Exclusive: Afghan villagers recall when Bergdahl stumbled into their midst

Among the most tantalizing mysteries surrounding Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s departure from his U.S. military base in 2009 is this: Was he trying to find the Taliban? Or did he simply wander away and get captured? Politicians and members of the military have criticized the Obama administration’s decision to swap five jailed Taliban leaders for Bergdahl, saying the soldier may have deserted.

Until now, few details have emerged about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance from his base. But The Washington Post has reached Afghan villagers who spotted Bergdahl shortly after he slipped away from his base. To them, it’s clear something was wrong with the American. And he seemed to be deliberately heading for Taliban strongholds, they say.

“It was very confusing to us. Why would he leave the base?” said Jamal, an elder in the village of Yusef Khel, about a half-mile from the American military installation. (Like many Afghans, he goes by only one name). “The people thought it was a covert agenda – maybe he was sent to the village by the U.S.”

Locals remember Bergdahl walking through the village in a haze. They later told Afghan investigators that they had warned the American that he was heading into a dangerous area.

“They tried to tell him not to go there, that it is dangerous. But he kept going over the mountain. The villagers tried to give him water and bread, but he didn’t take it,” said Ibrahim Manikhel, the district’s intelligence chief.

“We think he probably was high after smoking hashish,” Manikhel said. “Why would an American want to find the Taliban?”

Residents still remember the massive search effort that followed Bergdahl’s disappearance. But the village eventually returned to normal – albeit still with grave problems from Taliban fighters – and few locals thought about the American soldier until this past week, when his face flashed across Afghan news programs.

“I had forgotten about that abducted American,” said Manikhel. “I hope the U.S. can re-arrest the Talibs that they released.”

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan since 2012. He served previously as an education reporter in Washington, and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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