Bowe Bergdahl is an American soldier who was serving with an infantry regiment in Afghanistan when he disappeared on June 30, 2009. It was later determined that he was being held by the Taliban. The only U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, on May 31, Bergdahl was part of a prisoner swap. He was returned to U.S. authorities in exchange for five top-level Taliban government officials who were being held at the U.S. prisoner facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Captured as a private, Bergdahl was promoted to sergeant during his time as a P.O.W.
1) Was he captured, or did he defect?
As CNN’s Jake Tapper reports, “Questions surround the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance.” National Security Adviser Susan Rice claimed on ABC’s “This Week” that Bowe Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction” and that “Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield.”
Those claims are at odds with first-hand accounts from soldiers in his platoon. They say that “Bergdahl, while on guard duty, shed his weapons and walked off the observation post with nothing more than a compass, a knife, water, a digital camera, and a diary.” Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings reported in 2012 that Bergdahl had written to his parents that “The future is too good to waste on lies,” and that “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. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.” He told his parents, “I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting.”
Obama spokesman Jay Carney was specifically asked if it mattered whether Bergdahl deserted or not. Carney dodged the question but replied that other things mattered. Bergdahl is not classified as a deserter and many of his fellow soldiers were required to sign non-disclosure agreements that they wouldn’t discuss the circumstances of his disappearance.
2) What do fellow soldiers think about Bergdahl and the deal?
Fellow soldiers call Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, not a hero. “The sense of pride expressed by officials of the Obama administration at the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is not shared by many of those who served with him – veterans and soldiers who call him a deserter whose ‘selfish act’ ended up costing the lives of better men. ‘I was pissed off then and I am even more so now with everything going on,’ said former Sgt. Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon when he went missing on June 30, 2009. ‘Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.’ Vierkant said Bergdahl needs to not only acknowledge his actions publicly but face a military trial for desertion under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Another soldier wrote: “The latest news of 5 GITMO detainee transfers for this kid’s life left me nauseated. From everything I was receiving, Haqqani never expected to get any of the prisoners, let alone 5 of some of the most highly valued targets we had in holding. The US negotiators had fallen for the bluff…the threat of killing the kid. No one ever asked the question of why Haqqani would kill Bergdahl suddenly now after keeping him alive for so many years. A typical political knee jerk reaction to a problem rooted in thousands of years of traditions and ways of doing deals. We got screwed and I suspect Haqqani is laughing his ass off at us from his compound in Pakistan.”
3) How many soldiers died while trying to find and rescue Bowe Bergdahl?
A soldier who served in the same infantry unit as Bergdahl has a piece at the Daily Beast headlined “We Lost Soldiers in the Hunt for Bergdahl, a Guy Who Walked Off in the Dead of Night“:
Our battalion suffered six fatalities in a three-week period. On August 18, an IED killed Private First Class Morris Walker and Staff Sergeant Clayton Bowen during a reconnaissance mission. On August 26, while conducting a search for a Taliban shadow sub-governor supposedly affiliated with Bergdahl’s captors, Staff Sergeant Kurt Curtiss was shot in the face and killed. On September 4, during a patrol to a village near the area in which Bergdahl vanished, an insurgent ambush killed Second Lieutenant Darryn Andrews and gravely wounded Private First Class Matthew Martinek, who died of his wounds a week later. On September 5, while conducting a foot movement toward a village also thought affiliated with Bergdahl’s captors, Staff Sergeant Michael Murphrey stepped on an improvised land mine. He died the next day.
Some in the military say the exhaustive efforts to rescue Bergdahl caused additional deaths.
4) How does the military typically treat wartime deserters?
Here’s the law on military desertion. The punishment for leaving one’s post to shirk service — or worse — is severe: “Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.” If desertion happens not in a “time of war,” death is removed from the list of punishments. It’s an open question whether we were in a “time of war” in 2009 but either way, desertion is a huge issue.
The last man to be executed by the U.S. for desertion was Eddie Slovik, in 1945. While 49 death sentences were handed down in World War II, Slovik was the only American or British soldier to be executed for the crime during World War II.
5) Is the Administration going to pursue punishment?
If the stories being told by Bergdahl’s fellow infantry unit members are true, Bergdahl has many questions to answer regarding his capture by the Taliban and the deaths that resulted from searching for him. There is no indication, however, that the U.S. military is going to pursue punishment. From CNN: “A reporter asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Sunday whether Bergdahl had left his post without permission or deserted – and, if so, whether he would be punished. Hagel didn’t answer directly. “Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family,” he said. “Other circumstances that may develop and questions, those will be dealt with later.”
6) Did the White House break the law with the prisoner swap?
Federal law requires President Obama to give Congress a 30-day warning of Guantanamo prisoner releases. This allows them to determine whether such releases would harm national security. In the deal to release five top-level Taliban officials, he didn’t. While President Obama ran vehemently against the practice of “signing statements” that are added to legislation — executive protests of power — he used a signing statement when he signed this law. That’s not good enough, says George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley. He says there’s “no debate” whether Obama broke the law:
Officials reportedly claimed they needed to make this deal without Congressional approval because of health concerns. However, the talks regarding this prisoner exchange actually went on for months.
7) What do we know about the Taliban leaders we traded Bergdahl for?
We know that we traded one low-level soldier for five Taliban officials, all high-level or mid-level. Bob Schieffer of CBS’ “Face the Nation” asked the Washington Post’s David Ignatius whether we were doing a prisoner exchange or negotiating with terrorists. Ignatius said “the five people being released from Guantanamo are very dangerous Taliban cadre.” They include the deputy military commander and deputy chief of intelligence. And in two cases, he said, they were “people who worked directly to facilitate Al Qaeda during Al Qaeda’s time in Afghanistan. So for that reason, I’m told under Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and chairman of Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, it was judged that these people were just too dangerous to let go.”
Diane Feinstein also publicly opposed the deal a few months ago (though she changed her mind recently). In March she said, “These are major Taliban figures, they are not minor people. And they will not be in the same kind of custody, maximum-security custody. Forget that it won’t be Guantánamo, just maximum-security custody. And in my view, there’s no way of knowing what they may do and what kind of propaganda they may breed.”
8) What was the rationale for doing this exchange?
Afghan officials had said the deal would be a step toward peace talks. According to the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are worried that the deal is a precedent for closing Gitmo.
9) Is it true Bergdahl was scheduled for promotion?
Well, that’s what CNN Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr reported:
Def official: Bergdahl not classified as deserter. Scheduled for promotion. Army first needs to hear from him directly what happened.
— Barbara Starr (@barbarastarrcnn) June 2, 2014