Bowe Bergdahl

12.07.11

U.S. Prisoner Bowe Bergdahl’s Failed Attempt to Escape From Taliban

In exclusive interviews, Afghan insurgents reveal how Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, imprisoned by the Taliban in Pakistan since 2009, made a bold bid for freedom—but was quickly recaptured.

He is believed to be the only American soldier held in captivity by the Taliban—and about three months ago he made a daring break for freedom.

One night in late August or early September, 25-year-old Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, jumped from a first-floor window of the mud-brick house in Pakistan in which he had been imprisoned and headed into the nearby underbrush and forested mountains, according to three reliable militant sources who got the story from fighters who were present during the prisoner’s attempted escape. They spoke exclusively to the Daily Beast.

Bergdahl has been in militant hands since June 30, 2009, when he was captured in Afghanistan’s Paktika province by a guerrilla force under Mullah Sangin, a senior commander in the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. In a July 2009 video, the first of five videos that the militants have released, Bergdahl is sitting cross-legged on a blanket, with a glass mug in front of him. He explains that he was captured after falling behind on a foot patrol with his unit: the First Battalion, 501 Infantry Regiment, Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. As he talks he stops several times so he can choke back tears.

“Well, I’m scared,” he says. “It’s very unnerving to be a prisoner.”

In an interview this month near the Afghan city of Khost, an area under heavy Haqqani influence, Hafiz Hanif, a young Afghan militant who was featured in a Newsweek cover story on Al Qaeda last year and whose information has proved reliable in the past, told The Daily Beast what he had seen and heard of Bergdahl’s life—and his escape.

Hanif first spotted Bergdahl last June. It was on a high mountain trail in North Waziristan, on the isolated frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The young jihadist, then a 17-year-old fighter with the remnants of Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s wild and militant-infested Shawal Valley area, didn’t take any notice at first of the man, who was walking along the stony path with a group of armed fighters from the notorious Haqqani Network. The man had a beard, and was dressed like the others in ordinary tribal clothing, a loose-fitting shalwar kameez. The only thing to set him apart was that he had no weapon. “That’s the American military prisoner,” a companion told Hafiz Hanif, pointing to the unarmed man.

Hanif saw Bergdahl again several months later, again in the Shawal Valley area. This time the American was in the back seat of a pickup truck, sandwiched between two armed fighters.

Hanif and two other Afghan Taliban fighters who have seen Bergdahl up close tell the Daily Beast that the U.S. soldier is in good health and has been cooperating with his captors. Over time he seemed so friendly and cooperative—even trying to learn Pashto, the language of his captors—that his jailers removed the restraints they had bound him with, especially at night, to prevent him from escaping. Early in the summer they began letting him move around rather freely outside. On occasion, Hanif says, the American was even allowed to carry an old, loaded rifle and join the guerrillas as they hunted birds and rabbits for food and sport in the mountains.

The militants miscalculated. Bergdahl took advantage of the lax conditions and ran.

Mullah Sangin and his brother Mullah Balal, who had been put in charge of the prisoner, organized a search as soon as the escape was discovered. Nevertheless, the sources say, Bergdahl successfully avoided capture for three days and two nights. The searchers finally found him, weak, exhausted, and nearly naked—he had spent three days without food or water—hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands and covered with leaves.

"Obviously a mother wants to hear that her son is well," said Col. Timothy Marsano. He said she was proud to hear “that he fought off his captors.”

Even then, he put up a ferocious fight. The two gunmen who found him first were unable to subdue him. “He fought like a boxer,” Hanif was told. It took five more militants to overpower him. Now back in custody, he is kept shackled at night, and his jailers are taking no chances. They constantly move him from place to place, hoping to elude any U.S. efforts to find him, Hanif says. Another Afghan source says the American’s captors shuttle him back and forth across the border.

According to one Taliban source close to senior Haqqani commanders, Bergdahl told them after his recapture that he had hoped to find villagers who might shelter him and help get word of his whereabouts to U.S. officials. The mountain tribes’ code of honor, Pashtunwali, requires them to protect and care for any stranger who seeks their assistance. But it was no use: civilians had abandoned the area long ago, squeezed out by the militants’ ever-growing presence and the unrelenting danger of Predator drone strikes. Bergdahl could find no one to help him.

Still, the militants’ own fear of the drones could eventually work in Bergdahl’s favor. When he was first captured, the militants reportedly demanded $1 million in ransom for his return, together with the release of 21 senior Taliban prisoners and Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui. (The MIT-educated Siddiqui is currently serving an 86-year sentence in America for trying to kill U.S. soldiers while she was in police custody in Afghanistan.) But 18 months after Bergdahl’s capture, with the Predators more of a threat than ever, the militants may be ready to deal. “There’s a fear that a drone could hit the golden chicken,” says another Taliban source close to the Haqqanis, using a local idiom to express the prisoner’s value. He says the Haqqanis may now be looking for what he calls an “easier” deal, willing to accept less for his release than what they thought they could get when he was first captured. Meanwhile, however, Bergdahl and his family can only wait—and hope he’ll be home soon.

Col. Timothy Marsano, an Idaho National Guard public-affairs officer who acts as a media liaison for Bergdahl's parents, Jani and Robert, said they declined to comment on the Daily Beast’s information about their son. "Obviously a mother wants to hear that her son is well," Marsano said. He said she was proud to hear "that he fought off his captors," and she was pleased to "know that he's in good physical shape."

Bob Prucha, deputy director for public affairs at U.S. Central Command, said in response to the Daily Beast’s information on Bergdahl: "It's material I've never heard before … It's been a long time since we've had any indication that he's alive. We're still looking for him. We've never ceased looking and working every intelligence angle we can come up with. We get a lead, we track it down."

Tara McKelvey contributed reporting to this story.