Serial Recap, Episode 2: Sarah Koenig Calls the Taliban
Last week, Serial listeners learned that Sarah Koenig would examine the case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. After voluntarily leaving his post in Afghanistan, the soldier was captured by the Taliban and held for five years. Unlike the obscure case of Adnan Syed in Season 1, Bergdahl’s story has garnered extensive media attention—including from filmmaker Mark Boal, whose interviews with Bergdahl for an upcoming documentary became the backbone of Serial: Season 2. This week, as promised, Koenig introduces her listeners to the Taliban’s side of the story, and maps out their possible route. Here’s what we learned.
The American military response to Bergdahl’s disappearance was huge—and may have contributed to his capture. When Bergdahl disappeared on July 1, 2009, he intentionally set off an alarm for a DUSTWUN, or Duty Status, Whereabouts Unknown soldier. That triggered an unprecedented nationwide search: according to a military report that Koenig found on Wikileaks from the day after his disappearance, “All operations will cease until missing soldier is found. All assets will be focused on the DUSTWUN situation.” Instead of the stated mission of counterinsurgency—establishing a rapport with locals, gaining intelligence, building infrastructure—everyone turned their attention and manpower to finding Bergdahl. That explains why many of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers say they were angry enough to shoot him if they found him: After his disappearance, they were sent out into the field in full gear (between 60 and 100 pounds), in open ground in Taliban territory, unable to wash or sleep or eat a full meal for weeks at a time. Morale plummeted.
The scale of the military recovery effort may actually have facilitated Bergdahl’s capture. In the pivotal first 24 hours, soldiers handed candy out to local kids in an effort to gain intelligence. Koenig hypothesizes that the kids may have passed on information about the missing American soldier to their village elders, who told local Taliban leaders, who rode up to Bergdahl, lost in open desert, and took him.
But the Taliban tells a different story. In this episode, Koenig interviews Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan reporter who spoke with the Taliban. According to Yousafzai, leaders found him in a Kochi (nomadic tribe) tent, not out in the open. Why does this matter? Koenig surmises that if Bergdahl was really asking for help with locals, rather than out on his own, it’s more likely that he was trying to desert and escape, instead of looking for intelligence on his way to FOB Sharana, as he claims. Either way…
The Taliban knew how rare and important finding Bergdahl was—”a ready-made loaf, a gift from God,” as one Taliban member told Yousafzai. The U.S. knew Bergdahl’s captors would immediately want to get him to Pakistan, a neutral country where the U.S. army would have a much tougher time looking for him. And the Taliban knew that, too. So instead of heading east towards the Pakistani border, they took him west, leading the U.S. army on a wild goose chase. Koenig likens the situation to when Luke trips up the AT-AT in Empire Strikes Back—as Jason Dempsey, a U.S. army major in Afghanistan at the time, explains, “you’ve got this big, lumbering machine [the U.S. army] moving through, that can destroy anything face on, but it has no idea on a granular level what’s below it.” So the first 24, and 48, and 72 hours pass, without Bergdahl.
Next week, Koenig promises to tell the story of the next year in Bergdahl’s life, as he attempts to escape from the Taliban in Pakistan. But in the meantime, there’s news on Bergdahl’s case, as Koenig explains in the very beginning of this week’s episode: Bergdahl has been court-marshaled for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the most serious charges possible, carrying the possibility of prison time and a death sentence. According to Boal’s interviews with him, Bergdahl would not take a plea deal, since it would prevent people from understanding his motivations. With Serial back at #1 in the iTunes charts, the problem of not getting to tell his side of the story seems unlikely.