Bowe Bergdahl to be charged with desertion, unlikely to serve prison time

The Army is denying that a final determination has been made in Bergdahl's case, but NBC is sticking with its story. After five years in Taliban captivity, there seems to be little reason to punish Bergdahl more severely.

This undated file photo provided by the US Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Army and Pentagon officials said Tuesday that there has been no decision on what, if any, criminal charges will be filed against Bergdahl, the soldier who left his post in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban and held for five years before being released in a prisoner exchange.

NBC News and Fox News are both reporting that Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, whose release last may was initially hailed only to devolve into controversy over the terms of the deal and the circumstances of Bergdahl’s initial disappearance, will be charged with desertion, but it’s unlikely he will spend any time in prison:

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by enemy forces in Afghanistan for five years, will be charged with desertion, a senior defense officials tell NBC News. The officials say the charges could be referred within a week.

According to the officials, the desertion charges would be based on allegations that Bergdahl abandoned his remote outpost in June 2009 to avoid hazardous duty or important service, which are grounds for charges of desertion under the Uniform Military Code of Justice, or UCMJ. According to one senior official, Bergdahl’s actions in Afghanistan go well beyond the lesser offense of AWOL, absent without leave, because he allegedly abandoned his post “in the middle of a combat zone, potentially putting the lives of his fellows soldiers at risk.”

The charges will apparently not allege that Bergdahl left with the intent never to return. Bergdahl was reportedly captured by the Haqqani terrorist network in Pakistan. He was released in a prisoner swap for five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay in May.

While a court martial could lead to imprisonment, defense and military officials tell NBC News it is likely Bergdahl would be given consideration for the 5 years he spent in captivity and be permitted to leave the Army with a “less than honorable discharge.” If accepted, Bergdahl would be denied as much as $300 thousand in back pay and bonuses, and reduced in rank to at least Private First Class, the rank he held when he disappeared from his outpost in Afghanistan.

The Army is denying that a final determination has been made in Bergdahl’s case, but NBC is sticking with their story, notwithstanding the denial, so it’s safe to assume that there’s a good basis for believing it to be true. Assuming that’s the case, it’s likely to be the latest controversy in the Bowe Bergdahl saga. When Bergdahl was first released, it was treated with some degree of fanfare as the president addressed the nation from the White House Rose Garden while flanked by Bergdahl’s parents. Very quickly, though the deal came under criticism from Republicans due both to the terms of the deal that led to his release, which included the release of five men held at the Guantanamo Bay prison under the auspices of the Qatari government, and the fact that the administration had failed to comply with a statute requiring advance notice to Congress for releasing prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. There were also lingering questions over the circumstances that led to Bergdahl becoming a Taliban prisoner, including the long-standing accusation that Bergdahl had deserted his post and even claims that he may have provided aid or intelligence to his captors. While the Army eventually cleared Bergdahl of any charges that he aided the enemy, the investigation of his possible desertion continued and, most recently, was sent to his commanding officer for a final determination on how to proceed. If today’s reports are to be believed, it would appear that such a determination has been made.

The penalty for desertion could be quite severe, but, as noted above, it’s likely that Bergdahl’s case will be resolved with a “less than honorable” discharge, loss of rank, and loss of the back pay he otherwise would have accrued during the period that he was held in captivity. All things considered, this seems like a fair outcome to me. After five years in Taliban captivity, there seems to be little reason to punish Bergdahl more severely, although I’m sure many on the right will demand Bergdahl’s head for this, if only because it would serve as further ammunition against the president. That desire for revenge would seem to me to be misplaced, though. For one thing, even if it’s true that Bergdahl is guilty of desertion, that does not mean that the administration should not have done everything possible to bring him home. Indeed, many of the same Republicans who were criticizing the president for making the deal that led to Bergdahl’s release were criticizing him months earlier for not doing more to reach a deal to get Bergdahl released, and even then the deal being discussed was basically the same on that was ultimately agreed to. Second, punishing Bergdahl further doesn’t really seem to have any purpose to it. Bergdahl seems to have suffered enough during his captivity, and indeed may not have been psychologically suited for combat to begin with. Resolving these potential charges with a plea seems like the best way to deal with this.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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