By Toby Harnden, The Sunday Telegraph
In the town of Pocatello, Idaho, last Tuesday, Jason Carey stood waving a yellow sign that read: “BOWE IS NOT AS HERO. He Deserted America.” It struck a chord. “People were honking their horns, giving me the thumbs-up,” Carey said. “I only had one guy giving me the middle finger.”
Until last weekend Carey, a burly, goateed veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, had been a staunch supporter of Bowe Bergdahl. He gave money to the “Bring Bowe home” campaign. “He was included in my prayers every night.”
His first reaction to Bergdahl’s release after nearly five years in captivity was that of many Americans: “Hell, yeah — Bowe’s coming back.”
But within hours, soldiers who had served with Bergdahl were dismissing any notion that he was an all-American hero. They recounted how Bergdahl, then a 23-year-old private, had finished his guard shift at Outpost Mest, a remote base in Paktika province, southeastern Afghanistan, and simply slipped away into the night.
In a final email to his father, published in Rolling Stone, he had said: “I am ashamed to be an American. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.”
Carey made a YouTube video of himself burning his Bergdahl POW-MIA (missing in action) T-shirt and telling the freed soldier: “You better pray to Allah I don’t catch you on the streets of Idaho, punk.” A photograph of him with his sign went viral after being posted on a “Bowe Bergdahl is a Traitor” Facebook page.
He was particularly incensed that Bergdahl was automatically promoted to sergeant during his captivity: “I had to work to get my sergeant’s rank. All he did was sit in a cave and chill out with his Taliban buddies.”
Carey’s change of heart reflected a sharp swing in public opinion last week against President Barack Obama’s decision to secure Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban leaders who had each spent well over a decade in Guantanamo Bay prison. US intelligence judged them almost certain to “return to the fight” against America.
On a balmy evening last Saturday Obama had walked into the White House rose garden, holding hands with Bergdahl’s beaming mother Jani, apparently expecting a surge of patriotic gratitude that America’s last military captive in Afghanistan had been returned.
“We’re committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan and we are committed to closing Gitmo,” he said, using the military abbreviation for Guantanamo Bay. “But we also made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home.”
Standing beside him with Jani was Bergdahl’s father Bob, sporting a ponytail and a long, Afghan-style beard. Obama grinned as Bob broke into Pashto, using words from the Koran — “In the name of Allah the most gracious and most merciful” — to address his son.
The president then kissed and hugged Jani before going back into the White House with his arms around the couple, who were said to be in Washington, 2,300 miles from their Idaho home, by chance. It was a ceremony so schmaltzy it might have been sponsored by Hallmark.
Television clips of Bob speaking Pashto at the White House, followed by the disclosure that Obama had not told Congress about the release of the Guantanamo prisoners, as he was required by law to do, fuelled a political firestorm.
Far from being a tale of sacrifice reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, Bergdahl’s story was compared to the television series Homeland, in which Sergeant Nicholas Brody converts to Islam in captivity and emerges as an al-Qaeda operative. Was Bergdahl a naive young man overwhelmed by the experience of war or was he more conspirator than captive?
As for Obama, what consequences will his misjudgment of America’s mood have for his plans to end the war in Afghanistan and close Guantanamo?
The people of Bergdahl’s home town of Hailey, which has been festooned with yellow ribbons since the summer of 2009, have been going through something akin to shellshock as their celebratory mood has been blown away by a barrage of outrage.
“It reminds me of the old days in the West when they’d gather them up and try them and hang them in 24 hours,” said Sue Martin, owner of Zaney’s coffee shop, where Bergdahl had worked as a barista.
She was bewildered by the vilification of Bob, beloved in the town of 8,000 as “kind of a hippie soul” and a parcel delivery driver for 28 years before he retired recently to work in a local bike shop for spare parts in lieu of pay.
“Bob started the beard when Bowe was first captured, as a symbol of solidarity, and since then it has evolved and he’s been trimming it in the fashion of a Taliban elder so he could be respected as the elder of his family,” she said.
At the City Hall, the phones rang off the hook as hundreds of people protested about a welcome home rally, with Carole King due to sing, at the end of the month. The local Chamber of Commerce was inundated with emails and angry calls from people cancelling holidays in Hailey out of disgust.
By Wednesday, the police chief, who had earlier said he would be celebrating Bergdahl’s release with “a big cold one” cancelled the rally due to security fears that thousands of protestors would descend on the town.
It was a surprise to many in Hailey when Bergdahl joined the army but there are clues to his mysterious story in his unusual upbringing.
Bob, 54, had been a cycling champion and would have competed at the 1980 Moscow Olympics had America not boycotted them in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The experience prompted disillusionment with the US government and he later moved to Hailey in Idaho's Sun Valley. He and Jani, 56, raised Bowe and his elder sister Sky without television but with thousands of books, many of them stacked on the floor. The pair were home-schooled.
As a child, Bowe would shoot with his father and hunt elk using a bow and arrow. He revelled in paragliding, dirt biking, karate and fencing, also taking up ballet and practicing two or three times a day.
He harboured ambitions of joining the French foreign legion or sailing around the world but was, in the words of Sue Martin, “a sensitive, compassionate soul” who had studied Buddhism.
Rather than accepting a lift into the nearby town of Ketchum, Bergdahl would walk the 18 miles from his parents’ home, a ramshackle bungalow with a corrugated roof built by his father beside a dirt road in Hidden Valley canyon.
Hailey is a liberal oasis in a Republican state, attracting the rich and famous to skiing in Ketchum and hiking in the Sawtooth mountains. Bruce Willis owns the Hailey theatre and other Hollywood stars with property nearby include Tom Hanks, Brooke Shields and Robin Williams.
Eccentricity is almost the norm. Even before Bowe’s capture, Bob would talk incessantly about philosophy, history and politics. “Sometimes it’s hard to talk to him because he does get into all this intellectual stuff — he almost reads and thinks too much,” said Lee Ann Ferris, a long-time neighbour.
Another friend said Bob had once flirted with joining the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group, and moving to the woods of northern Idaho.
“I love him but you have to understand, Bob is a kook. Half the stuff he talks about never happens — he changes his mind and six months later it’s something else.”
In the past five years, Bob, a devout Presbyterian, has studied Pashto and Urdu, the Koran and Middle Eastern history for several hours a day. Tortured by Taliban videos of his son, he considered travelling to Afghanistan on his own rescue mission.
According to a classified US army report, Bergdahl went missing from a training base in California soon after joining up “to see how far he could go or to see a sunrise or sunset”.
Within a year he had been posted to Afghanistan. He served as a machine-gunner for just a month and while initially gung-ho, saying the US needed to “kick more doors down”, he sought out Afghan police officers, sipping tea with them and learning Pashto phrases.
Matt Vierkant, a former sergeant in the same platoon, said Bergdahl was “an introvert, a quiet guy who didn’t try to make any friends but didn’t have any enemies”. One day the pair sat looking out over the rugged landscape and Bergdahl said he “could see himself getting lost in the mountains”.
Two weeks later he disappeared. His father responded to Bowe’s final email denouncing an “army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies” — and stating that “the horror that is america [sic] is disgusting” — with a message bearing the subject line: “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!”
Bergdahl’s comrades knew he had deserted. He had left his rifle and flak jacket behind and taken only a knife, compass, water and a camera.
The US army has concluded there is no evidence he actively sought out the Taliban. (This isn't correct, SoRo).
An Afghan boy said he saw a soldier crawling through the grass. He may have walked several miles before encountering Taliban fighters. Two Afghan police officers disappeared at the same time, suggesting they might have helped Bergdahl leave and then betrayed him.
But there have been persistent reports that he converted to Islam in captivity and a Pentagon-funded investigation included claims that he played football with his captors, took part in AK-47 target practice and giggled frequently, saying “Salaam”, the Arabic word for peace.
Bob has said the son of Bowe’s captor had been killed by a US drone strike — almost identical to a dramatic incident in Homeland that helped convince the fictional Brody to turn against America.
In 2011 a Taliban commander told The Sunday Times that Bergdahl’s captors had let him hunt birds and rabbits in the mountains with an old British rifle. He is believed to have tried to escape at least twice, getting away for three days before he was discovered lying in leaves in a trench he had dug with his own hands.
Last week the Pentagon said he had been kept in a cage as a punishment, and physically abused. He appears to have been moved frequently, including to Pakistan.
Rather than being flown back to the US to be reunited with his family, Bergdahl has been kept at Landstuhl in Germany for the last week, undergoing intensive “debriefing” from intelligence officers as well as receiving medical and psychiatric care. One early goal, the US army said, was for him to “regain control of his emotions”. He has not been allowed to speak to his parents, even by telephone.
The deal to free Bergdahl was first mooted at least as early as 2011. Obama hoped that releasing the five from Guantanamo and a Taliban renunciation of international terrorism could lead to a settlement that would end the Afghanistan war.
The prospects evaporated but Obama, determined to end the war anyway, wanted Bergdahl back rather than be accused of leaving a soldier behind - a charge that haunted American presidents after the Vietnam war.
The final agreement was brokered in a week by Qatar and dovetailed with Obama’s announcement of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2017. Engulfed in a scandal over hospital car for veterans, it also provided him an opportunity to demonstrate he was helping those who had served.
His larger purpose seems to be a desire to close Guantanamo Bay, where 149 prisoners remain. But the backlash over the release of the “Taliban Five” might well set back that aim, especially if they are linked to future attacks. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, has threatened impeachment proceedings if Obama breaks the law again to free prisoners.
Four days before his son’s release, Bob sent a tweet — now deleted — to a Taliban spokesman, saying: “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen.[sic]” Some suspect father and son have developed a form of Stockholm syndrome.
A Taliban propaganda video of Bergdahl’s handover showed US special forces troops shaking hands with his captors and then hastily running to their Black Hawk helicopter and checking that the released soldier was not carrying a suicide bomb. It could become footage as resonant as images of helicopters lifted people from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon in 1975.
The negotiations that brought about that moment might provide a template for a US exit, with the Taliban’s agreement to hold fire, a deal that could undermine the Afghan government.
A day after Bergdahl’s release, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, opined on a Sunday television talk show that he had served with “honour and distinction”. It was this jaw-dropping statement that prompted Vierkant and five other soldiers from the platoon to speak out.
The soldiers’ media appearances have been facilitated by Capitol Media Partners, a consulting firm run by a firebrand Republican operative called Richard Grenell, prompting claims of a “Swift-boating” — similar to attacks on John Kerry’s Vietnam war record during the 2004 presidential campaign by comrades who had served with him on Swift boats in the Mekong delta.
But the soldiers’ unanimous certainty that Bergdahl deserted is hard to dismiss and has been bolstered by their willingness to raise doubts about some of the more emotive claims. For instance, Vierkant said reports that Taliban attacks became more effective because of information from Bergdahl or that eight soldiers were killed searching for him were impossible to substantiate because “there are so many variables” in war.
The Pentagon has delayed Bergdahl’s imminent automatic promotion to staff sergeant and intimated he may face a court martial — something flatly ruled out by the White House days earlier.
While scandals such as the one over the deaths of US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi in 2012 have been fuelled almost solely by Republicans, many of Obama's fellow Democrats have joined in the chorus of anger over the Bergdahl deal.
There have been shifting explanations from the White House for why Congress wasn’t informed of the deal, ranging from Bergdahl’s poor health – which is not evident from the handover video – to the notion that he was about to be killed. Senators on both sides of the aisle suspect that the true reason was that Obama knew the deal would be rejected.
Administration officials have even attacked Vierkant and his comrades for speaking out. Brandon Friedman, an Obama-appointed housing department official, suggested that Bergdahl was justifiably “disillusioned” and speculated via Twitter: “What if his platoon was long on psychopaths and short on leadership?”
Vierkant, 27, called this “misinformation”. Bergdahl had told a friend in Hailey that he had witnessed an Afghan child being killed, but this was “a bald-faced lie - nothing like that happened”, Vierkant said.
On the eve of the solemn commemorations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, even Obama himself appeared to denigrate the soldiers, saying in Brussels that concern about the Bergdahl deal was a partisan campaign against him “whipped up in Washington.'
John Bohl, who served as a US army special forces captain in Vietnam, said: “Obama doesn’t understand the military culture at all. He has the obligation as a commander-in-chief to bring everyone home, but not at any price. The very idea of celebrating this at the White House or in Idaho is crazy.”
Back in Hailey, Lee Ann Ferris said: “I’ve known Bowe for 18 years. He has a good heart, something went wrong and he walked away. But a sympathiser or a collaborator? No. No way.”