Following an extended investigation, the U.S. Army last week announced serious charges against Sgt. Robert “Bowe” Bergdahl, the soldier who was captured by the Taliban in 2009 while serving in Afghanistan, then released last May through a prisoner exchange. The Army is seeking a court-martial on the charge of desertion plus the even graver charge of “misbehavior before the enemy.” Bergdahl, if convicted, could serve life in prison.
How strange that, only 10 months ago, President Barack Obama hailed the soldier’s return with fanfare at the Rose Garden, including photo ops with Bergdahl’s parents. The White House spun the story as rare good news out of Afghanistan, the seemingly endless war that the president has been trying to wind down for years.
From today’s vantage point, the administration’s celebration of this POW’s homecoming seems misguided, to say the least. But it seemed misguided last spring, too. From the outset there were dissenting voices wondering if securing Bergdahl’s release, in a barter deal with the enemy for five prominent members of the Taliban, was actually a fair trade. That the Taliban Five were among the most senior enemy combatants in American hands led to questions, as did the less-than-assuring assurances from Qatar, their new home, that the men were really out of the fight against Western forces.
Then there was the matter of how exactly Bergdahl wound up a prisoner. His former platoon mates, who with few exceptions regarded the POW with contempt, insisted that Bergdahl had left his post, unarmed, in search of the enemy. This does not appear to have been a spontaneous action. The sergeant, who had never been popular in his unit, had been sending personal items back to his parents, suggesting he’d planned his desertion well in advance. Worse, angry men from Bergdahl’s unit asserted that six fellow soldiers died while looking for the missing sergeant.
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It’s clear that Bergdahl was mistreated by the Taliban while in their custody, yet the question of whether he collaborated with his captors, and to what extent, remains open. For years, word circulated in intelligence agencies that Bergdahl was, in fact, a defector. Some quietly considered him not worth saving at all. Allegations of gross misconduct by Bergdahl seem to have been borne out by the very hefty charges he now faces — charges that are used rarely by military prosecutors and imply cooperation with the enemy.
Initial doubts about Bergdahl’s return were brushed off, with the White House doubling down in its customary fashion. Most egregiously, National Security Advisor Susan Rice countered critics by insisting that Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction,” which seems to be far from the truth. Nevertheless, Obama’s team persists in sticking with that narrative, with White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki stating that the Bergdahl swap was “absolutely” worth it, the impending court-martial notwithstanding.
The next step in this case is an Article 32 hearing, the military’s version of a grand jury, and there seems little doubt that a full court-martial will result. The Army’s investigation was thorough and meticulous. That trial will generate major media attention, and key evidence against Bergdahl will likely include what he told Army de-briefers after his return home. Intelligence information detailing Bergdahl’s dealings with the enemy, which is believed to be unflattering, is not expected to be used at trial due to classification issues.
How the White House will deal with the Bergdahl case from this point on will be a crucial component of this continuing saga. It is admirable to bring POWs home, no matter how they wound up in enemy hands, and charlatans deserve to come home as much as heroes do. Taliban captivity is a terrible experience. It is not admirable to turn a possible deserter into some sort of public hero.
Why this White House chose to handle the Bergdahl case in such an inept manner, despite ample information indicating its official narrative was, at the least, highly selective, is a matter for future historians to ponder.
John R. Schindler, a former Navy officer and National Security Agency official, is a strategist and military historian. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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