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.
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You who judge me
I hope you burn alive and become dust
I hope you are destroyed and disappear from this universe
Your days and nights filled with sorrow and pain
Tear open my chest and see what is inside
Only then can you understand
Reading Taliban Love Poems in an Afghan Prison
We twisted up into the sky beneath a blur of rotors—mum in the numb motor din. The shadow of our helicopter flit below, yawing in the undulations of the sorrel earth, hurtling peaks, and hurling into dark valleys.
My military escort Lieutenant Cartagena and I took off from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city built 900 years ago in desolation—the site revealed in a prophetic dream. From the scattered earthen villages that passed beneath our craft to the army outpost we sought, every settlement seemed tinged with that same fantastic quality—accidents of life in a dead land.
We reunited with our shadow on the airstrip of a base in Baghlan province that I am not permitted to name. I jumped onto the tarmac, squinting through the heat blast. We had come to witness the successful passage of a NATO prison and military base into Afghan hands.
The American soldiers of Blackfoot Troop bounded out to meet us. They were tall and strong, engendering visions of Thanksgiving dinners in places like Battle Creek, Michigan, and Louisville, Kentucky. There was Lieutenant King, Sergeant Morgan, and their corpsman Specialist Singer. They welcomed us by asking our blood types—something practical and still somehow strangely intimate. They hustled us away, out of sight of the mountains, through the gauntlet of concrete T-walls and gravel-filled HESCO barriers that formed the outpost.
It Don’t Gitmo Better than This – Molly Crabapple’s Account of Her Journey to the Dark Heart of Guantanamo Bay
A T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan IT DON’T GITMO BETTER THAN THIS is perhaps the definitive physical manifestation of globalization. Sewn in Honduras and sold by Jamaican contractors on land rented from Cuba, the shirt celebrates an American prison holding Muslims who’ve been declared enemies in the war on terror. It’s a popular item in the Gitmo gift shop (yes, Gitmo has a gift shop), displayed next to the stuffed banana rats and shot glasses engraved with GUANTÁNAMO BAY: DIVE IN.
Built in 1898, the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base looks like a US suburb. There’s a McDonald’s, a Subway, and even a Christmas parade. On Halloween, military members dressed as zombies complete a 5K run. Winners of the Mr. and Ms. Gitmo Figure and Fitness Competition arch their backs on the cover of the Wire,the base’s in-house magazine. The Team Gitmo outdoor movie theater screens all the big blockbusters (when I visited it was World War Z), and in the evenings, visitors can eat jerk chicken next to swaying banyan trees, get drunk at O’Kelly’s (“the only Irish pub on Communist soil”), or sing karaoke.
But since the Joint Task Force (JTF) arrived in 2002, Guantánamo Bay has been home to the world’s most notorious prison.
Gitmo’s prison camps were built, in principle, to hold and interrogate captives outside the reach of US law. Nearly 800 Muslim men have been imprisoned since it opened, and the vast majority of them have never been charged with any crime. Since he was inaugurated in 2008, President Obama has twice promised to close Gitmo, but 166 men still languish in indefinite detention. It is a place where information is contraband, force-feeding is considered humane care, staples are weapons, and the law is rewritten wantonly.
Nabil Hadjarab arrived at Gitmo 11 years ago, in an orange jumpsuit and a diaper, his head covered by a hood, eyes blinded by blackout goggles, mouth gagged, and with headphones blaring white noise into his ears.
Afghanistan’s Opium Plague
Afghanistan’s drug story begins with a well-worn fact: the country is the world’s largest producer of poppy opium, the raw material from which heroin is made.
Here is a less worn fact: Afghans have now become a leading consumer of their own drugs. An estimated one-million citizens (or eight-percent of the total population) are addicted, according to a United Nations survey.
Some experts believe this enormous drug problem may present a greater long-term threat to the stability of the country than the war.
Here is an index of Afghanistan’s drug statistics based on the annual United Nations Opium Surveys from 2009 to 2012:
— UN officials blame the drug addiction problem on three things: decades of war-related trauma, unlimited availability of cheap narcotics, and limited access to treatment.
— At least one-million Afghans are addicted to drugs, but likely more since the survey doesn’t cover women and children.
— There are 350,000 heroin and opium addicts, a 75 percent increase since 2005.
— Fifty percent of Afghanistan’s opium-using parents give the drug to their children.
— Between 12 to 41 percent of Afghan police recruits test positive for some kind of drugs.
— Nearly 900 tons of opium and 375 tons of heroin are trafficked from Afghanistan every year.
— Afghan opium/heroin has a double-impact, creating health havocs in consuming nations and putting large amounts of money in the hands of both criminals and terrorist movements.
— Ironically, the number of people dying from heroin overdoses in Russia and NATO countries is actually higher than the number of their soldiers killed during war-time engagements in Afghanistan.
— Opium poppy cultivation rose by 18 percent in 2012 despite eradication efforts by Afghan governors.
— Government corruption plays a role in undercutting efforts to take on the opium trade. So does the Taliban, who tax the crop in areas under their control.
Revisiting the Battlefields on Afghanistan, Twelve Years Later
On a starless night, just a few weeks after 9/11, I stood shivering with a handful of other journalists on the banks of the Amu Darya River. We were waiting for a raft operated by Russian soldiers to take us across the border from Tajikistan to Afghanistan.
When we arrived in Afghanistan we entered through a small sliver of the country that had not fallen to the Taliban. It was a tenuous front line held by a fragile coalition of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, and other antiTaliban forces known as the Northern Alliance.
Because the Taliban government had given safe haven to the Al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the attacks on America, this ragtag bunch was about to get an infusion of air power and special forces soldiers courtesy of the United States that would help them topple the Taliban regime in less than 20 days.
I followed the Taliban retreat from the north all the way to Tora Bora on the border of Pakistan where US B-52 bombers pounded the caves the Taliban had taken refuge in. In the end, they died, surrendered, or escaped to Pakistan.