The new season of the podcast Serial is now in its fourth week, telling the story of Bowe Bergdahl’s capture by the Haqqani, his five year imprisonment in Pakistan, and eventual release in a prisoner exchange. But as the host, Sarah Koenig, explains in the first episode, there is so much more to the story. She likens Bergdahl’s case to the children’s storybook Zoom, in which a series of pictures provide the reader with an ever-expanding perspective, but which also causes one to lose focus on the original images.
Indeed, this story is filled with all sorts of little details that point to much bigger issues related to foreign policy, war strategy, and the U.S. military’s institutions. Here I would like to highlight one of these, providing some additional context to help make some sense of the whole picture that is the war on terror.
In episode 4, “The Captors,” David Rohde, an investigative reporter, is interviewed about his experience as a prisoner of the Haqqani. He along with his translator and driver were detained by the same organization that captured Bergdahl, and managed to escape after seven months.
Rohde describes a contrast in treatment between the older and younger generations of his captors. As a non-Muslim, he was considered unclean, “a dirty animal,” by the younger guards. However, it was an older man who demanded they treat him with dignity, reminding the men that “David is God’s creation.” Bergdahl describes experiencing similar treatment by his older and younger guards. Koenig’s reaction to Rohde’s description is of surprise: “God, that’s so interesting – why do you think he cared how they thought of you?” And it does come across as counterintuitive, until one considers the implications of US policy in the region.
In The Most Dangerous Place, Imtiaz Gul explains that as part of their support for the Mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, US and Saudi intelligence agencies introduced a new K-12 curriculum into the region. School children in Afghanistan and Waziristan, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, were indoctrinated into a Salafist interpretation of Islam, a product of Saudi Arabian clerics that has been widely spread throughout the Sunni parts of the Muslim world.
The curriculum was designed to radicalize children against Communist forces and equip them to fight. For example, kindergartners learned an alphabet associating letters with elements or examples of violent jihad. Gul writes that fourth graders were assigned math problems asking them to calculate bullet flight time, given their rifle’s muzzle velocity and the range to a target – a Soviet soldier.
In all likelihood the older men were never exposed to such interpretations of Islam, nor were they deliberately raised to fight a holy war, as the younger men certainly had been. Even after the Soviets withdrew, the Taliban continued to use the textbooks, which had been produced by the University of Nebraska, under contract from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
It is widely recognized the US government supported the Mujahideen with arms, funding, and military training, and that these short-term means to expelling the Soviets have proven to be long-term policy failures. Of course Afghanistan is the most obvious example of a policy blowing back, but it is certainly not the only such place.
In March of 2007, Seymour Hersh highlighted this radicalization of Afghanistan, but described the phenomenon in broader terms, as it related to the conflict in Iraq. US policy in that country up until this time had largely focused on supporting the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, which had the effect of empowering Iran and alienating Saudi Arabia, both of which were contrary to stated policy goals.
In exchange for shifting its attention to the Sunni tribal leaders, i.e., funding the Sahwah, or Awakening Councils, Saudi Prince Bandar is said to have “assured the White House that ‘they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. […] We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’”
The Anbar Awakening turned out to provide breathing room and funding to the Sunni insurgencies, which indeed put renewed pressure on Iran and its proxy, the Dawa Party, led by Nouri al-Maliki. This was the stated goal, to control Iran’s influence. But it was all rolled into “the Surge” strategy, which helped lead to the rise of the Islamic State, in large part because the US maintained its support for al-Maliki. The Sunni were being driven out of Baghdad and terrorized by the Iraqi army and police, who were deeply infiltrated by the Badr Corps – the Shia death squads. This led many to support al-Qaeda in Iraq (and other Sunni militias) as a defense against the Shia. Nevertheless, this was all necessary in order to complete the transition of control – at least nominally – from the US Central Command to Baghdad.
In similar fashion, fighting Iranian influence is one of the purposes given for supporting various insurgent militias in Syria. That arms are being channeled to al-Qaeda affiliates in the region is casually acknowledged by US officials. Andrew Cockburn, reports that Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaish al-Islam have all received support from the US or its allies in the conflict, chiefly Qatar in the case of Ahrar al-Sham, and Saudi Arabia in the case of Jaish al-Islam.
Much like the conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s, support for these organizations actually serves a dual-purpose. While they fight as proxies against the Soviet Union then, or Iran now, they are not fighting their own repressive governments at home. Cockburn quotes Abu Hamza, a convicted Egyptian terrorist, who explained that along with money and arms, Arab states such as Saudi Arabia exported violent jihadis to Afghanistan and Pakistan as a means of creating a sort of “pressure-cooker vent.”
Only later did these governments, including that of the US, realize this vent is two-way, and these organizations cannot be so easily controlled. During the 1990s Egyptian jihadis were disrupting the government in Cairo, and the US experienced its own attacks throughout the decade, mostly against military targets. Of course in the US the largest such “double venting” occurred on 9/11. Al-Qaeda, the organization responsible, was based in Afghanistan, and most of the hijackers were of Saudi Arabian lineage.
So if we zoom back in to the current campaign in Afghanistan – the one in which Bergdahl and Rohde found themselves in the hands of the Haqqanis – we see how their treatment is a reflection of decades of intervention across the Middle East, from a wide range of actors with many disparate goals.
While the individual case of Bergdahl is interesting on its own terms – a US soldier leaves his post, walks into the wilderness of Afghanistan, gets captured and survives five years essentially in Taliban captivity – there is so much more to be learned from the series. Each episode is filled with many such details that shed light on the implications of foreign policy and the difficulty of waging war with so many conflicting and shifting priorities. These include the failure of the US military to develop any coherent institutional knowledge of the region, consequences of the drone assassination program, and US torture and rendition policies, to list a few. I look forward to future episodes and would highly suggest anyone interested in these subjects binge-listen and get caught up soon.
Joel Poindexter was an infantryman and intelligence analyst in the US Army from 2003-2009. He is the author of a forthcoming memoir of the war. Follow him on Twitter.