; we have been friends a long time. Your answer is not good enough.” The Colonel then went on to explain to me how he had offered his support to find Bergdahl. However, the American Army mentors told him they weren’t interested; that they had everything under control.
I reminded him I wasn’t them and that I could frankly give a shit what his Army mentors were or were not interested in. “Help me find him. You and I both know this cannot be done without Afghan intelligence. You and I know that regardless of how stupid this kid is, he needs to be brought home.”
He sat down at his desk and made a call as he scribbled a few notes on a piece of white paper. He then got up from his desk, walked across the room and sat down in front of a dusty computer at the back. A few keystrokes later, he added a few more notes to the paper, walked over towards me and handed me what he had written.
“These are the names of the villages and GPS coordinates where your boy was the past three nights.”
I thanked him and took the information back to my Colonel. I told him what was on the paper. He took it with a bit of suspicion, but stated that he would be sending it up to the Special Operations Task Force 373. Later that night he called me into his office.
“I don’t know where you are getting your information but keep in coming. They like what you have.”
Over the next few days I expanded my information gathering to include NDS, Afghan CI, and locals. The Afghans continued to provide details on location, how Bergdahl was traveling, what he was wearing, and his state of mind. The picture continued to grow and the picture was one of a kid that had willingly left his post, deserted his brothers and his commitment to the US Army and our country. Bergdahl was described as dressed in local dress. He was riding around on the back of motorcycles hugging his Afghan captors. He was not in chains or in handcuffs, but willingly moving about to avoid detection. He needed to be retrieved…not to save him, but to punish him for his betrayal.
The details around Bergdahl’s decision to walk off of his FOB (Forward Operating Base) to explore the wilds of Afghanistan were locked down almost immediately. Even journalists were restricted from access; being denied interviews, field movement or access to anyone with any knowledge of Bergdahl or of his unit. Keeping the lid on the story was the number one command objective. But I dug and I found details. Though I still have this part of the story listed as “unconfirmed” this is what I put together:
Bergdahl was unstable the minute he arrived in country. He was unhappy, disconnected from the unit, and dissatisfied with the way his unit had dealt with several incidents. He had illusions of grandeur, talking about getting back to nature. He also had a romanticized ideal of himself as some sort of one man Rambo as well as a love affair with the Afghan indigenous fighter (aka Taliban). Rumors of what happened ranged from his unit running over a child to Bergdahl slowly coming unglued. He had all of the signs of being high risk. There was never any one story that was consistently told about the cause and effect. Both his unit and his command were protective and defensive… obvious signs of hiding something. What was more than clear is that Bergdahl, his unit and his command were a train wreck. As for Bergdahl specifically, his background should have been an early warning that something, anything, could easily set him off. Raised by a Northwest family that would be best described as off the grid, liberal tofu eaters, Bergdahl was homeschooled and raised to be a kind and sensitive child. He learned ballet, and enjoyed long walks in nature. He was almost a modern day young Emerson. When he turned of age he apparently felt he needed some adventure so he talked to a recruiter and fell in love with the “be all you can be” dream and joined the Army. Airborne was now his new meditation mantra and walks in the woods were replaced with forced marches and an 80-pound rucksack. To what should not have been a surprise to anyone, he did not work in well with his unit. Maybe it was the ballet, maybe it was his sensitive nature now imprisoned by his sworn duty to kill the bastards who celebrated the deaths of over 3000 Americans killed on 9-11. Whatever his reasons, when the moment arrived that he decided he was no longer interested in his obligation, his “free spirit”spoke as he grabbed his sketchbook and some water and walked off of the FOB. He was AWOL. Nothing more to it than that.
At the end of my seventh day or so of working this problem, I returned to the office of the Afghan Intelligence Colonel. Over another round of Chai and information exchange, I pressed him to leverage his network to set up a meet with the tribe that was holding Bergdahl. By this time the profile of Bergdahl’s captors was becoming clear. Where Bergdahl played out a version of a spoiled brat’s “walk about”, his captors saw opportunity. They had grievances with the local Governor. They wanted to use Bergdahl to get what they thought they deserved. This was the Afghan way.
During this time the rumors and reports from the US side were that Berdahl had been taken by Haqqani. That was not the case. His captors had sent out word to the Haqqani network asking for a reward, however the initial interest from Haqqani was cool to tepid at best. Their concern was that Bergdahl was mentally unstable; and even though Bergdahl had voluntarily converted to Islam, the Haqqani network was not willing to bring a mentally unstable Muslim convert over the border into Pakistan. We should have paid attention to Haqqani.
I sat with the Afghan Colonel and we went over the tape that had been released of Bergdahl. We watched it a half dozen times. Other Afghan intelligence types entered the room. They dissected the images…the weave on the bread that was shown in the video was only available in one particular village; the sound of the generators demonstrated a level of wealth; the pattern on the rugs provided insight into the owner and their taste; the food and the way it was served provided understanding of tribal habits and behaviors; the interviewer, his English intonation and his camera skills could only be of a select few people; and Bergdahl himself provided a wealth of clues from his dress, to his mannerisms, to his compliant attitude. The Colonel made some notes. The Afghan cadre discussed what they had seen. He felt sure he knew what village Bergdhal was in.
“I want to meet with the tribal leader who is holding him. Just me and my interpreter. I will travel in my own vehicle. No military. No guns. You can join me if you wish,” I told him.
The Colonel called a friend in Parliament. The discussion was brief. He hung up the phone and we waited. A few minutes later the phone rang; it was his Parliament friend again. The tribal leader had agreed to the meet. The location would be set the next day. The Afghan Colonel and I agreed to travel together. We parted, each of us setting about preparing our kit for the next morning.
The media blast that followed the Bergdahl video was what the RC-East Commander had hoped to avoid. The story was now out. Bergdahl who had been effectively a blip on the radar up to that point became an international star overnight. The elevation of status made him more valuable and Haqqani understood this. The following morning as I walked to the vehicle to meet up with the Afghan Colonel, he greeted me, still wearing his military dress. I knew something was off. He informed me that the meeting had been cancelled. Overnight Haqqani had dispatched a team with an undisclosed amount of cash and had taken control of Bergdahl. From that point forward the chances of getting him back were all but lost.
Over the next few years I made the occasional probes through my Afghan contacts about Bergdahl. The responses were always the same…he was with Haqqani. Some reports had him living happily in Haqqani’s large compound in Pakistan. Other reports told of him missing his family and regretting his decision to go AWOL. He was regularly reported being seen in the markets near the Haqqani compound, usually shopping on his own without restraints or guards.
Within many circles Bergdahl became more like an urban legend. Under GEN McChrystal a group was stood up called the Counter-insurgency Assessment Advisement Team, or CAAT for short. Early on there was one notable idiot by the name of Sean. A former 7th Special Forces Group guy, he and his tag-along buddy Tim promised to retrieve Bergdahl and bring fame and recognition to the CAAT. Naturally their grand plan never materialized. Bergdahl remained safely in the arms of Haqqani.
Near the end of GEN Petraeus’time I came across the Personnel Recovery group working to find Bergdahl. Outside of several highly covert units still tasked with finding the kid, this private contracted team was all that was left. We shared information, I reviewed their plans, and what was clear is that there wasn’t a plan. Bergdahl was Haqqani’s property until Haqqani decided otherwise. For me the issue was simple, Bergdahl wasn’t worth it.
This last year I sent out another query on Bergdahl. The response this time was similar, but a few things had changed. Unlike past queries, the information that came back was that the Haqqani group was tiring of Bergdahl. They were becoming concerned that they would be left holding him and not accomplish their goals of retrieving their brothers from US holding. The word was they were willing to negotiate. In true Pashtun fashion, however, they added a threat of killing Bergdahl if their demands weren’t met. My Afghan contacts told me they could make the meet happen. I passed. The risk to get this kid wasn’t worth it and by this time the United States government was well on its way to giving in to Haqqani to save face and win a few political points with the liberal mass of military haters back home.
The latest news of 5 GITMO detainee transfers for this kid’s life left me nauseated. From everything I was receiving, Haqqani never expected to get any of the prisoners, let alone 5 of some of the most highly valued targets we had in holding. The US negotiators had fallen for the bluff…the threat of killing the kid. No one ever asked the question of why Haqqani would kill Bergdahl suddenly now after keeping him alive for so many years. A typical political knee jerk reaction to a problem rooted in thousands of years of traditions and ways of doing deals. We got screwed and I suspect Haqqani is laughing his ass off at us from his compound in Pakistan.
The deal that has been made is a slap in the face to every American soldier alive and dead that has served this country with honor. Bowe Bergdahl is a traitor. He willingly left his post and his fellow soldiers to go on a spiritual stroll in Afghanistan, convert to Islam and ultimately join up with the Taliban…and in so doing cost us the lives of great soldiers who were tasked with finding him…just run the body count of how many died searching for him in 2009. Bergdahl wasn’t captured as the Army and media spin-doctors would want you to believe. He betrayed his country and should pay the price of incarceration at the least and death by hanging at the best.
May he burn in Hell.
Reported by RW