In the space of nine months, he went from being heralded at the White House to facing prison for life.
On Wednesday, the U.S. military charged Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the former Taliban captive who was freed in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees, with desertion and misbehaving before the enemy.
His capture, release and now charge became a parable of how narratives about the war in Afghanistan did not pan out. The soldier whose service Susan Rice, U.S. national security adviser, once characterized as “honorable” and whose release came at the price of five prisoners could now himself end up in an American prison for life. The prison exchange that some political operatives thought would be heralded was instead widely condemned. And the war that was supposed to be ending with no soldier left behind has now been extended for five months.
Bergdahl’s case will now go before an Article 32 hearing, the equivalent of a grand jury in civilian court, to determine how the case should proceed. While many soldiers in the U.S. military’s history have served long sentences for such crimes, many are highly dubious he will serve a life sentence. There is a sense that there is no interest in handing out a long sentence to a soldier who may not have passed muster had the nation not been so desperate for troops when he joined in 2007—the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That said, there are many in the military who remain tremendously angry at Bergdahl. They believe he was a deserter and that the five-year search for him endangered other troops.
Army Colonel Daniel King announced at a nationally televised press conference out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, that Bergdahl was charged with one count of desertion and one count of misbehavior before the enemy—“endangering the safety of a command, unit, or place.” The former carries a maximum five-year penalty, the reduction of rank down to private, the forfeiture of all military compensation, and a dishonorable discharge. The latter could result in the same punishment—plus a life-in-prison sentence.
Bergdahl, who turns 29 years-old Saturday, disappeared in June 2009 from Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan while serving as a private from the 25th Infantry Division. The U.S. military devoted an enormous amount of resources in the search for him, particularly after videos appeared showing in in custody. In addition, his family and their hometown of Hailey, Idaho, fought to keep attention on Bergdahl’s case. In May 2014, Bergdahl was released in exchange for five Taliban members held at Guantanamo Bay who were subsequently transferred to Qatari custody for a year.
President Obama made the announcement of Bergdahl’s release in a Rose Garden ceremony flanked by Bergdahl’s parents, even as the circumstances of his disappearance were shrouded in uncertainty and charges that he abandoned his post and troops. Politically, the administration celebrated negotiating his release after years of failed bids by both the current and former administration, at least one attempted escape by Bergdahl and countless patrols searching for him. Photos released by the White House showed the president walking arm-in-arm with Bergdahl’s parents. Many called the timing key as many hoped the U.S. was winding down its war in Afghanistan.
But the political benefits and the timing of the war both proved incorrect. The president faced immediate backlash for heralding a soldier suspected of abandoning his post. That was only further fueled when, in a June 2014 interview with CNN, Rice said Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.”
Rice’s comments could work in Bergdahl’s favor, should the convening authority looking at his case recommend a court martial, military officials conceded. It could counter the suggestion that he “is guilty of cowardly conduct,” a clause in the misbehavior-before-the-enemy charge.
And just this week, the president announced that the U.S. military would delay its drawdown to 9,800 troops for another five months at the request of newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. U.S. forces are seeking to train 352,000 Afghan security forces before leaving and now are about 20,000 shy of that figure.
“At the heart of this whole situation, there’s still the decision to trade five Taliban detainees for a deserter, when there were in fact other options on the table. We’re aware of those options and frankly, the White House made a big mistake,” Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, told The Daily Beast. “And tying Bergdahl to an end-of-war effort was no less an error in judgment. The Army’s going to continue its process, which has taken way too long already, but it’s evident the administration screwed this up and nothing exists to justify the swap.”
Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added: “Today’s announcement is the exclamation point on the bad deal the Obama administration cut to free five terrorist killers in its rush to empty the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Those five—some of the worst of the worst—will be free in a matter of weeks. The dangerous deal the White House cut has real consequences for the safety of Americans.”
After undergoing an evaluation, Bergdahl was assigned a desk job at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. He will continue serving in that post, military officials said. During his captivity, he was promoted to sergeant.
— with additional reporting by Tim Mak