WASHINGTON - The armed Taliban fighters who captured Bowe Bergdahl in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, quickly handed him to a far more dangerous group that shuttled him between hide-outs in Pakistan’s rugged tribal belt for the next five years.
For much of that time, CIA drones trolled the skies overhead, searching for signs of the missing U.S. soldier. Until late last year, the drones fired missiles that killed hundreds of fighters and at least one senior leader from the militant group, known as the Haqqani network.
A five-month halt in the CIA drone strikes this year coincided with intensifying efforts to get Bergdahl out. His return on May 31 has freed the CIA to resume the attacks, and drones hit targets in the tribal area known as North Waziristan, where the Haqqani group is based, on Wednesday and Thursday, killing 16 militants.
U.S. officials believe the Haqqani network ultimately agreed to release Bergdahl in an exchange for five Taliban detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in part because one of the five was Mohammad Nabi Omari, a relatively low-ranking Taliban official but a Haqqani associate.
The story of Bergdahl’s captivity, and the hunt to find him, is far more complex than has emerged to date. The new details raise questions about how much U.S. intelligence agencies knew of his location when they were firing drones, whether rescue attempts were ever possible, and whether Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which U.S. officials say has close ties to the Haqqani group, helped or hindered his ultimate release.
Bergdahl was admitted early Friday to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio after two weeks at a U.S. military hospital in Germany. He remains in the military and it’s unclear whether he will speak publicly about his ordeal.
According to Pakistani sources close to the Haqqani network, Bergdahl was taken to North Waziristan only a few days after he wandered off Outpost Mest Malak in Afghanistan’s Paktika province. An unconfirmed report given to U.S. special operations forces said local Taliban fighters gave or sold the American to a timber merchant who then smuggled him across the border.
Bergdahl was moved at “very frequent intervals” in Pakistan, often between hide-outs in the Shawal Valley, close to the Afghan border, according to an individual with close contacts to the Haqqani network.
“He was kept as a precious treasure,” the individual said, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety.
The sources said Bergdahl was hidden in Miram Shah, a market town that is the capital of North Waziristan, for an extended period but spent most of his captivity in heavily forested areas.
U.S. officials confirmed that Bergdahl was held in a small cell or metal cage for several weeks after he tried to escape. One report passed to the U.S. military said he was found cold and hungry, hiding in a ditch, after five days on the run in June 2010.
By multiple accounts, Bergdahl was under the control of Mullah Sangeen Zadran, one of the most influential commanders with the Haqqani network.
Sangeen was a top deputy to Sirajuddin Haqqani, who hailed from the same Zadran tribe and who now heads the extremist network founded by his late father, Jalaluddin Haqqani. But Sangeen also had close ties to other insurgent leaders on both sides of the border, making him well suited to watch over the sole U.S. prisoner of war.
Haqqani, whose militant faction frequently intersects with the Pakistani Taliban in the roiling mix of Islamist militant groups, also took a personal interest in Bergdahl.
“The Taliban knew that Bergdahl was their goose that laid the golden egg,” said another individual with links to the group in Miram Shah. “That is why the Taliban, especially Siraj Haqqani, was taking care of the American soldier.”
In August 2011, two years after Bergdahl disappeared, the State Department added Sangeen to its list of global terrorists. He was described as a senior Haqqani lieutenant who had “orchestrated the kidnappings of Afghans and foreign nationals” in the border region.
In September 2012, the State Department also named the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization.
Sangeen was killed by a CIA drone strike Sept. 6 in the Ghulam Khan area of North Waziristan, according to the independent FATA Research Center in Islamabad, Pakistan, which tracks militant groups in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.