How America Hunted for Bowe Bergdahl

Confusion, intel, air ops dominated search’s first few days

How America Hunted for Bowe Bergdahl How America Hunted for Bowe Bergdahl
A routine morning head count was the U.S. Army’s first indication that Pvt. 1st Class Bowe Bergdahl had abandoned his unit in eastern Afghanistan... How America Hunted for Bowe Bergdahl

A routine morning head count was the U.S. Army’s first indication that Pvt. 1st Class Bowe Bergdahl had abandoned his unit in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. At 9:00 in the morning, Blackfoot Company from the 1st battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment—part of the famed 101st Airborne Division—conducted its daily roll call … and came up one soldier short.

“Blackfoot TOC reported soldier is missing,” is how the Army’s official timeline begins. “TOC” stands for Tactical Operations Center. The ground combat branch’s detailed report of events starting on June 30 is among the thousands of classified documents that former Army Pvt. 1st Class Bradley—now Chelsea—Manning leaked to the public in 2010.

What followed Blackfoot Company’s head count was an intensive search and simultaneous initial investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance—a complex, far-reaching effort that drew in thousands of U.S. service members including secretive Special Operations Forces, drones, jet fighters, spy planes and even military working dogs.

In the first few hours following Blackfoot’s startling report, the brigade task force focused on making sure no other soldiers were missing—and also inspecting every building, bunker and latrine in Blackfoot’s makeshift patrol base in eastern Paktika province. By the late morning of June 30, the Army resolved its initial confusion and assigned Bergdahl the official status “duty station whereabouts unknown,” or DUSTWUN.

And that’s when the military concentrated the full might of its intelligence and combat capabilities on finding and retrieving Bergdahl—although, in fact, it would be five years before a prolonged negotiation brought home the errant soldier.

U.S. troops in Paktika province in 2011. David Axe photo

Cat and mouse

Around noon, troops and aircraft began converging on eastern Paktika. The brigade task force headquarters at Sharana—a sprawling facility with a 4,000-foot runway—mobilized several infantry units, a training team and a reconstruction team with a psychological operations element

Their mission was to “set up blocking positions to try to find [the] missing U.S. soldier,” according to the official timeline. Predator, Reaper and Shadow drones, a Guardrail eavesdropping plane, Apache helicopter gunships and close-air-support jets were on their way to “assist in the search.”

The Guardrail spy plane gathered the first real clues about Bergdahl’s disposition. At 2:42 PM, the twin-engine, propeller-driven Guardrail intercepted radio chatter between Taliban fighters. The Talibs said there was an American “talking and looking for someone who speaks English.”

The American had a camera, the insurgents added. Based on the Army’s official timeline, it seems that, for a few hours at least, Bergdahl was on his own in rural Paktika, with both the Taliban and U.S. forces actively searching for him.

It was a race. A little after 4:00 PM, American forces in Paktika made Bergdahl their top priority. “All operations will cease until missing soldier is found,” the timeline noted. “All assets will be focused on the DUSTWUN situation.”

A pair of Navy F/A-18 jet fighters arrived overhead—the first in a steady chain of Navy and Air Force fighters that would roar through the skies during the initial hunt for Bergdahl. At 5:39 PM, American intelligence agents intercepted Taliban communications that confirmed the insurgents had gotten to Bergdahl first.

Two Air Force F-15E fighter-bombers took over for the F/A-18s, which were surely low on fuel after hours on station. Evening fell on the first day of the hunt for Bergdahl.

Early in the morning on July 1, a Guardrail—it seems the twin-prop planes were working in shifts—picked up the first of several surprisingly candid exchanges between Taliban fighters. Some of the insurgents seemed as shocked and befuddled by the situation as the Americans were.

“Is that true that they captured an American guy?” one Talib asked.

“Yes, they did,” a fellow fighter replied. “He is alive. There is nowhere he can go.” The second speaker “LOL,” or “laughed out loud,” according to the Army record.

A ground-based U.S. radio-intercept team reinforced the Guardrail’s aerial communication eavesdropping. At 7:07 AM the ground team overhead an alarming call from one Talib to another. “Cut the head off,” the insurgent said.

By late morning, the Taliban were openly discussing their intention to waylay the Americans out looking for Bergdahl. “They keep going to the wrong area,” one insurgent laughed.

“Set up the work for them,” another said.

“Yes, we have a lot of IED[s] on the road,” the first fighter replied.

American intel assets dutifully relayed the details of the Talibs’ ambush plans—and their gloating.

In fact, it’s impossible to tell if the Talibs’ boasts reflect what really happened. The Taliban were dealing with a confusing and fast-evolving situation. One Talib said his group was attacking the Blackfoot Company’s outpost when it captured Bergdahl, which does not appear to be true.

The fighter also insisted he and his comrades caught Bergdahl with his pants down—literally. “We were attacking the post he was sitting taking [a shit]. He had no gun with him. He was taking [a shit]. He has not cleaned his butt yet.”

An Army Guardrail eavesdropping plane. Army photo

Big shot

The Taliban were surprised by the scale of the Americans’ search. “I think he is a big shot—that’s why they are looking for him,” one Talib said.

“Can you guys make a video of him and announce it all over Afghanistan that we have one of the Americans?” another insurgent asked.

“We already have a video of him,” the first fighter responded.

On July 2, the third day of the Bergdahl ordeal, U.S. ground operations began to have some effect. Task Force 373, a highly secret Special Operations Force unit that traveled by night in helicopters and specialized in capturing or killing top insurgents and terrorists, raided a compound early in the morning, questioned 25 people about Bergdahl and detained three of them.

Predator drones were tracking several SUVs that commanders suspected could be related to Bergdahl’s capture … or might even contain the kidnapped soldier.

U.S. forces asked local elders to act as intermediaries in talks with the Taliban. In the early afternoon, the battalion operations officer reported that the Taliban had approached the elders to set terms with the Americans. “The Taliban terms are 15 of their Taliban brothers in U.S. jail and some money in exchange for Pvt. Bergdahl,” the report stated.

Around the same time, an Improvised Explosive Device struck an American RG-31, damaging the vehicle but thankfully injuring no one. Troops rushed to assist, bringing along an explosives-sniffing dog. Five years later, soldiers from Bergdahl’s unit would blame Bergdahl for the deaths of several American soldiers who were killed during the prolonged rescue effort.

On July 5, Afghan sources told the Americans that they last saw Bergdahl in a remote village with a bag over his head and wearing dark khakis. The Taliban were moving him around in a black Toyota Corolla, with up to five Talibs riding shotgun on motorcycles.

The next day—the seventh since Bergdahl’s disappearance, the brigade began a series of large-scale helicopter-borne air assaults meant to intercept the insurgents transporting Bergdahl. An Air Force JSTARS surveillance plane—a Boeing 707 with a powerful underslung radar—helped spot vehicles.

Some Talibs apparently blew themselves up while prepping their weapons in a tent. As U.S. forces moved in to clear the tents of leftover AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, they found a woman and a 15-month-old child with gunshot wounds. “Both noncombatants are refusing treatment,” the log reported. Otherwise, the initial air assaults were uneventful.

U.S. officials would later tell The Wall Street Journal that they believed the Taliban succeeded in moving Bergdahl into Pakistan within “days or weeks” of his capture.

Bergdahl remained in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly five years, until U.S. and Qatari negotiators secured his release in exchange for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

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