The of Serial documented Bowe Bergdahl’s escape from captivity by the Haqqani Network and recapture nine days later. According to host Sarah Koenig, for Bergdahl this was all “year one.” What came next is “the rest of it” – four more years in captivity when the Taliban had realized that Bergdahl was not going down without a fight and decided the best place to keep him was in a metal cage. Specifically, a six-sided cage made of iron bars that Bergdahl estimates was six feet wide. It was collapsible, too, and moved with him from outpost to outpost becoming his home for the rest of his time in captivity .
It’s hard to imagine what it’s like living in a metal box like a mistreated dog waiting to be rescued by the Humane Society . To help fill in the blurry picture, Koenig recruited someone with a way with words – reporter David Rohde who was also captured by the Haqqanis and .
Rohde was on leave from the New York Times and working on a book about Afghanistan. After setting up a meeting with a Taliban commander, he was kidnapped and handed over to what Koenig describes as “the same people in pretty much the same place at close to the same time as Bowe”. While Rohde’s experience had some striking similarities to Bergdahl’s, Koenig points out that there were also some major differences like the fact that Rohde was a civilian with a great deal of knowledge about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was taken captive with his driver and interpreter who could explain what was being said – and keep him company. Rohde has also been kidnapped before, while in Bosnia in the 90s. Bergdahl was alone, relatively untrained, and with little understanding of the landscape, culture or even geography of the two countries. For example, Rohde wasn’t blindfolded, tied up, held in solitary confinement, and he knew he was in Pakistan. (Read more about Rohde’s time in captivity in his .)
‘The Sopranos of the Afghanistan war’
Rohde is able to help fill in some of what was most likely going on outside of Bergdahl’s tiny metal cage. Like the fact that the area of Pakistan where Bergdahl was most likely held “was a Taliban mini-state that functioned openly”. And, yes, the Pakistan military was aware of what was happening, and according to Rohde, the militants and the military would wave at each other on the roads and the Taliban would run the military’s checkpoints. Rohde however gets a bit stumped trying to explain why the Haqqanis were able to operate with impunity in Pakistan despite the fact that the US and Pakistan were supposedly allies . “The Haqqanis are a family-run operation and they’re not one thing,” explained Koenig. “They’re Islamic nationalists, they’re a militant group, and they own businesses. A New York Times story compared them to the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war.” They are also part of the Taliban network. “They use the same stationary – I’m not kidding about that,” said Koenig, who notes that they are the most effective military operation in the Taliban and are also the network that is most “under control of Pakistan”. The family is Afghani, but based in Pakistan. When they had taken up arms against the Soviet Union, the US had given them millions of dollars to train fighters – skills they used against the US just a few years later. According to Koenig, the reason the Pakistan’s tolerate the Haqqanis is because “they are useful to them” as a proxy for fighting Pakistani Taliban, as well as in both and India, Pakistan’s longtime rival.
Like Bergdahl, Rohde and his companions were moved constantly through a network of homes and locations. “Families would get tired of holding us,” said Rohde, “because it was very dangerous for them.” Rohde thinks the families would take on the operation, because they had family members in captivity and wanted them released or wanted to curry favor with the Haqqanis. According to Rohde, the Haqqanis would only put the prisoners in the homes of trusted members of their network out of fear of spies and betrayal. They would hang suspected spies with alarming frequency.
‘A civil war in the Islamic world’
Rohde also noted that the longer his captivity went on the less accommodating his captors became as they failed to earn money or fame for their hostages. They started to shy away from eating with or being near Rohde because he wasn’t a Muslim, no longer even letting him wash their dishes because as a non-Muslim he was “dirty”.
Of course most Muslims don’t believe this at all, and there was even a split among the guards. According to Rohde, one day an older man lectured the younger guards saying “David is God’s creation” and that “the prophet taught we should treat all humans humanely”. Rohde interpreted this as a sign that there is an ongoing “civil war in the Islamic world for the interpretation of this faith”. Rohde’s captors believed that “anyone who didn’t follow their interpretation of Islam deserved to die”.
‘A huge success story for the US military’
On 20 June, 2009, Rohde escaped from captivity, making his way to a Pakistani military base where he was rescued. Bergdahl was captured just 10 days later and Rohde fears that Bergdahl’s harsh treatment was due in part to the fact that Rohde escaped. The Haqqanis weren’t going to make that mistake again.
At some point, though, the Haqqanis reportedly got a message that the US told them they weren’t going to pay ransom or free any prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl. The Haqqanis waited, which meant Bergdahl waited, too – for five years .
“If you can set aside the circumstances of Bowe’s capture – which of course you can’t – but if you could, Bowe would be a huge success story for the army,” Koenig reports a Defense Department official told her. After all, Bergdahl is an untrained 23-year-old POW who survives in isolation for years. And he did it without losing his mind, an ironically mind-blowing feat. Koenig uses audio from Bergdahl to explain in detail how hard it is to go crazy while being held in the dark, in a cage, for years. “Sanity is psychologically exhausting,” explains Koenig. Bergdahl was able to keep his mind sane thanks to his body’s needs – pain, hunger, and cold all focused him.
‘Broad political theater’
Koenig says that the treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo and was a theme not only in the “broad political theater” of the videos the Haqqanis made starring their prisoners clad in orange jumpsuits, but also behind the scenes. Rohde’s captors told him that they treated him better than the US treated its prisoners. But the opposite was true for Bergdahl. A man would come into Bergdahl’s room and torture him, cutting his chest, slowly, over and over again with a razor blade. Bergdahl lost count at 600 cuts. He thinks it was revenge for treatment of the prisoners in Bagram and Guantánamo.
His mistreatment led Bergdahl to try one last, feeble attempt at escape, trying to rust the bars of his cage with water. It was so futile and aggravating that it made Bergdahl give up. “Things didn’t matter anymore,” said Bergdahl. The last year and a half of his captivity was spent like that.
Next time: What was the US trying to do to get Bergdahl out of captivity?
- The Haqqanis hated Rohde’s driver, Asad Mangal, and his interpreter, Tahir Luddin, more than they hated him, viewing them as traitors to the Muslim faith.
- Rohde and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, wrote a book, , about his capture and escape.
- When Rohde was in captivity his keepers would bring him Nestle water bottled in Lahore and English language newspapers, which helped him understand that he was in Pakistan.
- Mullah Sangeen, who was in charge of Bergdahl’s captivity, met Rohde once and one of his men “joked” about cutting off Rohde’s head.
- A cook at one of Bergdahl’s prisons talked to filmmaker Mark Boal’s team revealing that the remote location where Mullah Sangeen was holed up.