In the days after Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was taken hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan, his captors made a decision: They would take the soldier west to Ghazni province, knowing that U.S. forces would be pouring into the eastern region around the Pakistani border looking for Bergdahl.
The detail, relayed by a Taliban official in a new episode of the podcast “Serial,” might help explain how the Taliban fighters holding Bergdahl prisoner managed to evade the U.S. military after capturing the soldier on June 30, 2009. Bergdahl would be held captive for the next five years until he was set free in a controversial prisoner swap approved by the White House in which five Taliban officials were released from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into supervision by the Qatari government.
The Taliban saw Bergdahl as a “golden chicken,” the podcast reported Thursday morning in the second episode of its new season, which is focused on the disappearance, recovery and legal case of Bergdahl. He now faces court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy for voluntarily walking off his platoon’s tiny combat outpost hours before his capture. He will be arraigned on Tuesday at Fort Bragg, N.C., Army officials said Thursday.
The interviews by “Serial” — carried out by both producer Sarah Koenig and an Afghan journalist working with her, Sami Yousafzai — provide a new window into what the Taliban may have been thinking. Bergdahl was a “ready-made loaf” who resisted initially when captured but seemed exotic and important, considering how aggressively the Americans searched for him after his capture, the Taliban members told “Serial.”
The second episode of the weekly podcast about Bergdahl was published days after the Army announced that it would take the soldier to a general court-martial, the most serious form of military trial. Bergdahl has spent more than 25 hours on the phone with a filmmaker, Mark Boal, and authorized their conversations to be released to “Serial.” It marks the first time he has been interviewed by the media, and prompted questions from fellow soldiers about whether he is hurting his own criminal case.
In the first episode, Bergdahl described likening himself to the fictional action hero Jason Bourne, and thinking that he would be able to make it from his small outpost, Observation Post Mest-Malak, to the larger Forward Operating Base Sharana nearby. He did so to deliberately cause a commotion that would get enough attention so he could air grievances about the leadership in his unit, acccording to Bergdahl and earlier testimony by Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who investigated the soldier’s case and appeared at a preliminary hearing for it in September.
Dahl added that he found Bergdahl disillusioned and self-deluded. Other soldiers in his unit did not see the same problems with their leaders as Bergdahl described. Bergdahl’s lawyer, Eugene Fidell, said in the preliminary hearing that a panel of psychiatrists believe he was suffering from a mental defect when he chose to walk off into the Afghan wilderness.
In the latest installment of “Serial,” Bergdahl describes trying to get away once shortly after his capture, only to be tackled by numerous people as he tried to run away.
“It doesn’t matter how many kung-fu movies you watch. It doesn’t matter how long you are a martial-arts fighter, or whatever,” Bergdahl said. “You have to be realistic when you’re facing those type of people, you know? You know, these people, they have no hesitation, they have no problem, killing you. They will kill you just for the amusement for being able to shoot you.”
The new episode also includes numerous soldiers who were involved in the search for Bergdahl and who explain how hair-raising it was at times. A former major in the Army Special Forces, Michael Waltz, described one mission in which a Special Operations team raided a compound looking for Bergdahl, and discovered it was booby-trapped with explosives.
“The team went in and looked up and saw the ceiling lined with C4, and then there was also a car bomb with the trunk packed with explosives sitting in the middle of the compound,” Waltz said. “Now, by the grace of God, they evacuated before the thing could go off – and it never did – but I would have easily lost 20 to 30 Green Berets that night if that thing had gone off.”
Other soldiers interviewed described low morale as the manhunt progressed, mirroring testimony in the preliminary hearing for Bergdahl in September. Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Wolf said he did anything he could to show his soldiers appreciation, including having his wife sending massive quantities of chewing tobacco.