When then-Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl walked off his outpost in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province in June 2009, he told screenwriter Mark Boal in an interview excerpted in Sarah Koenig’s popular podcast “Serial,” he expected his disappearance to set off alarm bells throughout the military. That, by Bergdahl’s account, was the point, or at least part of it: leaving would put everyone from the Army and Marine Corps to the Navy and CIA on “alert,” he told Boal, giving him a platform to voice discontent when he reappeared.
The response to Bergdahl’s actions went far beyond a general “alert,” however. In keeping with the military’s standard—and overwhelming—response to what it calls “DUSTWUN” incidents (for “duty status whereabouts unknown”), Paktika was quickly flooded with troops and surveillance resources, and the normal operations of Bergdahl’s 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment upended.
“Anything that they needed to make it happen, they got,” Koenig says of the military’s efforts in the weeks after Bergdahl’s capture to find him before his captors took him across the border into inaccessible Pakistan. “Planes, helicopters, drones, interpreters, elite units, special forces.”
An Army investigation concluded that no deaths of soldiers could be attributed directly to the formal 45-day search effort. “My conclusion is that there were no soldiers killed who were deliberately looking and searching for” Sergeant Bergdahl, the Army’s investigating officer, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl said at a preliminary hearing of a military court, or Article 32 hearing, in September. “I did not find any evidence of that.”
Some of the demonstrable effects of the intensive search effort in Afghanistan, though less clear-cut than the deaths of soldiers, were wider-ranging—and have drawn less attention from “Serial” and other media outlets. Bergdahl’s disappearance created a ripple effect as the military pulled resources from every corner of eastern Afghanistan to hunt for him. Among other opportunity costs and second- and third-order consequences, the Army has cited the Bergdahl hunt as one contributing factor in the complex causal chain leading leading up to a deadly assault on an outpost in Nuristan province, 225 miles from the search zone, weeks after the search had formally concluded.
Among the elite special operations forces thrown into the hunt for Bergdahl, there was at least one serious casualty, Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Hatch, of SEAL Team 6, the Navy’s premier counterterrorist unit. On the night of July 9, 2009, Hatch told Stars and Stripes recently, he was shot in the femur — a wound that forced him out of the Navy and necessitated 18 surgeries — on a raid looking for Bergdahl. A military working dog named Remco that accompanied the SEALs on the raid was killed.
In his bestselling memoir “No Easy Day,” former SEAL Matt Bissonnette described the same last-minute raid, writing under the pen name Mark Owen. “When an American soldier went missing at the start of the summer, we dropped everything to find him,” Bissonnette wrote – even though the SEALs’ commander warned them that the intelligence they were working off was less than solid and the night was bright with moonlight, conditions under which the SEAL Team 6 operators normally would not have worked. “We need to accept a little more risk because of who we’re going after,” Bissonnette remembers his commanding saying during the pre-mission briefing.
Separately, a former Army Special Forces officer, Michael Waltz, recounted on Serial how his company of Green Berets took part in dangerous search operations, including one in neighboring Ghazni Province that nearly ended in disaster when his men raided a building that was rigged with explosives. Waltz suspected that the Taliban had lured his team into danger with a false tip about Bergdahl. “There wasn’t any time to check on [the tip], we just went, and I can’t over-emphasize how dangerous that us,” Waltz told Koenig.
Besides the physical risk to troops participating in the search missions, the recovery effort also incurred “risk to the mission,” as Bergdahl’s former battalion commander, Col. Clint Baker, testified at the September 2015 Article 32 hearing — in other words, opportunity costs.
Waltz made that point last week in an interview with the web site Task and Purpose, noting that the cost of his Green Berets having to abandoned their normal duties for the Bergdahl search were impossible to calculate.
The Afghanistan-based task force of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, felt those opportunity costs too, according to a source who was part of the counterterrorism task force at the time and spoke to Checkpoint on the condition of anonymity because many aspects of JSOC’s activities remain classified.
Normally responsible for planning and launching raids against insurgent and terrorist leaders, the JSOC task force in Afghanistan included Bissonnette and Owen’s SEAL Team 6 squadron, a battalion of Army Rangers, and a panoply of intelligence assets usually used to help locate and track potential targets.
“Every DUSTWUN is the same — everything gets spun up,” the former JSOC source said in an interview. “We had operations cancelled that first night. I had to immediately re-task several assets to cover down on rumors and tips about Bergdahl’s location. Anything that could look at the ground was looking for Bergdahl.”
“It wasn’t just intelligence assets, either,” the source added, “it was helicopters and strike forces and everything else. Preparations for HAFs [helicopter-borne raids by Rangers and SEALs] that night in the east had to be put on hold, and then for days in and days out after that, probably two to three weeks, until the intelligence began to point to him already being in Pakistan.”
For 1st Battalion and the other conventional Army troops looking for Bergdahl, the opportunity costs went on much longer.
Every day his men spent raiding houses looking for Bergdahl, former 1st Battalion commander Baker explained, was a day they did not spend doing the normal work of counterinsurgency — partnering with Afghan soldiers and police on regular patrols. And the formal, intensive phase of the search lasted a full 45 days, until the need to help Afghan forces provide security for impending national elections took priority in late August.
“The entire [battalion] was in the field operating actively, searching for — either collecting intelligence or physically searching to try to rescue Sergeant Bergdahl,” abandoning all other missions like working with local security forces, said 1st Battalion commander Baker. “It was just go as hard as you can all of the time….We have heard a lot recently in the media about Ranger School and so forth. This was much tougher.”
As extra platoons joined the search from neighboring provinces, the headquarters of a sister unit was moved from the strategically important Khost-Gardez Pass some 60 miles away. That was dangerous for the sister unit, former 1st Battalion commander Baker told the Article 32 hearing: the riskiest time for any combat unit is the start of its deployment, when it is adjusting to the terrain and enemy tactics, he argued, and when a unit moves to a new sector it doesn’t know, it’s almost like starting the deployment over.
Paradoxically, though, the arrival of extra troops, planes, and helicopters in Paktika may also have hurt the Taliban insurgency in the area. Baker addressed that argument in his testimony. “You will hear arguments that the way we operated during Yukon Recovery caused us to lose momentum, and I think…a smart person could legitimately argue that,” Baker said. But, he continued, “you will hear others argue that the way we conducted Operation Yukon Recovery created…‘unprecedented disruption of the Taliban,’ and I think a smart person can make a legitimate argument as to that as well.”
At the time Bergdahl was taken, for instance, 1st Battalion had yet to enter the nearby town of Yahya Khel, assessed to be a major Taliban safe haven. Within 72 hours, the paratroopers had turned Yahya Khel upside down, searching it block by block, Bergdahl’s former company commander, Maj. Silvino Silvino, testified at the Article 32 hearing — both incurring risk and disrupting insurgents who had previously felt safe there.
In a 2011 interview with an Army historian, a former intelligence officer with a headquarters unit in eastern Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Anthony Clemente, made a similar point. “It was a major effort trying to find that kid; throw that in…and that throws your plan off quite a bit,” Clemente said. But, he added, “There are a bunch of bad guys in this area here — the Paktika and Ghazni area — the Paktika ambush network and the Ghazni ambush network; they went away for a long time” as a result of the intensive search efforts. “They went away.”
Two years earlier, on a deployment to Iraq, 1st Battalion had taken part in a similar no-holds-barred search effort for three soldiers who had been kidnapped by insurgents. In that instance, according to an Army study, the massive search effort “overwhelmed” the insurgent network responsible for taking the soldiers and drove them to ground, even though it did not save the captured men.
But Nate Bethea, a former 1st Battalion officer who took part in the Bergdahl hunt, cautioned that even if they were damaging to insurgents in the short term, the search raids were disruptive to the mindset of the infantry units called on to conduct them. “When you go back to normal counterinsurgency patrols afterward, now you’re having tea with elders in villages where you were just kicking in doors and tearing everything up looking for Bergdahl,” Bethea said in an interview. “They’re not going to be very receptive.”
Only after the search wound down, Bethea pointed out, was 1st Battalion able to muster the manpower to establish new long-term outposts in Paktika — a move that he viewed as having a far greater tactical effect than any number of in-and-out raids.
The echoes of what Koenig describes as Bergdahl’s “radical decision” reverberated well beyond the immediate southeastern region where both regular and special operations troops searched for him, however, as the search mingled with other unforeseen emergencies to contribute to one of the deadliest battles of the Afghan war for U.S. troops.
In a neighboring sector to the north, another Army unit, the 4th Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, saw its access to transport helicopters and spy planes dry up during the Bergdahl hunt. That delayed 4th Brigade’s plans, long in the making, to spend the summer and early fall closing a series of outposts that brigade leaders saw as particularly vulnerable to attack. One of those outposts — Combat Outpost Keating in Kamdesh district — was in line to close late in the summer, but instead was not approved for closure until October 1, 2009. Two days later, before the closure could actually take place, insurgents attacked the outpost en masse, killing eight Americans.
Underlining the complexity of the causal relationships, it was another unexpected event – the commitment of some of 4th Brigade’s troops to an inaccessible district called Barg-e Matal by Gen. Stanley McChrystal two weeks into the Bergdahl search — that dragged the shortage out through the rest of the summer, even after the DUSTWUN operations formally concluded in August.
U.S. Central Command’s investigation into the Keating battle identified the Barg-e Matal mission as the proximate cause for the delay in closing the Kamdesh outpost, but added that originally, during July, drones and spy planes had been diverted both by “the intensity of operations…in the Barg-e Matal area and the personnel recovery efforts to find missing PFC Bergdahl.”
“This severely limited the brigade, squadron, or troop’s ability to do target development or to confirm or deny other intelligence reporting, such as bottom-up HUMINT [human intelligence] reporting received in the days prior to the 3 Oct 09 attack,” the investigation explained.
In their testimony to Central Command’s investigators, some 4th Brigade officers reinforced that linkage. “We routinely requested Predator UAVs for ISR support, but after the soldier went missing in Yukon’s AO we saw a dramatic drop off in the amount of ISR assets allocated,” Lt. Col. Robert Brown, who commanded the squadron responsible for Keating, said, adding that the Barg-e Matal mission exacerbated the problem. Brown’s senior enlisted advisor agreed: “with Barg-e Matal going on and 4th-25th looking for their missing Soldier we lacked the ability to obtain the [surveillance] and movement assets we needed.”
(UAV, ISR, and AO are the military acronyms for “unmanned aerial vehicle,” “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance,” and “area of operations, respectively, while “Yukon” and “4th-25th” both refer to Bergdahl’s parent brigade.)
“That DUSTWUN set us back. You have to cancel everything you’re going to do except for basic routine stuff,” another former 4th Brigade officer, Ukiah Senti, said in an interview after Bergdahl’s release, describing how delays came about in shuttering another cluster of outposts in the notorious Korengal valley whose closure was originally slated for the fall of 2009. “The assets got peeled away automatically….We ended up in an economy of force situation for months because of the ripple effects from those events,” Senti elaborated, citing the Bergdahl search as well as Barg-e Matal, the Keating battle, and a September 2009 battle in the Ganjgal valley as interrelated causes. One more American would die in combat in the Korengal before it finally closed the next spring.
That Bergdahl could have foreseen his actions’ role in precipitating a deadly battle 225 miles away and three months later is probably far-fetched. To Bethea, the former 1st Battalion officer, who has written about the sometimes indirect links between Bergdahl’s actions and the deaths of fellow paratroopers, the subject is both fraught and complex — but important.
“You can’t pin everything on Bergdahl,” Bethea told Checkpoint. “You certainly can’t pin all these tactical consequences directly on him. But what’s hard to communicate to people in the civilian world is, none of this had to happen.”
Wesley Morgan’s book on Afghanistan’s Pech valley is forthcoming from Random House. Follow him on Twitter: @wesleysmorgan.