WASHINGTON/KABUL: The frantic search for Bowe Bergdahl began the moment his comrades discovered he was no longer inside the fragile outpost in a rock-strewn valley in one of the most hostile corners of Afghanistan.
Exactly why Bergdahl left is subject to intense scrutiny. But accounts by two Taliban sources as well as several US officials and fellow soldiers raise doubt over media reports that he had sought to join the Taliban, and over suggestions that the deaths later that year of six soldiers in his battalion were related to the search for him.
His dramatic release on May 31 after five years in captivity in return for five Taliban commanders sparked a national controversy over whether President Barack Obama paid too high a price for his freedom. That was fueled by allegations by some in his battalion that he was a deserter, and that soldiers died because they were looking for him after his disappearance in the early hours of June 30, 2009.
While many questions remain, a Reuters reconstruction of his disappearance indicates that at the time when Bergdahl’s six comrades in the 1st Battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment were killed in August and September 2009, his fallen comrades were on other missions like securing the Afghan elections and, according to one US military official, the period of intensive ground searches had already ended.
But several soldiers in his unit say the quest to locate him never really ended, and that it was an element of every mission they undertook, prompting some to blame the deaths on him.
The US Army has declined to give an account of those fraught weeks saying a new investigation will be conducted when Bergdahl, now being treated at a US military hospital in Germany, is able to take part.
An initial investigation noted that Bergdahl had slipped away from his base in the past, once during training in California, only to return a short while later, according to people familiar with its classified findings.
His disappearance in June 2009 came at a time of increasing attacks on US forces from a resurgent Taliban: there were nearly 200 US combat deaths in Afghanistan between the time of his disappearance and the end of 2009.
He had been on guard duty in one of the armored trucks parked in a circle on a dry riverbed to form a crude outpost in one of the most hostile corners of Afghanistan, in Paktika province along the border with Pakistan, according to several of his fellow soldiers.
They described him as a bookish loner who would rather learn Pashto than drink beer. Bergdahl, they said, had few close friends in the unit. “He definitely was very reserved, an introvert,” said former Sergeant Matt Vierkant, a team leader in Bergdahl’s platoon. At roll call that morning, it became quickly apparent that he was missing - though his gun, ammunition and body armor had been left behind.
After searching the trucks, latrines, bunkers and quarters of Afghan National Police stationed with them, the platoon radioed in a missing-person report and immediately set out to search for him. Within two and a half hours, infantry units had fanned out to set up roadblocks and search nearby villages. The area was tense. Three days earlier, Pakistani warplanes had launched a new offensive against the Taliban just across the border in South Waziristan, killing at least a dozen Taliban fighters in a rugged region known for heavily armed tribesmen and camps harboring al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
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