WASHINGTON — Did the search for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl cost the lives of U.S. soldiers?
Since last weekend’s prisoner exchange in which Afghan insurgents turned over Bergdahl after five years of captivity, a number of the men who served with him have called him a deserter. Some have gone further, blaming him for the deaths of six to eight soldiers.
That second claim is hardening into a news-media narrative, including on CNN, which has reported as fact that “at least six soldiers died” looking for Bergdahl after, senior U.S. military officials say, he wandered off his base. The Daily Beast published an essay by a former member of Bergdahl’s battalion, Nathan Bradley Bethea, who linked the search to the deaths of eight soldiers he named.
“He has finally returned,” Bethea wrote. “Those men will never have the opportunity.”
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But a review of casualty reports and military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive — even as critics of Bergdahl contend that every American combat death in Paktika province in the four months after he disappeared, from July to September 2009, was his fault.
All across Afghanistan, that period was a time of ferocious fighting. President Obama had decided to send additional troops to improve security, but they had not yet arrived. In Paktika, the eight deaths during that period were up from five in the same three months the previous year. Across Afghanistan, 122 Americans died from incidents in that period, up from 58 in 2008.
In addition, a senior insurgent commander known as Mullah Sangeen, who was part of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, had been carrying out attacks in the area for several years. A joint military statement by U.S. and Afghan security forces released a month before Bergdahl vanished warned that the mullah had brought in “hundreds of foreign fighters.”
Two soldiers died during the most intense period of the search after Bergdahl’s June 30 disappearance. Both were inside an outpost that came under attack, not out patrolling and running checkpoints looking for him. The other six soldiers died in late August and early September.
Facts are often obscured in the fog of the battlefield, witnesses have incomplete vantage points, and the events are five years in the past now. But an archive of military reports logging significant activities in America’s war in Afghanistan offers a contemporaneous written record of events in Paktika that summer. The archive was made public by Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Pvt. Bradley Manning, who is serving a 35-year prison sentence for the leak.
The first two deaths the critics link to Bergdahl involved a major assault by insurgents on a combat outpost called Zerok on July 4, 2009. Their view is that the Taliban knew the Americans were stretched thin by the search mission and took advantage of that opportunity to try to overrun it.
Bethea, the soldier who wrote the essay in The Daily Beast, said the company executive officer for the unit at Zerok believed that “the attack would not have happened had his company received its normal complement of intelligence aircraft: drones, planes, and the like. Instead, every intelligence aircraft available in theater had received new instructions: find Bergdahl. My friend blames Bergdahl for his soldiers’ deaths.”
Military officials, speaking in recent days, have countered that additional surveillance aircraft had been brought in from other areas to help in the search, so air traffic in the region was intensified, not diminished, by the search.
Separately, context supplied by the leaked logs complicates claims that insurgents attacked the outpost because of the hunt.
Insurgents had been shooting at the outpost with escalating intensity in the preceding months. A June 24 log described a mortar attack inside its perimeter and cited intelligence that insurgents were planning a “complex ambush” of the outpost.
And a log recounting the July 4 attack said it confirmed “recent reporting regarding Mullah Sangeen’s desire to conduct a spectacular attack” against the outpost. The log did not mention the hunt for Bergdahl. Still, one soldier from Bergdahl’s battalion said that response time after the attack had been slow and argued the issue was not if the outpost was going to be attacked, but rather when.
The first and most intense phase of the search operation wound down after July 8. But former soldiers say, and the logs show, that the hunt continued sporadically as patrols were sent out to chase rumors that Bergdahl had been spotted.
The other six American deaths in Paktika that summer occurred from Aug. 18 to Sept. 5, which Bergdahl’s critics link to him as well.
Where those incidents are identifiable in the logs, they do not mention any link to Bergdahl search operations, although the logs are terse and contain few contextual details.