Bowe Bergdahl, the US Army soldier who left his post in Afghanistan in 2009, then was captured and held by the Taliban for five years, is to be charged as a deserter, military officials announced Wednesday.
Sergeant Bergdahl was released last year in a prisoner swap for five Taliban held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a controversial move involving the US military ethic of leaving no one behind.
Wednesday’s announcement at Ft. Bragg, N.C., is an important point in what has evolved as a strange story involving a young soldier apparently disillusioned by his relatively brief experience in a deadly combat zone before being captured, fellow soldiers who claim that the diversion of military assets to look for Bergdahl cost other soldiers their lives, and Bergdahl’s parents in Idaho – his father grew a full beard and began learning the Pashto language in solidarity, he said, with the Afghan people.
Those following the story have found it odd that while Bergdahl has been in touch with his parents, he reportedly has yet to meet with them.
Initially, Bergdahl’s return was hailed as a bit of good news in a long, costly, and increasingly unpopular war. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” Family and friends in Hailey, Idaho, planned a big celebration honoring his return home.
But efforts to celebrate faded, and questions soon were raised about Bergdahl’s conduct, as well as that of President Obama in arranging the prisoner swap without first notifying Congress – a violation of federal law, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office ruled last August.
It was quickly determined that Bergdahl had left his weapon and other combat gear behind when he walked away from his post that evening – perhaps simply and naively intending to mingle with Afghan villagers. Instead, he was quickly captured, then passed around among insurgent groups before his eventual release in 2014.
Meanwhile, some soldiers who had been in Afghanistan with Bergdahl began asserting that certain military assets – including helicopters, intelligence drones, and designated patrols – had been diverted to look for Bergdahl, resulting in unnecessary US casualties.
Writing in The Daily Beast shortly after Bergdahl’s release last year, former US Army infantry officer Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the same battalion as Bergdahl, states plainly: “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.” Mr. Bethea details why he believes this to have occurred.
But he also writes: “I believe that Bergdahl also deserves sympathy, but he has much to answer for, some of which is far more damning than simply having walked off. Many have suffered because of his actions: his fellow soldiers, their families, his family, the Afghan military, the unaffiliated Afghan civilians in Paktika, and none of this suffering was inevitable. None of it had to happen. Therefore, while I’m pleased that he’s safe, I believe there is an explanation due.”
If convicted in a military trial of a second and more serious charge – “misbehavior before the enemy” – Bergdahl faces a maximum of life imprisonment as well as a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank to E-1 (the military’s lowest), and forfeiture of all pay and benefits.
There are many legal steps between now and that possibility, however.
Following an Army investigation that began as soon as Bergdahl was returned to the United States in May 2014, officials determined that there was enough evidence to go ahead with an Article 32 preliminary hearing under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) – similar to a grand jury proceeding under civil law.
The US Army general overseeing that hearing then has three choices: dismiss the charges, order a general court martial, or convene a special court martial – an intermediate level of military legal proceeding with lesser penalties (bad conduct discharge, forfeiture of two-thirds basic pay, and one year’s confinement).
It’s been suggested that five years of harsh treatment in captivity is punishment enough. US military officials say they’ve found no evidence that other soldiers’ lives were lost as a result of the search for Bergdahl. A key point will be determining whether Bergdahl intended to return to his base that night.
Eugene Fidell, the former military lawyer defending Bergdahl, may argue for a plea bargain including no prison time. Although that would be unpopular among many of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers, as well as among critics of the prisoner swap – including former Vietnam POW Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee – it would save the Army from having to hear testimony about what might have been a weak and ineffective command structure that allowed an apparently disaffected soldier to walk away from the fight.
In a March 2013 letter obtained by The Daily Beast, Bergdahl wrote of his unit (original spelling retained): “Leadership was lacking, if not non-existent. The conditions were bad and looked to be getting worse for the men that where actuly the ones risking thier lives from attack…. Orders showed a high disconcer for safty of troopers in the field, and lacking clear minded, logical and commonsense thinking and understanding from the topsides.”
In any case, the announced charges against Bergdahl revive details of the prisoner swap, which remains a point of legal and political contention.
The five men sent from Guantánamo Bay to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl are:
Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa, former Afghan minister of interior during Taliban rule, governor of Herat, and a military commander.
Mullah Mohammad Fazl, deputy minister of defense under the Taliban, senior military commander who was chief of staff of the Afghan army, and commander of the Taliban's 10th Division.
Mullah Norullah Nori, senior Taliban commander during hostilities with US and its allies in Mazar-e Sharif in late 2001, and the Taliban governor of two provinces.
Abdul Haq Wasiq, formerly deputy director of Taliban intelligence.
Mohammad Nabi Omari, a member of the Taliban and associated with both al Qaeda and another militant group Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin. He was the Taliban's chief of communications and helped al Qaeda members to escape from Afghanistan to Pakistan.