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 Sgt. 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 Sgt. Bergdahl after senior U.S. military officials say he wandered off his base. The Daily Beast published an essay by a former member of Sgt. Bergdahl's battalion, Nathan Bethea, who linked the search to the deaths of eight soldiers whom he named. "He has finally returned," Mr. Bethea wrote. "Those men will never have the opportunity."
Taliban video shows release of U.S. soldier
Video footage from the Afghan Taliban showed U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl being transferred from the hands of the Taliban to U.S. military officials in Khost province last week. (Video courtesy of Reuters; 6/4/2014)
But a review of casualty reports and contemporaneous military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive -- even as critics of Sgt. 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 Barack Obama had decided to send a surge of 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 Sgt. 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 Sgt. 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 the U.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 Sgt. 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.
Mr. 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 Sgt. Bergdahl.
Still, one soldier from Sgt. Bergdahl's battalion said response time after the attack had been slow, and argued that the issue was not if the outpost was going to be attacked, but rather when insurgents chose to attack it.
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 Sgt. Bergdahl had been spotted.
The other six American deaths in Paktika that summer occurred from Aug. 18 to Sept. 5, which Sgt. Bergdahl's critics link to him as well.
"You see a lot of anger because we lost guys not only at Zerok, but a decent amount of good guys looking" for him, said a soldier from his unit, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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.
A retired senior U.S. military officer, briefed at the time on the Bergdahl search, said that even though soldiers were instructed to watch for signs of the missing American, they would have been conducting patrols and performing risky operations anyway. "Look, it's not like these soldiers would have been sitting around their base," he said.
The soldier who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed that it was "ludicrous" to lay 100 percent of the blame for the deaths at Sgt. Bergdahl's feet, and he acknowledged that patrols were going to get hit in Paktika during fighting season anyway. But, he said, the reason he and his colleagues are angry is that too often that summer, the purpose of their patrols into dangerous areas was not ordinary wartime work such as reconnaissance, maintaining a security presence or humanitarian projects, but rather "to go look for this guy."