The Haqqani terrorist group kept Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in relatively good health the past five years because it was always its goal to trade him, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
But the last “proof-of-life” video the Haqqani network recorded showed Sgt. Bergdahl looking haggard and perhaps bruised. One U.S. official said intelligence analysts believe the soldier may have been made to look ill as a ploy to convince Washington he was in failing health and needed to be freed promptly. The video was produced in December and obtained by U.S. military in January.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cited Sgt. Bergdahl’s health as a prime factor in trading five senior Taliban commanders for his release.
Before that, officials said Sgt. Bergdahl was fed, clothed in local garb and allowed to exercise, and he wrote at least one letter home to Hailey, Idaho.
The U.S.-designated terrorist group wanted the release of senior Taliban fighters who one day could help bring down the new democracy in Afghanistan, so the sergeant’s health was important, a U.S. official said. The official and other sources for this report requested anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters freely.
The details of Sgt. Bergdahl’s day-to-day existence are sketchy, but U.S. authorities believe he was moved among various compounds in Pakistan controlled by the Haqqani network, a family-led band of terrorists that operates with near impunity as its operatives cross into Afghanistan to conduct attacks and kill Americans.
Sgt. Bergdahl, 28, is in a military hospital in Germany, where he is undergoing a step-by-step reintegration program that will lead to a detailed debriefing of how he was captured and treated and what he saw in captivity.
Some tidbits relayed to the U.S. command in Afghanistan came from sources with shaky reliability. Still, when Navy SEALs took possession of him Saturday, Sgt. Bergdahl was walking and talking and did not seem to have serious medical problems.
“He was in fair condition physically when we received him, so it appears he was cared for somewhat adequately,” a Pentagon official said. “But he needs to be debriefed for us to really get a sense of that. All the information during his captivity came from sources with questionable reliability, but they also indicated he wasn’t abused.”
A former special operations official said, “There was no more concern today about his health as a prisoner of terrorists than there was last year. They could kill him at any moment, then or now.”
A third source, an adviser to U.S. Special Operations Command, said, “In all the intelligence reports I saw, there was no indication he was mistreated to the level of abuse.”
Previous publicly released videos showed Sgt. Bergdahl declaring himself “physical fit” and doing leg squats. In another, he pleaded, “Get me to be released.”
He also said, “I’m scared. I want to be able to go home.”
Another proof-of-life item emerged last June, when his parents in Idaho received their son’s handwritten letter via the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“He was scripted and redacted, but he was no doubt alive and his faculties fully functioning as of two months ago,” Robert Bergdahl told a family friend, according to CBS-TV affiliate KBOI. “They are being very careful with him. He is still highly valued at high levels.”
The military does know some details about his first day as a captive, June 30, 2009, when he failed to answer a morning roll call. His absence ignited an instant skirmish as hundreds of soldiers and special operations troops went on direct-action missions against the Taliban in hopes of finding him. They searched everything from bunkers to latrines.
Some commandos secretly went across the Pakistani border, according to the former special operations official.
“Additional forces were moving into the area to place blocking positions and conduct searches based on all of the aerial and ground-based intelligence sources available throughout the day and through the night,” said a June 30 military command message posted on the whistleblower site WikiLeaks.
Communication intercepts revealed that a soldier with a camera was walking around asking whether anyone spoke English.
Hours later, intercepts said the Taliban had captured a soldier.
The last promising lead was later that day. Sgt. Bergdahl was seen in a black Toyota, a bag over his head, dressed in khakis and being escorted by three to five motorcycles. Then he was gone.
He did not re-emerge until he was seen in a video under the Haqqani network’s control, kneeling at a table framed by a white backdrop.
At one point, a Taliban commander claimed Sgt. Bergdahl, whose emails home showed he was disenchanted with the war, was helping the enemy plan attacks.
“No indicators at all,” the Pentagon official said.
As to why no commando rescue mission was dispatched, the source said one big reason was that it would have involved another complicated and risky mission inside Pakistan on a scale of the May 2011 raid to kill Osama bin Laden. That incursion roiled relations with Pakistan and enraged local politicians.
Penetrating the lightly guarded bin Laden compound was one thing. Surprising and defeating nearly a dozen hardened Haqqani fighters would require a much larger operation, the source said.