First five years in Taliban captivity, and now, the rest of his life in an American prison. This may be the fate of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been charged with desertion.
Last summer, Bergdahl’s case engendered huge controversy, which has returned with redoubled strength.
He Had to Be Returned to His Parents
President Barack Obama decided to exchange Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay – which means that he made a deal with the enemy, something that the Americans don’t do very often. And this time it was about a soldier who voluntarily left his base in Afghanistan, and thereby fell into captivity. Worse, it is possible his colleagues were killed in rescue attempts.
“I have absolutely no doubt that this young man had to be saved,” said Obama in June of last year. “This is someone's son and had to be given back to his parents. We do not evaluate our soldiers according to whether they are or are not worth saving. We Americans have a code that we do not abandon our comrades in arms without help.”*
The president explained that the decision – heavily criticized by the right – had a personal dimension for him. “I get too many letters from parents whose children do not come back from the war. It is important to understand that this is not an abstraction or a political game,” he said.*
Then it turned out that Sgt. Bergdahl – despite the declarations of the president – has not been "given back to his parents." Yesterday, a military court accused him of desertion. He faces life in prison. Prosecutors did not take into account the defense appeal to treat him more leniently because of what he went through during the five-year Taliban captivity.
I Am Ashamed to Be an American
Bergdahl left his base in the Afghan province of Paktika on June 30, 2009. He was 23 years old at that time.
A few days earlier, he sent a letter to his parents, in which he wrote, "I am ashamed to be an American. The commander of my battalion is a self-righteous old fool. This is the kind of people who get promoted in the army. Our army is one big joke. It’s an army of liars, fools and boors. The people who live here need help, but the only thing they get is the most conceited country in the world, who tells them that they are nothing and fools, and that they do not know how to live. No one even cares when they hear that one of our armored vehicles rolled over a child ... I have had enough.”*
He Recklessly Endangered Colleagues
Colleagues from the unit say that at the end of their service, Bergdahl told them that he intended to go on foot to India.
“He recklessly endangered all of us who had to find him,”* said Cody Full, his colleague from the detachment.
"The war was already absurd and quixotic, but this action to rescue a deserter would enrage us the most,"* says Nathan Bradley, a soldier from the base adjacent to Bergdahl’s base, in an article published by the website The Daily Beast. He believes that the search in the surrounding villages was so absorbing that the Americans neglected the protection of the bases. Therefore, on July 4, 2009, two suicide bombers managed to carry out an attack on one of them. Two Americans were killed. A month after the disappearance of Bergdahl, the soldiers left the base on a mission to find a warlord, who had ties with the Taliban detaining a prisoner. The patrol was ambushed – one of the men was shot in the face and died. According to Bradley, Bergdahl is responsible for his death. There were allegedly a few more similar cases.
Trade with the Taliban
Three weeks after the disappearance of Bergdahl, the Taliban uploaded on the Internet the first video with him in the lead role. Then there were few more. The prisoner praised the Taliban for the fact that he was being well-treated and criticized America for treating its captured Taliban much worse.
Initially, they demanded $1 million dollars for Bergdahl’s release and the release of 21 colleagues from Guantanamo. After several years, they agreed to trade him for only five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo.
When the exchange was made, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces Gen. Martin Dempsey explained, “Like all Americans, Sergeant Bergdahl is innocent until proven guilty. If he is found guilty, the army will not indulge him, but it must be separated from the efforts to free him from the hands of the enemy.”*
Bergdahl says that he tried to escape several times – the first time a few days after getting captured. As punishment he was severely beaten and chained to a bed for three months. He was blindfolded for almost the entire time. Then he was kept in a metal cage. “I was isolated,” he says. “I had no idea what day or year it was, they often kept me in the dark or in the light for a long time. My world ended at the door, I had no idea what was going on behind it. One day I was told that the next day I would be executed, and another that I would be staying there for 30 years.”*
Bergdahl was exchanged for five fairly high-ranking Guantanamo detainees. One was the governor of the province of Herat before the U.S. invasion in 2001, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. Another was the "chief of staff" of the Taliban army.
The release of the five dangerous enemies in exchange for a deserter outraged not only many Republicans, but even some Democratic congressmen in Washington.
It was perhaps Susan Rice, Obama's National Security Adviser, who aroused the biggest astonishment when she said that Bergdahl served "with dignity and honor."
What Awaits the Deserter
For desertion he faces – besides life imprisonment – a disciplinary discharge from the Army and the confiscation of the entire payment transferred to his account during five years of Taliban captivity (i.e., a few hundred thousand dollars).
Experts, who speak out in the media, claim that life imprisonment is unlikely. The deserter will get a shorter sentence, and five years in captivity will be deducted from the sentence – perhaps even doubly, i.e. it will be considered as 10 years already completed in an American prison.
*Editor’s Note: These quotes, while accurately translated, could not be verified.