In the summer of 2009, I worked as an adviser for a U.S. Army Information Operations team in Kabul, Afghanistan at NATO's ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force) headquarters. My IO team shared a basement with the ISAF's Public Relations team and I was able to observe their daily interaction, usually by phone, with the media. The hottest news story during my stay at the base was the recent capture of U.S. soldier Private Bowe Bergdahl by the Taliban.
It was fascinating to hear the PR chief's public relations spin on the capture by the Taliban of an American soldier who mysteriously disappeared from his base in the war-torn Paktia province to the south of us. While acknowledging that Bergdahl had been captured under mysterious circumstances, the PR chief was circumspect when going into details over just how he was captured. When he was communicating with the media, the PR chief did not actually come out and say that Bergdahl had gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave). But word around the team was that Bergdahl had, in their words, just up and decided to go for a "walkabout" in one of the most dangerous, Taliban-infested provinces in Afghanistan. The PR team, who had been in direct communication with Bergdahl's commanding officers in Paktia, conveyed to me that he had slipped off his COP (Combat Outpost) one night after becoming disillusioned with the war. They also conveyed to me that he wanted to explore Afghanistan and see more of the country he was serving in on his own terms.
Needless to say, there was not much sympathy among the fighting men and women I was based with concerning Bergdahl's inspiration for his dereliction of duty, although they worried about his plight at the hands of his Taliban captors. His actions were seen as the height of wartime irresponsibility and a rash act that would ultimately come to hurt the U.S. military's cause. At the time, the U.S. Army was sending out risky patrols to scour the surrounding areas to try to free Bergdahl and his release had become a major priority/headache for thousands of his fellow soldiers.
At the time, however, I was more sympathetic towards Bergdahl than my Army teammates, based on my own experience. As a civilian contractor I had a unique status on my base, I could leave it whenever I wanted and go out to the 'Red Zone' (i.e. the Afghan war zone that surrounded the base my fellow teammates were stuck on). I could simply wander through the Hesco blast barriers and armed checkpoints that kept suicide bombers out of the base (although one did manage to blow up the front entrance, killing several troops that summer) and stroll into Afghanistan. Most importantly, I did not have to follow S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure) and wear full "battle rattle" (helmet, weapon, and bulletproof vest) to announce to everyone who saw me that I was an armed combatant/target. I could wear my civilian clothes and try to blend in. And to be completely honest, it was this ability to leave the confines of my Forward Operating Base -- or FOB -- and join friends in Kabul for dinner in the evenings, or drive up into the hills for a hike, or simply go shopping for carpets in the bazaar that kept me sane that summer. For unlike my Army teammates, I was not used to being trapped on a base.
You see, in the past, I had travelled to Afghanistan freely on my own and had covered almost half the country's provinces doing research for myself and, on one occasion, carrying out a study on suicide bombers for the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center. I had had free reign of this majestic country and this compared drastically to my "imprisonment" on the ISAF base in the summer of 2009. My previous journeys had taken me over the mighty Hindu Kush Mountains which are an extension of the Himalayas to the plains of the North inhabited by horse-riding Mongol Uzbeks of a warlord named Dostum. I had also made my way up to Bamiyan in the high mountains to see the shattered remains of the ancient Buddha statues that had been blown up by the Taliban and made my way over towards the Iranian border to Herat, the "City of Poets" and home of a fortress built by the Medieval Mongol warlord Tamerlane. Perhaps my most enjoyable journey was to the scenic valley of Panjsher (the Five Lions) which the legendary anti-Soviet rebel Massoud had used as a bastion to defeat the Soviet invaders in the 1980s. It was the chance of a lifetime to hike through the mountains of the Panjsher, clamber on the top of burnt out Soviet tanks and meet with friendly Tajiks (pro-American Persians) who inhabited this Alpinesque Valley. These experiences gave me a deep appreciation of Afghanistan and the confidence I needed to make my evening forays into Kabul and surrounding regions that summer as I worked on the grim, utilitarian base that I called home.
My teammates back at ISAF HQ who were stuck in what I called "The Prison," lived vicariously through me as I left the base in the evenings to hike the medieval walls around Kabul and try the mouth-watering local cuisine (which of course was far superior to the industrial slop they served in the base cafeteria). My U.S. Army teammates' only interaction with the country they were serving in came in the form of armed convoy missions that frantically rushed through the traffic from one massive base to another, or with a local Afghan Hazara (Shiite Mongol) who sold carpets and other souvenirs on base and occasionally invited soldiers to his on-base store for authentic rife pilaf, lamb kabobs and fresh naan bread.
Several of my teammates expressed their dreams of getting beyond the confines of the base and actually seeing the country they had come to defend through something besides the targeting scope of a Humvee-mounted, 50-caliber machine gun. One wonderful soldier from New Mexico who I worked with seemed to have a real passion for Afghan history, ethnic groups and culture, and was envious of my freedom to experience these things that she did not have access to. All my Army teammates knew that if they were caught off base in the Red Zone without orders they would be court-martialed. Thus they resigned themselves to carry out their tasks as "Fobbits" (i.e. the inhabitants of a FOB) and never getting the real opportunity to interact with the colorful people of Afghanistan.
Fast forward to spring 2014. With the recent release of Bergdahl from Taliban captivity on May 31, there has been considerable new light shone on his escape from his Army outpost than that which was released by the ISAF HQ Public Relations team I served with back in the summer of 2009. For instance, the New York Times has just reported that Bergdahl left a note behind saying he had become disillusioned with the war and left the outpost without his weapon, helmet and body armor. He perhaps stowed himself away on a contractor's truck and then rode it off the base.
Bergdahl's angered fellow soldiers on his outpost would later report that he was "bookish and filled with romantic notions that some found odd." For example, he acquired a Rosetta Stone language kit and was trying to learn Pashto, the language of the tribes that lived in surrounding Paktia Province and also made up the main ethnic group of the Taliban. They would also report that Bergdahl used to gaze at the mountains around them and say he wondered if he could get to China from there.
Such musings were apparently not uncommon for Bergdahl who had previously sought to find adventure by joining the French Legion (he traveled to Paris and started learning French but his application was rejected). After this setback, he thought about being a missionary in Africa, before ultimately deciding to join the U.S. Army. His father would subsequently state that it was the allure of "going overseas to help Afghan villagers rebuild their lives and learn to defend themselves - the whole COIN [Counter Insurgency] thing" that was sold to him by an Army recruiter that inspired him to join the military.
During basic training, Bergdahl read the Pakistan-based bestseller Three Cups of Tea about an idealistic traveler-educator who helped build schools in remote areas of that country. Rolling Stone would also report that while other soldiers in his unit spent Thanksgiving playing video games and reading Playboy, Bergdahl "sat alone on his cot, studying maps of Afghanistan." Most tellingly, in light of later events, Bergdahl then told his fellow soldiers as they were deploying to Paktia Province in Afghanistan in 2009, "If this deployment is lame I'm just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan."
Once he was deployed in Paktia Province, one member of Bergdahl's platoon would later report "He spent more time with the Afghans than he did with his platoon." He seemed to really identify with the local Afghans and was horrified when a U.S. Army MRAP truck accidentally ran over an Afghan child. As his unit took part in skirmishes with the Taliban that he felt was pointless, he became increasingly disillusioned and his emails to his parents sounded almost suicidal. But far from committing suicide, Bergdahl seems to have simply decided to disappear into the rugged mountains of Afghanistan as promised. The independent-minded dreamer who wanted to join the French Foreign Legion for adventure decided to do a "walkabout" and perhaps trek his way over the mountains to neighboring Pakistan.
The seemingly naïve Bergdahl, however, did not last long on his own and was quickly captured by the Taliban. Ironically enough, he did get to have his journey to the mountains of Pakistan, but as America's only prisoner of war in the Afghan conflict (he was ultimately held by Taliban in neighboring Pakistan). It remains to be seen how his remarkable experience of being held for five years by the Taliban has shaped this idealistic young man's worldview. One suspects that that this adventurer-dreamer's optimistic view of the world and genuine interest in the culture of the Pashtuns will have changed drastically under the stress of being a prisoner of the very people he seems to have romanticized.
It remains to be seen how his story unfolds as Bergdahl is debriefed. Several of his platoon members feel he should be court-martialed for abandoning his post and forcing them on dangerous missions to try to find him. This would, however, seem to be a bad political move in light of the fact that five high-ranking Taliban prisoners were returned to the enemy in exchange for his release. Whatever the outcome I can, without condoning Bergdahl's misadventure, understand the motives that would drive a curious young man with a dream of exploring other cultures and lands to leave the confined, regimented world of U.S. Army Standard Operating Procedure and strike out into the mountains of the Afghan-Pakistan border on his own in search of something more meaningful.
For more of Brian Glyn Williams' own adventures in Afghanistan see here: http://www.brianglynwilliams.com/ or read his recent books Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America's Longest War (2012) or The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime (2013). http://www.thelastwarlord.com/