June 3, 2014

Pentagon knew Bergdahl’s whereabouts but didn’t risk rescue for ‘deserter’

The Pentagon on several occasions had ground-level intelligence on where Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was being held captive at various times — down to how many gunmen were guarding him — but special operations commanders repeatedly shelved rescue missions because they didn’t want to risk casualties for a man they believed to be a “deserter,” sources familiar with the mission plans said.

Commanders on the ground debated whether to pull the trigger on a rescue several times in recent years, according to one of the sources, a former high-level intelligence official in Afghanistan, who said the conclusion each time was that the prospect of losing highly trained troops was too high a price to pay for rescuing a soldier who walked away from his unit before being captured by the enemy.

A second source told The Washington Times that the rescue operation plans were “high risk” and became even less attractive in recent months when officials in the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command grew convinced that the Taliban and the militant Haqqani network, whose operatives were holding Sgt. Bergdahl, were eager to cut a deal for his release.

“Joint Special Operations Command always had the rescue mission on the table and it was entirely under their ownership, but the big question centered on whether Bergdahl was somebody you risk lives for when you still have time and space to maneuver diplomatically,” said the source, a high-level congressional aide, who, like the former intelligence official, spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

The aide also said there was frustration among some on Capitol Hill that the Obama administration had botched an opportunity to exert leverage over the Taliban, particularly since the U.S. military could have used force to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s release.

“The prisoner swap was being built up as the only option that was available. But there’s been knowledge of the general vicinity of where Bergdahl was, down to how many guys were guarding him,” said the aide.

The catch, the aide added, is that special operations commanders and others at the Pentagon never sought approval for the rescue mission from the White House because they believed in the pursuit of a diplomatic deal.

The aide said military officials in Afghanistan spent recent months pushing for a stronger deal than was ultimately struck, but were “superseded” by the White House and State Department. The aide would not comment on what the parameters of a “stronger” deal may have looked like, beyond saying they would have involved the Pakistani government.

The former intelligence official who spoke with The Times corroborated that assertion but declined to offer further details, saying only that the deal turned out the way it did because “the administration wanted to close the door on this no matter what the price was.”

Separately, the former official said, “Military commanders were loath to risk their people to save this guy. They were loath to pick him up and because of that hesitancy, we wind up trading five Taliban guys for him.

“The mentality was, ‘We’re not going to lose more of our own guys on this,” the former official said.

Both of the sources said military officials across the special operations community were appalled by the terms of the deal that ultimately got struck over the weekend between State Department-led negotiators and the Taliban, effectively securing Sgt. Bergdahl’s release from Haqqani network custody in exchange for the release of five former Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

U.S. Special Operations Command declined to comment on the revelations provided to The Times.

But The Associated Press reported that after weeks of intensive searching for Sgt. Bergdahl in 2009 the military decided against making an extraordinary effort to rescue him, especially after it became clear that he initially was being held in Pakistan under the supervision of the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally with links to Pakistan’s intelligence service.

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