Private Bowe Bergdahl is the personification of America’s lack of purpose and clarity in its decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009 I was in Afghanistan and was involved in the search for Bergdahl from that first June morning he went missing.
Finding Bergdahl: Inside the Search for the Last Prisoner of America’s Longest War
Private Bowe Bergdahl is the personification of America’s lack of purpose and clarity in its decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The narrative thus far is this: An introverted but adventurous 23-year-old neophyte soldier becomes disenchanted with the war he has eagerly signed up to fight. Then, within weeks, he wanders off base and ends up kidnapped by the Taliban. He becomes our singular POW, a soldier held against his will for five years—at some points in a cage. According to the kangaroo court of public opinion, though, he is a deserter.
The overall tone of the saga is overwhelmingly negative. Bergdahl is victimizer, responsible for the deaths of solders who never even set foot in Pakistan, the country in which the government and military knew he was being held. Yet this once idealistic, sensitive young man has emerged from five years in captivity in a foreign land to a cycle of social brutalization that has the potential to be even more crushing to his psyche. He has faced accusations that he is a traitor, deserter, Taliban-lover, turncoat, and perhaps even one ofthem.
The other side of this bifurcated stream of white-hot hate is caused by the anger of the American public suddenly discovering that five senior members of the inner circle of Taliban leader Mullah Omar were kidnapped and held for more than 13 years without charges in Guantánamo Bay and are now on their own recognizance in a luxury villa in Qatar. As we will learn, however, all five had surrendered or were working with the Americans before they were kidnapped. The concern is that they are “terrorists” and will be “recidivists.” The Taliban have never been labeled as a terrorist group, but there is clear evidence of men released from Gitmo returning to their violent ways.
Coiled inside, around, and throughout this story is the truth and, even more curiously, my involvement with some elements of that truth in the early days of Bergdahl’s disappearance. A truth obfuscated by a topic that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention or analysis as its byproducts: the actual criminal act committed by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
In 2009 I was in Afghanistan and was involved in the search for Bergdahl from that first June morning he went missing. Tasked by a secretive military group to provide minute-by-minute information on his location using my network of local contacts, I quickly pinpointed Bergdahl’s whereabouts. We then predicted which routes Bergdahl would be taken along, knowing full well he would be sold to the Haqqanis in Miranshah, Pakistan, and whisked across the Pakistani border. Thankfully, the military’s Task Force was able to put a spy plane on target and monitor two phone calls made by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
Tonight on VICE on HBO: Heroin Warfare, by Suroosh Alvi
Iran is an extremely challenging place for journalists to operate. Formal invitations, convoluted bureaucracy, and government-approved “minders” tracking your every movement make it one of the most difficult places to report from in the world. Even with legal permits we got detained and/or arrested almost daily.
VICE had been trying to get into this isolated country for seven years, and every time we got shut down with zero explanation. Last year, after hearing that Iran had a heroin epidemic on its hands—which every single Iranian we interviewed for the piece insisted was a direct consequence of America’s decade-plus occupation of Afghanistan—we gave it another shot.
This time our pitch to the Ministry of Culture was that we wanted to do a story about the widespread damage the opium and heroin trade has had on Iranian society. Finally, they agreed and invited us to come over. Our entire international crew was allowed inside, with the exception of our American cameramen, whom we had to replace with Iranian and Mexican nationals.
It’s estimated that 80 percent of the dope flowing out of Afghanistan passes through Iran before ending up in Europe, where it is sold at a street level. Along the way, a lot of it ends up in the arms of what the Iranian government estimates to be 2 million drug users. (The actual number is widely believed to be much higher.)
In the years leading up to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had enforced a ban on opium-poppy cultivation, resulting in historically low levels of production. After the Taliban were toppled, the Afghan warlords who regained control of the country (many of whom were appointed by the Americans) resumed the stupidly lucrative farming of opium and poppy once again.
Why Won’t the US Government Let Veterans Smoke Medical Marijuana?
We Americans love to send our armed forces, often recruited from black and Hispanic neighborhoods devoid of real economic opportunity, to fight in exotic foreign conflicts while we relax at home and consume things, unconcerned about the impact all that combat has on those citizens’ lives. So it should come as little surprise that the House of Representatives last Wednesday rejected an amendment to the annual bill funding veterans’ health care that would have permitted military doctors in states with medical marijuana already on the books to discuss pot treatment options with their patients.
The vote was tantalizingly close, however, with the amendment failing 222–195. In fact, 22 Republicans crossed over to join the majority of Democrats in favor of the proposal, which, according to medical studies, could help some of the millions of vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bipartisan tide of momentum for drug legalization, it seems, is reaching the highest levels of the federal government—and even threatening to rope in our sacred troops, whom we are apparently fine with risking life and limb in the desert so long as they never, ever get high.
Taking Photos of Jihadis in Battle Isn’t As Easy As It Used to Be
When Robert Nickelsberg began his career as a photojournalist, all it took to embed with the mujahideen was a phone call to their PR representative. We talked to him about what’s changed.
Death’s Messenger: One Soldier’s Job Delivering the Worst News Imaginable
“There’s still a war going on,” Captain Richard Siemion began. “There are still people dying—not as many as before—but it’s still happening. And when it does, the Army sends somebody like me to break the news.”
Captain Siemion was recently honorably discharged but was one of several casualty notification officers serving in upstate New York. Whenever a soldier’s death was reported, the CNO on duty would have four hours to track down the deceased’s family and deliver some of the worst news they would ever hear.
CNOs have been the focus of some interest over the last decade of American war. In 2006, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News published a Pulitzer Prize–winning series about the Marines tasked with the same job as Captain Siemion, and in 2009 Woody Harrelson starred in the independent film The Messenger. He played a CNO.
I sat down with the 31-year-old Siemion to talk about his first-hand experience telling families of active-service soldiers that their loved one have died in action.
VICE: Did you volunteer for the job?
Captain Siemon: We call it being voluntold. I had just gotten back from my first tour in Afghanistan when my Battalion Commander sent me to the training course.
What did you learn there?
You learn that there’s no right way to tell someone that their loved one is not returning from war, but there are a lot of wrong ways to do it. If you look at history, the way they used to tell families about a death: You had telegrams, you had taxi drivers paid to ring doorbells, you had word of mouth. Through trial and error, the United States Army got it as close to right as they can. I was always the kind of leader who didn’t go 100 percent by the book, but in this case, I went right by the book, because there is a reason why they have it the way they do. Not much room for creativity.
What do you think they got right?
One thing is the idea that no job is more important than this job. So, if you’re in the middle of an important brief with a Colonel and you get called to give a notification, you say, “Gotta go.” Another thing is that you go in person. It shows the importance. Obviously you’re never going to see that individual again, or be their best friend, but if my brother died, I’d rather have it straight—face-to-face.
Are you one of those people who tweets us every weekend asking why we don’t post our HBO show online for free? If you are, you do realize that HBO is the best television network in the world, right? And, as such, can demand a premium for a lineup that may be the only reason to still have a subscription to cable, correct?
Well, either way, you’ve worn us down with your largely unreasonable demands, and HBO is streaming the season 2 premiere of VICE on YouTube for FREE. You can watch it on YouTube, before or after you finish binge-watching the entirety of season 1 for free right here on VICE.com.
How fucking awesome is that? It’s awesome, and you’re welcome, but all of this is only happening for a limited time so you better get cracking before we have to take them off the internet. Which reminds us, just subscribe to HBO already. It’s worth it, we swear.