By Matthew Cole
The U.S. soldier kidnapped by Taliban forces in Afghanistan may have been taken across the border to Pakistan, complicating efforts to obtain his release, according to two people involved in U.S. and Afghan military efforts to locate him, and three Afghan soldiers captured with him.
The soldier, Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, of Idaho, is the first serviceman captured since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. According to a person actively involved in the search, a top Afghan insurgent commander has taken credit for capturing the soldier and has now moved the soldier to South Waziristan, Pakistan. U.S. armed forces are not permitted to operate inside Pakistan except under extreme circumstances.
The insurgent leader, Mullah Sangeen, has reportedly demanded the U.S. halt air raids as a condition for the return of the soldier.
Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said that "the efforts continue to locate the soldier, but we're not going to provide any details." The Pentagon yesterday announced that it took two days to determine that Bergdahl had been captured by enemy forces.
Officials at the Pentagon said they still believe Bergdahl is in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl was taken by Mullah Sangeen's men from village near the U.S. military post in Paktika, where he was stationed, according to a senior Afghan Army official in the province. The captors "punched and hit the soldier after some resistance. But than they were able to take the soldier and left all of his things: weapon, body armor and radios." The Afghan official says Bergdahl and the three Afghan National Army soldiers were moved from the near-by village and quickly vanished.
"We have an entire Afghan National Army platoon searching the area," says the Afghan official, who is searching for his soldiers as well. "But I suspect they might have moved him in to Pakistan already." Yesterday, Bergdahl's captors released a video showing the soldier eating and sitting on a carpet. After Bergdahl is prompted by one of his captors, he is heard saying that the date is July 14th, nearly two weeks after he was captured, and that he is scared.
U.S. Military Distributes Leaflet in Afghanistan
Bergdahl's family released a statement yesterday asking for privacy and that Americans "please continue to keep Bowe in your thoughts and prayers." Bergdahl, who is assigned to 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Richardson, Alaska, went missing from his post with three Afghan National Army soldiers in Eastern Afghanistan on or around July 1st under circumstances that remain unclear.
The U.S. military began distributing a leaflet in eastern Afghanistan last week that warns, "If you do not release the U.S. soldier, then You will be hunted." A picture of an American soldier kicking in the door of an Afghan home covers the leaflet. A Pentagon official tells ABC News that the leaflets were distributed in the areas inside Afghanistan that the military believes Bergdahl is being held.
Any effort to stage a rescue attempt would be fraught with risk, Pentagon officials say, but if Bergdahl has been moved to Pakistan, the challenge is even harder. The U.S. military is not allowed to operate inside Pakistan, unless its forces are in "hot pursuit" of Taliban fighters fleeing Afghanistan. In addition to U.S. military rules of engagement, operating inside Pakistan covertly has proven to be difficult for U.S. forces.
In private meetings, U.S. military officials based in Afghanistan have insisted that their soldier is still inside Afghanistan. "They want to think he's in Afghanistan," said an American involved in the search efforts.
But Bergdahl's location was identified in field reports from people operating in Pakistan's tribal areas. Bergdahl was recently seen at a Sangeen training camp, just inside Pakistan, according to one of those involved in his search.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News' Martha Raddatz that she is not allowed to talk about where Bergdahl might be.
The U.S. military has had a succession of efforts to locate the missing soldier and free him. Initially, a reward of $25,000 for location tips was offered to Afghans in the eastern portions of the region from which he disappeared. According to a source involved in the effort, a large number of calls flooded, and overwhelmed U.S. military efforts.
Complicating the search is determining who, if anyone, Mullah Sangeen works for. In the past, he has associated with the Haqqani network, the largest and most powerful insurgent group in eastern Afghanistan. The Haqqani network is lead by Siraj Haqqani, who has $5M bounty on his head for terrorist and insurgent activities against foreign forces in Afghanistan. But Haqqani however, is not technically part of the Taliban, who aligned with fugitive leader Mullah Omar.
"I am not sure if Mullah Sangeen is a hardcore Siraj Haqqani group member," says an Afghan intelligence officer in the province where Pfc. Bergdahl was captured. "However, Siraj is the boss. Let's hope the solider is still with Sangeen's people because you can [negotiate] with him."
War in Afghanistan
Paktika province is largely under Haqqani control. Two Taliban spokesman have denied holding or capturing the soldier, suggesting that Sangeen acted alone or in concert with Haqqani. Siraj Haqqani is believed to be responsible for the kidnap of New York Times reporter David Rohde, who escaped last month from Pakistan after seven months of captivity.
The war in Afghanistan has escalated in recent months, as the U.S. has surged troops and conducted more operations. July has already become the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war began in 2001.