The Pentagon on several occasions had ground-level intelligence on where Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was being held captive at various times — down to how many gunmen were guarding him — but special operations commanders repeatedly shelved rescue missions because they didn’t want to risk casualties for a man they believed to be a “deserter,” sources familiar with the mission plans said.
Commanders on the ground debated whether to pull the trigger on a rescue several times in recent years, according to one of the sources, a former high-level intelligence official in Afghanistan, who said the conclusion each time was that the prospect of losing highly trained troops was too high a price to pay for rescuing a soldier who walked away from his unit before being captured by the enemy.
A second source told The Washington Times that the rescue operation plans were “high risk” and became even less attractive in recent months when officials in the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command grew convinced that the Taliban and the militant Haqqani network, whose operatives were holding Sgt. Bergdahl, were eager to cut a deal for his release.
“Joint Special Operations Command always had the rescue mission on the table and it was entirely under their ownership, but the big question centered on whether Bergdahl was somebody you risk lives for when you still have time and space to maneuver diplomatically,” said the source, a high-level congressional aide, who, like the former intelligence official, spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
The aide also said there was frustration among some on Capitol Hill that the Obama administration had botched an opportunity to exert leverage over the Taliban, particularly since the U.S. military could have used force to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s release.
“The prisoner swap was being built up as the only option that was available. But there’s been knowledge of the general vicinity of where Bergdahl was, down to how many guys were guarding him,” said the aide.
The catch, the aide added, is that special operations commanders and others at the Pentagon never sought approval for the rescue mission from the White House because they believed in the pursuit of a diplomatic deal.
The aide said military officials in Afghanistan spent recent months pushing for a stronger deal than was ultimately struck, but were “superseded” by the White House and State Department. The aide would not comment on what the parameters of a “stronger” deal may have looked like, beyond saying they would have involved the Pakistani government.
The former intelligence official who spoke with The Times corroborated that assertion but declined to offer further details, saying only that the deal turned out the way it did because “the administration wanted to close the door on this no matter what the price was.”
Separately, the former official said, “Military commanders were loath to risk their people to save this guy. They were loath to pick him up and because of that hesitancy, we wind up trading five Taliban guys for him.
“The mentality was, ‘We’re not going to lose more of our own guys on this,” the former official said.
Both of the sources said military officials across the special operations community were appalled by the terms of the deal that ultimately got struck over the weekend between State Department-led negotiators and the Taliban, effectively securing Sgt. Bergdahl’s release from Haqqani network custody in exchange for the release of five former Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. Special Operations Command declined to comment on the revelations provided to The Times.
But The Associated Press reported that after weeks of intensive searching for Sgt. Bergdahl in 2009 the military decided against making an extraordinary effort to rescue him, especially after it became clear that he initially was being held in Pakistan under the supervision of the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally with links to Pakistan’s intelligence service.
Nonetheless, individual units pursued leads as they came in, according to the AP report, which cited an unidentified Pentagon official as saying: “I know for a fact that we lost soldiers looking for him.”
The AP also reported that the U.S. government kept tabs on Bergdahl’s whereabouts with spies, drones and satellites, even as it pursued off-and-on negotiations to get him back over the five years of captivity that ended Saturday.
The White House shot back against criticism from Republican lawmakers, several of whom said the administration had set a dangerous precedent of negotiating with terrorists and may have overstepped the bounds of executive authority by failing to alert Congress of the deal before finalizing it with the Taliban.
White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed those claims, asserting during a briefing with reporters that the administration has, in fact, consulted lawmakers for years about potential negotiations with the Taliban and the possibility of recovering a U.S. prisoner of war.
Sgt. Bergdahl is the only known U.S. service member held as prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and Mr. Carney and others in the administration, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, appeared eager to steer reporters away from questions about the fairness of exchanging five former Taliban commanders to secure the Army private’s release.
The swap “was absolutely the right thing to do,” said Mr. Carney, who downplayed the notion that Sgt. Bergdahl was an Army deserter. “In a situation like this, you have a prisoner of war, a uniformed military person that was detained,” the White House spokesman said. “The United States does not leave our men and women behind in conflict.”
But speculation over whether Sgt. Bergdahl was captured by the enemy, or fled from his unit in Afghanistan in June 2009, has long swirled through Washington.
That speculation appeared to come to an end Monday. The sources who spoke with The Times said military officials privately resolved the matter among themselves years ago, concluding that Sgt. Bergdahl willingly left the U.S. Army before he was apprehended by militants in Afghanistan.
The AP report on the matter Monday quoted Nabi Jan Mhullhakhil, the provincial police chief of Paktika province in Afghanistan, where Bergdahl was stationed with his unit, as saying that elders in the area had told him Bergdahl “came out from the U.S. base without a gun and was outside the base when he was arrested by the Taliban.”
Such claims were further bolstered by one of Sgt. Bergdahl’s own former unit members, who asserted outright in an article published Monday by The Daily Beast that “Bergdahl was a deserter.”
With Sgt. Bergdahl now headed to safety, it is “time to speak the truth,” wrote Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the 1st Battalion of the Army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment when Sgt. Bergdahl disappeared from night guard duty at a remote outpost roughly two hours south of the Afghan city of Sharana on June 30, 2009.
“Bergdahl failed to show for the morning roll call,” wrote Mr. Bethea. “The soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company discovered his rifle, helmet, body armor and web gear in a neat stack. He had, however, taken his compass,” wrote Mr. Bethae, adding that “his fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India.”
Mr. Bethea also wrote that during the three months immediately after Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance as many as eight “soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”
The Pentagon said Monday that Sgt. Bergdahl was being treated at a U.S. military hospital in Germany as questions mounted at home over the deal that secured his freedom.
“Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican. “What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a rare member of Washington’s political ranks who survived the horrors of war detention in Vietnam, added that the Guantanamo detainees exchanged for Sgt. Bergdahl are the “hardest of the hard core.”
Among the five are Abdel Haq Wasiq, former deputy chief of intelligence for the Taliban, and Mullah Mohammad Fazl, a former top Taliban military commander accused of overseeing the massacre of thousands of Afghans prior to the 2001 arrival of U.S. forces in the nation. The three others are Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa, who served as interior minister under the Taliban and has been held at Guantanamo since 2002, and Mullah Norullah Noori and Mohammad Nabi Omari, both accused of playing regional roles for the Taliban.
Under terms of the deal, the Obama administration said Monday, the prisoners were released in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, where they face light security restrictions such as a one-year travel ban.
The deal also stoked anger in Afghanistan. Reuters reported that many viewed the exchange as a further sign of a U.S. desire to disengage from the nation as quickly as possible. However, it was not immediately clear whether the Afghan government ultimately supported the release of the five former Taliban commanders.