TIME Pakistan

Unbelievably, There Are Now Refugees Fleeing to Afghanistan

The Pakistani military’s offensive against insurgents in North Waziristan has sparked a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of Pakistanis concluding that Afghanistan is just a far safer place to be right now.

The Pakistani military has begun operations against Islamic insurgents in the North Waziristan region, delivering the offensive that Washington has been requesting for a decade, and sparking a massive exodus of refugees — some of whom are fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan to escape the fighting.

Militants, who have long inhabited the mountainous tribal area, have found themselves the target of heavy artillery bombardment and airstrikes for the past fortnight, in what the military’s PR chief Major-General Asim Bajwa termed “the beginning of the end of terrorism in Pakistan.”

Reports began to surface on Thursday in the Pakistani press that ground troops had started moving into North Waziristan to clear out the insurgent forces.

Washington says militants have been using North Waziristan for years as a base from which to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan and to wage a terrorist insurgency against the Pakistani state.

Senior members of the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan), the Haqqani Network and Al Qaeda’s central command — along with a smattering of militants from as far away as western China’s Xinjiang province and Chechnya — are believed to be holed up in the area. All are on Islamabad’s kill list.

“For the military, there’ll be no discrimination among Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network or any other militant group,” Major-General Bajwa told reporters during a press conference in Rawalpindi on Thursday.

The mountainous border dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan has been home to martial tribes for centuries. However, the presence of heavily armed insurgents and foreign jihadis is the notorious legacy of American and Saudi intelligence agencies, who used the fighters as proxy forces during the clandestine war with Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“This is famously the powder keg, which has led to everything going wrong in the region and the beginning of heavily armed militant Islam,” William Dalrymple, the historian and author of nine books on South Asia, tells TIME. “Obviously in retrospect [it’s] one of the great mistakes of American foreign policy.”

The Pakistani secret service (ISI) is alleged to have helped insurgent elements fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, using those militant groups to maintain pressure on the newly formed government in Kabul, which they believed harbored pro-Indian sensibilities.

“The Pakistan Army, or elements within ISI, always continued to support the Taliban as a way of getting rid of the Karzai government and a way of installing a pro-Pakistani Taliban regime in Kabul,” says Dalrymple.

That policy appears to have backfired. In 2007, the Pakistani Taliban launched a fresh insurgency against Islamabad that to date has been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Pakistanis and at least 15,000 security personnel.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif campaigned last year on the promise of peace talks with the Taliban, but any hope of negotiations has been extinguished by a recent string of humiliating attacks, including a brazen assault on Karachi airport, deep in the country’s commercial hub.

The perennially stretched Pakistani state is now attempting to deal with the massive humanitarian fallout from the new offensive. In the less than two weeks of fighting, more than 450,000 people have been internally displaced. Officials estimate that the number will surpass 500,000 soon.

In a bizarre reversal of the norm, tens of thousands of Pakistanis have reportedly flooded into war-torn eastern Afghanistan to escape the fighting on the Pakistan side of the border.

“The [Afghan] government estimates there are over 60,000 thousand for now,” says Babar Baloch from U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.

The exodus has also ignited fears that the polio epidemic rampant in North Waziristan for two years could spread to other parts of the region.

Meanwhile, analysts have already begun to criticize the new military campaign for not being part of a broader vision of Pakistan’s future.

“There isn’t yet a clear national strategy,” says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. That means “operations are going to be tactical at best.” He adds: “The civilians were not brought in at the planning stage. And they’re not prepared in any way to take over from the military once the clearing has taken place.”

TIME Military

The Fall of the Green Berets’ Lawrence of Afghanistan

Major Jim Gant, center, with local Afghans and his soldiers in Afghanistan. One Tribe at a Time

Army removed officer for drugs, booze and his reporter “paramour”

Given the lackluster results of the U.S.-initiated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans might want a military officer willing to break the rules to accomplish something on the ground in such faraway places. That someone might have been Army Green Beret Major Jim Gant, who was credited with winning his slice of the Afghan war in northeastern Kunar province until his career derailed after a love affair with a newspaper reporter who quit her job to live with him in Afghanistan.

The tale of Gant and former Washington Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson, is detailed in her recent book American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant. She came to know Gant— who some described as “Lawrence of Afghanistan” for adopting local customs and exchanging his Army uniform for traditional Afghan garb, along with a full beard—while covering the war for the Post.

Gant, who won a Silver Star for valor in Iraq in 2006, had achieved notice for detailing his thinking on how the U.S. could prevail in Afghanistan in a 2009 paper, One Tribe at a Time. A copy had been found in Osama bin Laden’s quarters following his killing by U.S. forces in 2011, Tyson writes. There were notes in the margins about the difficulties al Qaeda was having in Kunar province, believed written by bin Laden. A second document, from bin Laden to his intelligence chief, named Gant, and said he “needed to be removed from the battlefield,” according to Tyson.

Gant and Tyson in Afghanistan. ABC/Ann Scott Tyson

Tyson first interviewed Gant when the Army awarded him that Silver Star, and wrote about him in a 2010 profile for her newspaper. The headline declared him “the Green Beret who could win the war in Afghanistan.”

Although each was in a failing marriage, the couple decided to live together amid Afghanistan’s mountains for nine months starting in mid-2011. Gant was running the war his way and “indulged in a self-created fantasy world” that mixed booze and drugs, according to the Army. He kept his relationship with Tyson hidden from his superiors. “We both knew that there was a lot of risk in doing what we did. And I would do it again,” Gant tells ABC News. “It was extremely unconventional, yes, to say the least.”

Gant’s extremely unconventional approach to war—and his unusual living arrangement with Tyson—led the Army to relieve him of command in 2012 after a freshly-minted lieutenant from West Point complained.

“There is a belief [in the Army] that you went COL Kurtz and went totally native,” an Army comrade wrote to Gant after he returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., according to Tyson’s book. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz was the rogue Green Beret officer played by Marlon Brando in 1979’s Apocalypse Now.

The Army—which had praised Gant’s approach to counter-insurgency by grooming local tribesman into police forces to oppose the Taliban—turned on him after internal investigations revealed some of his unusual counter-insurgency methods. Gant dealt with his PTSD and traumatic brain injury with alcohol, supposedly banned in Afghanistan for U.S. troops, and prescription drugs. And he endangered his troops, according to the Army:

During your time in command, you purposefully and repeatedly endangered the lives of your Soldiers…You painted inappropriate and unauthorized symbols on Government vehicles, painted the symbol on your vehicle a different color, then challenged the enemy to try and kill you without consideration to your Service Members’ lives or well being. You sent `night letters’ to the enemy, further drawing dangerous attention to yourself and subordinates. These are the same Soldiers that you have the duty to properly train, mentor, lead and most importantly, defend.

Yet Gant never lost a man, Tyson wrote. The service didn’t think much of his arrangement with her, either: “By providing his paramour unimpeded access to classified documents in a combat zone, MAJ Gant compromised the US mission in Afghanistan.”

Lieut. General John Mulholland, then-commanding general of the Army Special Operations Command (now the deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command), acknowledged Gant’s “record of honorable and valorous service” in a career-killing reprimand in July 2012. Gant’s conduct was “inexcusable and brought disrepute and shame to the Special Forces” and “disgraced you as an officer and seriously compromised your character as a gentleman.” He retired as a captain. The couple married last year.

But it wasn’t only Gant’s relationship with the Army that raised questions. Among reporters, so did Tyson’s relationship with Gant.

David Wood, a Pulitzer-winning veteran military correspondent, wrote a profile of the couple for the Huffington Post when Tyson’s book was published in March:

A once-promising strategy for stability in Afghanistan ended badly two years ago, along with the career of its author and chief proponent, Army Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant. His gripping story is detailed in a new book, American Spartan, by Ann Scott Tyson, the former Washington Post war correspondent who interviewed him for an admiring story in late 2009. They fell in love. Tyson eventually joined Gant in an Afghan village, where he built a reputation mobilizing local tribes against the Taliban. A tough, wiry Special Forces soldier, Gant was decorated and recommended for promotion over 22 continuous months of combat in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. But in the end, the iconoclasm and disdain for military protocol that enabled Gant’s success were instrumental in his eventual downfall.

Another veteran military reporter, David Axe, took issue with Woods’ story on Medium’s website:

In his Huffington Post profile, Wood helpfully promotes the book and attempts to rehabilitate a rogue officer who clearly possesses essentially zero regard for Islamic customs, military regulations and common sense…Most Green Berets don’t take their girlfriends, booze and drugs to war with them. They certainly don’t need lovers and gullible reporters to write elaborate defenses of their combat records. Gant is no hero. His behavior in Afghanistan was unacceptable. And no hagiography—by his wife or by Wood—can redeem the man’s shameful legacy.

But Gant’s real legacy isn’t so much about Afghanistan. It’s about the willingness of the U.S. military to tolerate officers who will challenge training and tradition in hopes of finding a better way to prevail. How far Gant crossed that line—and if it warranted the punishment he got—will be debated long after the final U.S. troops have left the country he tried to help.

TIME Foreign Policy

Dick Cheney Says Iraq War Was ‘the Right Thing’

Dick And Lynne Cheney Participate In Book Discussion In Washington
Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington Win McNamee—Getty Images

No regrets from the former VP

Former Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday stood by the Bush Administration’s decision to wage war in Iraq, saying he has never second-guessed the decision even with Iraq once again descending into chaos.

“I was a strong advocate of going into Iraq,” Cheney told PBS in an interview, a week after launching a new political group designed to boost his foreign policy and national-security policies. “I think that was the right decision then, and I still believe that today.”

“I think we did what we had to do,” Cheney added, saying he is still not convinced Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion. “And you don’t get to go back and say, well, we would have — what if we’d ignored all the intelligence?”

Cheney blasted President Barack Obama’s handling of the situation in Iraq, saying he should have more forcefully pushed to keep U.S. troops in the country after 2011 to help keep the country stable. “For me, the bottom line was, when we left office, Iraq was in good shape,” Cheney said. “And now we’re in a situation where obviously we’ve got another big problem.”

But the former Vice President largely agreed with Obama’s handling of the current crisis that has seen the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria make significant gains in the country. Cheney called for the deployment of additional U.S. military advisers and a swift transition for the Iraqi government, and he warned that American air strikes could have unintended complications. Cheney said the U.S. response to the Iraq crisis must be part of a broader strategy for the volatile region that he says Obama has not yet developed. He also called on Obama to halt the planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

“I would stop talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan,” Cheney said. “We ought to stay in Afghanistan. We shouldn’t be scaling back.”

Cheney also called for Obama to swiftly work to boost Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the former military leader who deposed the elected Muslim Brotherhood–led government before his election this year. “I’d help al-Sisi every chance I got,” Cheney said.

Cheney said he was unaware of the conviction of three al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt this week, which has been condemned by the U.S. and by European governments. “I haven’t seen that. I’m not familiar with it,” Cheney said of the news that dominated the front pages of national newspapers on Tuesday. “I missed that one.”

TIME foreign affairs

Afghanistan’s Success Will Be Measured By Women’s Progress

Afghans Head To The Polls In Preseidential Run-Off
An Afghan woman casts her ballot during the second round for presidential election at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 14, 2014. Majid Saeedi—Getty Images

Inclusion of women in society indicates stability, and a stable Afghanistan will lead to greater international security.

While we were meeting with women journalists in Afghanistan this past May, another group of Afghan women journalists were in Washington, D.C., meeting with congressional staff members. The overlap was coincidental, but both groups of Afghan women recounted similar stories of their growing role in Afghan media and, more importantly, the fight for Afghanistan’s democracy. Reports have illustrated an effort on the part of Afghan journalists to ensure their media is not a platform for promoting Taliban violence.

In both locations, thousands of miles apart, the same theme became clear: Afghan women are fighting for their lives, and they’re using some unconventional tactics. They’re going to school, running for elected office, voting and reporting the news.

We saw many of these women in action during this year’s sixth annual Mother’s Day visit to Afghanistan. We saw young girls being educated. We toured a women’s resource center in Mazar-e Sharif that provides programs for women, such as mental health services. We met with Afghan women Parliamentarians, who passionately asserted their ability to lead. Each of them symbolized the gains made by Afghan women and girls over the past decade

In addition, the first round of Afghan elections in April saw high voter turnout, with a larger than expected portion of that coming from women voters. Reports indicate that the June 14 runoff election had another high voter turnout, even in the face of increased threats of violence.

All of these gains – education, opportunity, voting – may seem commonplace in many countries. In Afghanistan, they are revolutionary. In the very recent past, none of it would have been possible. But these gains are not ironclad and support is needed internally and externally.

Afghanistan is poised for a historic democratic transition of power. While a peaceful transition is the ultimate goal, it cannot be considered fully accomplished without the rights of women at the forefront.

Both presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have pledged support for maintaining women’s progress. When the ultimate victor is announced in late July, we urge whomever it is to make good on that promise. One tangible way to do so is to sign a bilateral security agreement – also something both candidates have voiced support for – that includes significant economic and governmental support for women’s gains.

In the coming months, as Afghanistan seeks to legitimize their election, women’s progress will be a barometer for success.

Responsibility ultimately lies with Afghanistan. The U.S. military withdrawal must be done in a responsible way, transitioning from a combat role to one of training and advisory. There is no doubt, however, that the international community shares a major stake in preventing backsliding in Afghanistan. Preserving Afghan women’s rights is a global issue, with global implications.

Time after time, studies have shown that advancing opportunities for women and girls has a direct positive effect on a nation’s overall economic growth, sustainable development and peace. Inclusion of women in society indicates stability, and a stable Afghanistan will lead to greater international security. Continued non-military support must include the use of resources to maintain and grow the progress made by Afghan women.

We also must remember that gender inequality, violence against women and the need to reverse patriarchal societal mindsets are not unique to Afghanistan. Recent months have seen the kidnapping of more than three hundred girls by an extremist group in Nigeria, mass sexual assault during a rally in Cairo and reports of brutal rape and murder of women in impoverished regions of India. Continued support of Afghan women would be a powerful symbol, an international reaffirmation to human rights the world over. America’s diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan must remain focused on protecting the rights of women and girls.

Afghan women know the fight is far from over. But every time a young girl reads a book in public, a woman walks out of a voting booth or a female journalist pens a story critical of the government, the country continues to move forward – and the rest of the world moves with them.

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) serves on the House Armed Services Committee and co-chairs the Afghan Women’s Task Force. Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) has led the Mother’s Day Women’s Congressional Delegation to Afghanistan the last three years. She represents Alabama’s 2nd District, which includes Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base and Fort Rucker. She is a Member of the House Appropriations Committee. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is Chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee. She represents the Second District of North Carolina which includes all of Fort Bragg. Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and serves as Ranking Member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee. She represents California’s 53rd Congressional District. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) represents the 17th Congressional District of Illinois and serves on the House Committee on Agriculture and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

TIME Military

The Final Trip Home: A Young Soldier’s Funeral in Photos

Aaron Toppen, 19, was killed earlier this month in a deadly friendly fire airstrike during a firefight in Afghanistan.

TIME movies

Not One but Two Bowe Bergdahl Movies Are Already Being Planned

Bergdahl Being Treated At U.S. Military Hospital In Germany
In this undated image provided by the U.S. Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl poses in front of an American flag. U.S. Army/Getty Images

One is to be produced by the duo that gave us Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker; the other is based on a biographical article by late journalist Michael Hastings

It’s been only three days since Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl returned to the U.S. after nearly five years in a Taliban prison, and already Hollywood is seeking to capitalize on the surrounding controversy. The Hollywood Reporter confirmed on Monday night that two competing Bergdahl biopics are in the works.

The first comes from Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, two filmmakers fairly seasoned in the craft of politically topical movies. Together, they wrote, directed and produced Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, which collectively won seven Academy Awards.

Todd Field — In the Bedroom and Little Children — also has plans to direct and produce a Bergdahl film for Fox Searchlight, having acquired the rights to late journalist Michael Hastings’ 2012 Rolling Stone profile on “America’s last prisoner of war.”

Though the Hollywood Reporter describes the two projects as “competing,” there may be little overlap between them. Boal and Bigelow’s film is said to treat the issue of Bergdahl’s release by Afghan forces — in a controversial trade for five Taliban prisoners in U.S. custody — whereas Hastings’ Rolling Stone piece, the presumed basis for Field’s script, caters more to the 28-year-old’s backstory.

At this point, though, both projects still sit very much on the drawing board. Neither Boal and Bigelow nor Field have obtained Bergdahl’s “life rights,” and any biographical film produced without them may run into some development hurdles.

TIME foreign affairs

Obama Doesn’t Need an Afghanistan-Taliban Peace Deal

Obama,Karzai And Zardari Brief Media After White House Meetings
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with the President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai and the President of Pakistan Asif Zardari in the Cabinet Room of the White House on May 6, 2009 in Washington, DC. The talks centered on how the unstable governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan can work with the United States to crack down on the Taliban insurgency. Pool—Getty Images

The U.S. may exit in 2016, but it will need to bring and keep Afghans at the table for a long time after that.

Growing up, Ronald Neumann went to a school with a gang problem. At least, that’s what many people thought. But by the time Neumann got to high school, most of the gangs had been cleaned up. The perception remained however, that his high school was plagued with unsavory characters. This served as an important lesson for the man who would later become the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan: reputation follows fact.

But Afghanistan is no high school. As the U.S. Ambassador from 2005-2007, Neumann was tasked with changing the narrative and reputation of the war. Before the reputation of Afghanistan could be fixed, however, he needed to find out what was happening on the ground. But finding the truth, in a country like Afghanistan, with competing and contradictory narratives, was a skill beyond even his skills and experience, which left the reputation building a task still undone.

Even now, the recent release of five Al Qaeda prisoners in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl shows how fungible facts can feel. As New America Fellow Anand Gopal recently wrote, “The categories we take as rigid and unchanging, such as ‘terrorist’, are in fact remarkably fluid in the context of Afghan politics.”

This lack of a coherent reputation confuses the discussions about U.S. strategic interests in Afghanistan. Should we be propping up the current Afghan government (which will change after the second round of elections on June 14), negotiating with the Taliban, or leaving the country outright? Whose reputations are we working to preserve?

“Afghanistan is enormously complex. Province to province, sometimes district to district, things are enormously difficult and different,” said Amb. Neumann at a New America event in June.

Chris Kolenda, a former Senior Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Department of Defense, agreed that it is hard to boil things down to talking points that have a simple narrative or solution set. In a complex tribal environment that’s endured 35 years of war, it is difficult enough to string together a set of facts, let alone singular objectives or interests.

One fact, though, is that America has multiple objectives and interests in Afghanistan, and some of them conflict with each other, said Neumann. The U.S. has an interest in preventing the collapse of Pakistan, but equally must pressure Pakistan to get tougher with al-Qaeda. “Sometimes, the world is a contradictory place.”

With all of this complexity, all of these conflicting facts, narratives, and interests in Afghanistan, what should the U.S. do, especially after President Obama recently announced that he is planning to pull troops out of Afghanistan by 2016?

Clare Lockhart, President of the Institute for State Effectiveness, suggested that the Obama administration should emphasize a peace process, not a peace deal, between the Taliban and Afghan government. We can’t expect a “Hollywood style” scene with 20-men sitting around a table, striking a deal, she said.

But in this peace process, what role should the U.S. play?

Since the U.S. announced its plans to leave Afghanistan by 2016, we have nothing to offer – at least while acting alone, Amb. Neumann said.

Kolenda agreed, and noted that the U.S should work in concert with the international community to bring and keep Afghans at the table. “This is going to have to be a process, that is going to have to go on for a very, very long time.”

The burden doesn’t just fall on governments. Reputations are formed by what outsiders see and hear about a place. That leaves the media with a responsibility to accurately report what is happening in the country, the three emphasized.

For the first few years after the 2001 elections, most international stories focused on the success and turnaround of Afghanistan, Lockhart said. Reporters wrote favorably of new Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and largely ignored the problems that were plaguing the country.

Lockhart confronted editors and producers, pointing out that if they didn’t report on some of the challenges, the problems of Afghanistan would never be fixed. Editors took note, but the pendulum swung too far. Soon, stories about Afghanistan emphasized the ineffective government, weak security apparatus, and failure of international aid.

Again, Lockhart called out editors for bias. “Some of the editors have actually responded, ‘Ok, we agree,’” she said. Today, the pendulum’s swing is steadier, reflected in recent coverage of the first round of Presidential elections. During voting, the domestic and international media refused to cover and report on violence within the country. “There was actually a great deal of violence,” said Amb. Neumann. “In fact, journalists and editors were getting calls from the Taliban saying ‘wait a minute, we just blew something up, and you’re not reporting it.”

For Lockhart, Neumann and Kolenda, the hope is that if international press narrative more accurately represents Afghanistan’s progress, it can build confidence both domestically and amongst international actors.

Both candidates for President of Afghanistan have committed to signing a strategic partnership with the United States, the first step on the road to stability. It’s all part of a long process. Narratives reinforcing narratives, and, slowly, improving facts on the ground. Reputations may be set in high school – but college can be fertile ground for reinvention.

Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at the New America Foundation. Outside of New America, Justin is the Youth Ambassador to the United Nations for Voices of African Mothers, where he works to promote gender equality and educational opportunity in West Africa. He is also a political blogger for the Bangor Daily News. The piece originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk.

TIME Michael Hastings

Lessons From My Husband Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings Elise Jordan
Courtesy Elise Jordan

His first novel, a satire of the media, will be published next week. Here’s what the late former war correspondent would make of the coverage of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl—the most important story of his career.

Audiences are constantly frustrated and baffled by what becomes “news,” what gets ignored and which stories go on and on — the hours spent salivating over another book by Hillary Clinton wholly devoid of news, for instance. Who decides all this stuff? My late husband Michael Hastings channeled his frustration with the media’s choices into a work of fiction, The Last Magazine, which comes out next week.

Michael is best known for his acclaimed Rolling Stone profile that unintentionally brought down General Stanley McChrystal. But the story closest to his heart was all but invisible until last week: the plight of prisoner of war Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Before Bergdahl has made it out of a hospital in Germany, he’s been called a deserter and traitor. The media’s self-centered bastardization of “news” inspired Michael, from his first days as an intern and cub reporter at Newsweek throughout his career.

Sergeant Bergdahl’s story did not gain traction until his release became politicized. Everyone in the media understands why. Most of the men and women in the industry hate it too. But they live with it, some quite complacently. But what happens when they don’t?

After years of reporting on Iraq and Afghanistan — watching what he called “jaw-dropping news” rarely break into the news cycle — Michael decided to go after the human stories behind the wars: what people really say, how people really act, the things they really believe. “If nobody died, war would be NFL football. But people die, and that’s the cost. You lose people and their futures,” Michael said. He cared about lost futures and discounted the accounting: “We fixate on the numbers, and we get numb.”

Baghdad Adhamiyah Sweep
Michael Hastings in Baghdad. Lucian Read

While reporting Bergdahl’s story, Michael had his own problems sleeping, pacing our apartment through the night and chain-smoking cigarettes as he worked on the story. He agonized over the possibility that a casual detail might incite Bergdahl’s captors to behead the young soldier. Michael thought it was the most important story of his career, and he was sure the story would break through the news cycle. He readied for attacks, like the vitriol from colleagues that he confronted following his McChrystal profile. No one seemed to care.

Bergdahl wasn’t powerful. So Bergdahl languished — wasting away, physically shrinking, escaping only to be recaptured and locked in a metal box, tortured — in captivity, until the Obama Administration decided to accept the same exact terms proposed by the Afghan Taliban, two years later, as originally reported in Michael’s story.

I listened to Michael and his reporting partner Matt Farwell’s interviews with the Bergdahl family this weekend and was struck by all the material that is still vital to understanding such a complex tragedy — the material Michael couldn’t fit into a single profile. Like when Bergdahl’s father Bob laments the U.S. government’s decision to make freeing Raymond Davis from Pakistan a priority: ”So if you’re a CIA Blackwater mercenary, you get the red carpet extraction, but if you’re just a grunt who happens to be the victim of war …” His father’s voice trails off. “I think worst-case scenario, he’s a psychological casualty. Thank God [he] didn’t commit suicide.”

With McChrystal, Michael was fascinated by how someone can kill so many, however honorable the intentions, yet never seem to lose an hour of sleep. (Or in McChrystal’s case, even need sleep in the first place.) In young Bergdahl, Michael saw the complete opposite of the four-star. McChrystal exuded power; Bergdahl lacked it, so he lacked a voice. When a sensitive 22-year-old from Idaho went missing from a remote outpost in Afghanistan, Michael asked the question few others bothered with: Why?

We’ve seen the personal destruction of a decade-plus of war: drugs, suicides, broken marriages and posttraumatic stress. Through it all, Bergdahl lay awake on a cot, likely in a sleeping bag under a mosquito net, alone in the world, in what many describe as the edge of civilization. What drove a teetotaler, a voracious reader and ballet dancer, to such an extreme decision? What was he thinking?

Michael knew, of course, that without Bergdahl’s side of the story, he’d never have a definitive answer. And we still have that answer ahead of us — a reality that insensitive politicians and media commentators ignore as they pass judgment on a young man still in psychological hell after being tortured and enduring the unimaginable.

But Michael got more to the truth of Bergdahl’s actions and his motivations than any other journalist reporting the story today. We need to wait until Bergdahl’s ready to talk to find out why, instead of wildly overplaying certain unknowns and ignoring others. Michael would have been disgusted by the exploitation of personal tragedy for craven ends. What would serve us even better right now is a wider canvas, someone stepping back to analyze and satirize the whole process. Someone on the inside, but a rebellious voice, refusing to answer to anyone but his readers. To state the obvious: it’s one of the many reasons I miss Michael Hastings.

Jordan is a writer and political commentator. She is a former speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and director for communications at the National Security Council.

TIME Military

Bowe Bergdahl Is Back in the U.S.

The former P.O.W. is now receiving treatment at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Tex.

After five years in Taliban captivity, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last remaining American P.O.W. in Afghanistan, is back in the United States, the Pentagon confirmed Friday.

“Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has arrived at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio,” Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement. “While there, he will continue the next phase of his reintegration process. There is no timeline for this process. Our focus remains on his health and well-being. Secretary Hagel is confident that the Army will continue to ensure that Sgt. Bergdahl receives the care, time and space he needs to complete his recovery and reintegration.”

Bergdahl, a 28-year-old Idaho native, was captured in June 2009 after vanishing from the base where he was stationed in Afghanistan. He was released by the Taliban on May 31 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners released from captivity at the Guantanamo Bay military prison. The Obama administration drew criticism over the deal from some quarters, but insisted it had to act quickly to secure Bergdahl’s release due to his deteriorating health.

A pair of letters purportedly written by Bergdahl to his family while he was held captive and made public Friday may offer some explanation as to why he left his post. In the letters, obtained by The Daily Beast, Bergdahl supposedly asks that his family “tell those involved in the investigation into his disappearance that there are more sides to the cittuation (sic).”

The letters, here quoted with the author’s spelling and grammar, describe “Unexceptable conditions fror the men working and risking life every moment outside the wire” and lament that “clear minded understanding from leadership was lacking, if not non-exictent.”

“Please tell d.C. to wiat for all evadince to come in,” the letter says.

Handwriting in the two documents, written in 2012 and 2013, does not match and they are riddled with spelling errors. According to the Beast, Bergdahl’s family told officials they believe the letters to be genuine.

“Following Sgt. Bergdahl’s reintegration, the Army will continue its comprehensive review into the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity,” the Army said in a statement Friday.

After his release, Bergdahl was transported to a military facility in Germany, where officials determined that he is emotionally unstable after reportedly suffering harsh treatment at the hands of the Taliban. He reportedly refused to speak with his family after his release.

TIME Military

The Significance of Bergdahl’s ‘Washing Out’ of the Coast Guard

This is our office
Recruits at the Coast Guard's boot camp in Cape May, N.J., do pushups on the beach. Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska / Coast Guard

If he couldn’t tend to the coasts, why’d the Army think he could handle the Taliban?

The U.S. government confirmed Wednesday that Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was discharged early from the Coast Guard, after only 26 days in boot camp, two years before he tried to enlist in the Army.

The fact raises questions on a third front that has nothing to do with how Bergdahl came to be captured by the Taliban, or how much the Obama Administration did to win his freedom May 31 in an exchange for five senior Taliban leaders: why did the Army let a failed Coast Guardsman join its ranks?

Friends of Bergdahl told the Washington Post that the Coast Guard discharged him for psychological reasons, but neither the Coast Guard nor the Army has specified why Bergdahl left the Coast Guard’s boot camp in Cape May, N.J., in early 2006. The Coast Guard described the action as an “uncharacterized discharge,” which is typical for someone who leaves the service without completing basic training.

Generally such an event is a red flag that would have required a waiver from the Army before allowing such a prospective recruit to enlist. A wide variety of bars to enlistment—including legal problems and health concerns—require waivers because the Pentagon believes such recruits won’t do as well in uniform as those without such warning signs.

In 2008, the year Bergdahl joined the Army, the service granted waivers for about 20% of its recruits, usually for illicit drug use or other legal problems. Such waivers spiked as the popular support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sagged and it became more difficult to entice young Americans to serve in uniform.

Bergdahl’s aborted Coast Guard service is the latest twist in a strange series of events about the case. It began as a joyous Rose Garden celebration at the White House with his parents to announce his freedom. Within days, it soured into bitter comments from fellow soldiers who declared that Bergdahl had deserted his post in a war zone, leading to hunts for him that they say played a role in the combat deaths of at least six U.S. troops (the Pentagon says it has no evidence of direct links between the deaths and the manhunt).

Now it has become a darker tale about a seemingly-confused young man whose woes the Army may have been willing to overlook to gain a willing recruit for the war in Afghanistan.

 

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