Yesterday, the news broke that Bowe Bergdahl, the American prisoner of war who was captured by Taliban-aligned forces in 2009 and released in 2014, following the Obama administration’s release of five detainees from Guantanamo Bay, would be formally charged with desertion.
The charges come roughly nine months after suspicions surrounding Bergdahl’s time in Afghanistan were officially raised by military officials. The Obama administration’s decision to agree to the prisoner exchange came under immediate fire upon Bergdahl’s return, and soldiers who served alongside Bergdahl had mixed reactions to his release.
Bergdahl, who was born and raised in Idaho, has been on active duty in an administrative role at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, since his release.
What are the accusations against him?
Bergdahl is charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Bergdahl is accused of walking away from his unit, and it’s clear from emails he sent home while serving that he was disillusioned with the war and his service. A soldier who had served in his battalion wrote after his release that other soldiers had told him Bergdahl had talked of abandoning his post and walking to India. The New York Times reported a few weeks after his release that “sometime after midnight on June 30, 2009, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life.”
So it sounds like he was deserting.
So far, his attorneys haven’t made their defense of the events that led him away from his unit public, but they have decried what they describe as a “lynch mob atmosphere” surrounding their client. So we’ll learn more in the months to come, but what we know right now doesn’t look great for Bergdahl.
How did the Taliban get him?
Bergdahl’s status went from “missing/whereabouts unknown” to “missing/captured” in the span of two days in July 2009. The circumstances of his capture are unclear, but he was used in a Taliban video later that month. He appeared over the next several years in both proof-of-life and propaganda videos made by his captors, who initially sought a million dollar ransom for his release.
What happened to him in captivity?
The stories of Bergdahl’s time as a Taliban prisoner are terrible, and based on what his defense has made public, it appears that they’re going to focus on the torture he endured when making his case. Bergdahl’s attorney published a letter from the soldier after the charges were announced in which he outlined the conditions of his captivity: it includes a year spent in a cage, beatings, and intensive isolation.
The letter also details multiple escape attempts, some of which had been reported before he was released. Adding these things together, it seems like Bergdahl’s defense is rooted in the idea that, given the harshness of his conditions as a prisoner and the fact that he constantly sought a way out, a court-martial would be “unduly harsh.”
What happens if he’s found guilty?
That’s a big question. The fact that he was charged with desertion, instead of the lesser charge of going AWOL, suggests that there’s a push to see Bergdahl punished harshly. Desertion can carry a death sentence, but in this case it’s not being pursued as a capital charge, which means that the maximum sentence is five years. The charge of misbehavior before the enemy carries a possible life sentence, though it’s unlikely that sentence will be pursued.
Depending on which of the charges he’s convicted of, in other words, he could face years in a military prison. In addition, if he’s found guilty, he faces a dishonorable discharge, which includes a reduction of his rank to private and a forfeiture of all his pay during his time in captivity.
What happens next?
The next step is a formal hearing on the charges, though the date on that hasn’t been set yet. If the hearing concludes that cause exists to move forward with the court-martial, the next step will be the trial.
(AP Photo/U.S. Army, file)