Bergdahl charged with desertion, could face life in prison
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban after abandoning his post in Afghanistan and then freed five years later in a controversial trade for five Guantanamo detainees, was charged Wednesday with desertion.
U.S. Army Forces Command announced the decision at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
He was charged with misbehavior before the enemy, which carries a maximum sentence of up to life in prison. He was also charged with desertion, which carries a maximum of five years.
The development comes 10 months after his May 2014 release — which initially was a joyous occasion, with his parents joining President Obama in celebrating the news in the Rose Garden. Bob Bergdahl, who had studied Islam during his son’s captivity, appeared with a full beard and read a Muslim prayer, while Bergdahl’s mother Jani embraced the president.
But that euphoria quickly gave way to controversy in Washington as Bergdahl was accused of walking away from his post and putting his fellow soldiers in danger. The trade of hardened Taliban fighters for his freedom raised deep concerns on Capitol Hill that the administration struck an unbalanced and possibly illegal deal.
US soldier held captive by Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years freed
With the newly announced charges, Bergdahl could also face a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank and forfeiture of all his pay if convicted.
The case now goes to an Article 32 hearing to be held at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where Bergdahl has been performing administrative duties as he awaits the conclusion of the case. That proceeding is similar to a grand jury. From there, it could be referred to a court-martial and go to trial.
A date for that hearing was not announced.
The announcement marks a sharp turnaround for the administration’s narrative of Bergdahl’s service and release. After the swap last year, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.”
But as Bergdahl faced criticism from fellow servicemembers for his actions, the administration faced heated complaints from Congress over the Taliban trade itself. “This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages,” said former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, at the time.
Wednesday’s announcement only fueled those concerns.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a member of the Armed Services Committee, was asked by reporter Wednesday whether the charges raised doubts about the initial trade of Bergdahl for the Taliban members.
“I would think that it would raise doubts in the mind of the average American if those doubts weren’t raised already,” Wicker said.
“This proves once again that the president’s political motivations for closing Guantanamo Bay are causing him to make reckless decisions and will put more American lives at risk,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said Wednesday in a statement.
Gen. Mark Milley, head of U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, has been reviewing the massive case files and had a broad range of legal options, including various degrees of desertion charges. A major consideration was whether military officials would be able to prove that Bergdahl had no intention of returning to his unit.
Bergdahl, 28, disappeared from his base in the eastern Afghanistan province of Paktika on June 30, 2009. A private first class at the time, he had three days earlier emailed his parents expressing disillusionment with the war.
“The future is too good to waste on lies,” Bergdahl wrote, according to the late Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. “And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be American.”
Bob Bergdahl, a former UPS delivery driver in Sun Valley Idaho, replied with a message bearing the subject line, “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!”
Bergdahl left a note in his tent that said he was leaving to start a new life and intended to renounce his citizenship, Fox News reported last year.
For the next five years, Bergdahl is believed to have been held by the Taliban and Pakistan’s infamous Haqqani network. In one of several hostage videos released during his captivity, he said he was captured when he fell behind a patrol, but fellow soldiers, outraged after the trade was made with the Taliban, accused him of deserting. Some asserted that American servicemembers’ lives were put at risk in the hunt for Bergdahl.
Bergdahl was freed on May 31, 2014, after the White House agreed to trade five high-value Taliban operatives held at Guantanamo Bay for him. He was turned over to Delta Force operatives in eastern Afghanistan, near the border village of Khost, while the Taliban members were handed over to authorities in Qatar, which helped broker the swap.
The trade was branded as illegal by lawmakers, who said they weren’t advised beforehand, It was also blasted by critics who said it violated America’s longstanding tradition of not negotiating with terrorists. There were also concerns – which would prove well-founded – that the Taliban members would return to the fight against the West.
Of the five — Mohammad Fazl, the former Taliban army chief of staff; Khairullah Khairkhwa, a Taliban intelligence official; Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former Taliban government official; and Norullah Noori and Mohammad Nabi Omari — at least three have attempted to reconnect with their old comrades, a source told Fox News.
Then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Bergdahl was a “prisoner of war,” and that the deal did not amount to negotiating with terrorists. He also said concerns about Bergdahl’s deteriorating condition made it imperative that the U.S. move quickly to make the trade.
A Pentagon probe concluded in 2010 that Bergdahl had walked away from his base, but stopped short of accusing him of desertion, reopening the probe after his return.
Bergdhal was promoted to sergeant while in captivity, and had accrued more than $200,000 in back pay by the time he was freed.