The Treason Case Against the Last U.S. Taliban Hostage, Explained
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only prisoner of war held by the enemy in Afghanistan, was freed last week after a deal by the U.S. to exchange him for five Taliban fighters at Guantanamo. But is he a turncoat? And did the White House sell out America to secure him? Here's what we know.
Who is Bowe Bergdahl?
Bergdahl was known as a quiet, thoughtful Idahoan when he enlisted at 22 and joined a unit preparing for deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. In the early morning of June 30, 2009, Berghdal went missing from his unit's small outpost in Mest, a restive area in Paktia province. Within several hours, radio chatter from the Taliban indicated that they'd captured the soldier.
He spent the next five years in captivity, growing gaunt in the numerous propaganda videos that the Taliban trickled out to the press. On numerous occasions, they publicly threatened him with execution. Many Afghans and some Westerners in similar positions had been tortured, decapitated, or shot to death.
Negotiations between the Americans and Taliban leadership over his release had been in the works for several years, and were seen as a precursor to the winding down of America's war in Afghanistan. Indeed, just days before announcing Berghdahl's release, President Obama announced plans to reduce troop levels to about 10,000 by year's end, with a goal of having the U.S. completely our of Afghanistan by 2016.
Bergdahl's time in captivity sounds awful. Why wouldn't we want to get him back?
Of course, the United States and the armed services have a tradition of striving never to leave a man (or woman) behind in the theater of war. It's one of the highest values of service.
But in many ways, Bergdahl's case challenges that tradition. The longtime open secret of his capture is that he reportedly deserted his outpost—perhaps out of disillusionment with the war or his unit, perhaps out of a desire to help Afghans, perhaps because he wasn't completely with it mentally. Whatever his reasons, his departure gave the Taliban a PR coup, kicked off a huge search effort that diverted tons of military resources and cost lives, and left a lot of soldiers grumbling about him.
He rolled off his safe base into the wild? Has that happened before?
It's not unheard of for soldiers to sneak "outside the wire" into "Indian country." (No, really: Bergdahl's outpost was named for Geronimo; U.S. units that searched the area for him were identified by codenames like Blackfoot, Mohawk, and Seminole.)
In 2010, two sailors who worked on a training base in Kabul were killed after a shootout with Taliban fighters in Logar province, fifty miles away. The men—a cook and a technician who worked on ships' hulls—left the base alone in a truck under mysterious circumstances, and their fatal trip to Logar has never been fully explained by officials.
The most notorious example of a soldier leaving the confines of his base in Afghanistan was Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who slipped away on a March night in 2013, slaughtered innocent Afghans in their village, came back to base to gear up, then went out and massacred more civilians. He was sentenced to life in military prison late last year for killing 16 people in all.
So what's the story behind Bergdahl's disappearance?
The complete truth is still unclear. Initial reports said Bergdahl "fell behind on a patrol," but that's largely discredited. Another report said he was kidnapped from a latrine, but that, too, isn't given much credence. The Taliban even claimed, incredibly, that Bergdahl was "a drunken American soldier [who] had come out of his garrison" and was captured, according to MSNBC.
The consensus among members of Bergdahl's unit is that he chose to "go native," and his choice led to numerous American deaths:
Emails reported by the late Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone in 2012 reveal what Bergdahl's fellow infantrymen learned within days of his disappearance: he told people that he no longer supported the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
"The future is too good to waste on lies," Bowe wrote to his parents. "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. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting."
Bergdahl wrote to them, "I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting."
CNN has not independently verified the authenticity of the emails.
A former member of Bergdahl's squad who has yet to identify his last name publicly but goes by "Cody" tweeted this weekend that before he disappeared, Bergdahl once told him, "If deployment is lame, I'm going to get lost in the Mountains and make my way to China."
Leatherman told CNN that Bergdahl "always looked at the mountains in the distance and talked of 'seeing what's on the other side.'"
The Twitter account by that squadmate, Cody, is especially biting and detailed, suggesting that Bergdahl had made several moves in predeployment training—including getting an AK-47 and learning Afghan languages—that foreshadowed his alleged desertion to the enemy. Cody also implies that Bergdahl may have given the Taliban pointers on how to better focus their attacks on Americans, though that claim is disputed elsewhere. Another account in the Daily Beast by Nathan Bradley Bethea, a member of Bergdahl's battalion and a veteran of the rescue efforts, is unequivocal: "He deserted," Bethea writes. "That's what happened."
A secret internal report on the initial military response to Bergdahl's disappearance, released as part of the "Afghan War Diaries" by Wikileaks, corroborates the basic details of these soldiers' stories.
Where was Bergdahl all this time? Why didn't we find him ourselves?
According to at least one report, U.S. military planners believed they knew where Bergdahl was being held—in Pakistan, by an independent group of insurgents known as the Haqqani Taliban network. Even if the exact location had been known, a rescue mission would have been risky tactically—it might not have succeeded or it might have resulted in more casualties; strategically—it might have angered Pakistani authorities and civilians in an unacceptable extent; and politically—as committed as America is to returning its troops, getting Bergdahl back wasn't exactly as popular a mission as the bin Laden raid.
What was Bergdahl's family doing through all of this?
Being sort of weird, honestly. According to that 2012 profile by the late Michael Hastings, Bergdahl was homeschooled in a strict Calvinist household, and his family became ardently antiwar as they campaigned for his release—to the point that they expressed many sentiments that appear to be sympathetic to the Taliban.
Three days before his son's release, Bob Bergdahl also sent this tweet, which has since been deleted:
The family's Rose Garden press conference with President Obama also had enough weird moments, as related by these reporters' tweets, that conservatives are now talking conspiracy.
Will Bergdahl be punished?
That, too, is unclear. As early as 2009, some bloodthirsty Fox analysts were calling for Bergdahl's death for treason, which is a stretch. As part of his return, Bergdahl will undergo extensive "debriefing" by military and intelligence officials to see what happened, what he told his captors, and what his captors told him. He could conceivably be brought up on charges of absence without leave or desertion under military law. More likely, he'll be quietly discharged.
Opinion on his fate varies among the soldiers in his unit. Some, like Cody on Twitter, seem to believe he should be brought up on charges; others think he needs psychological counseling more than anything. And some share the sentiment of one defense official who spoke to CNN's Jake Tapper: "Five years [in captivity] is enough."
The one thing virtually every commentator agrees on is that the deaths of the soldiers who actively searched for him—and other fatalities that may have resulted from the diversion of resources to his rescue effort—not be forgotten.
What does this have to do with Obama, though?
Well, besides the fact that many critics are questioning Bergdahl's status as a "worthy" rescuee, they say his freedom was bought at too dear a price:
1. There are disagreements over how nasty and scary the five Gitmo detainees are who will be released to secure Bergdahl's freedom. The government's cases against them sound gnarly, but then the government has a track record of sexing up charges on Guantanamo detainees to sound as bad as possible.
On the one hand, they sound like they were pretty important to the Taliban military cause at one time. On the other hand, we've been friendly with worse people in Afghanistan, and these guys will be held in custody in Qatar for a year before they're allowed home, so they're unlikely to make it back to the Afghan frontier in time to kill American soldiers, if that's their aim.
2. Republican legislators say the deal for Bergdahl was illegal, because the Defense Department didn't give Congress the required 30 days' notice for releasing Guantanamo detainees. Administration officials say there was a rush because of reports that Bergdahl was in poor health, and anyway, they say, this exercise of authority is nothing George W. Bush hadn't done before. (This, admittedly, is a terrible justification for anything.)
3. Ted Cruz says it establishes a bad precedent to deal with terrorists like the Taliban, although experts Politifact spoke to said that just puts Obama in the company of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush (remember when we eased relations with Gadhafi?):
"There's little that's actually new here," said Mitchell Reiss, who worked in the State Department under President George W. Bush and served as national security adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "It may be new to certain individuals. Whether it's new or not is not as important as whether it's sound policy and promotes national security. That's the ground where there's a more legitimate debate."
4. Other commentators say this will incentivize U.S. enemies to capture or kidnap U.S. troops, but even some conservative military bloggers say that's absurd:
We all hope that the release of [Bergdahl] won't lead to more attempts to kidnap American troops to exchange for the terrorists who have been removed from the planet's affairs. But, I'm sure that Americans in Afghanistan are trained well enough that they can avoid that eventuality so I'm not going to wring my hands over something that hasn't happened yet and put my faith in the training and professionalism of the US military – like they do.
Of course... it wouldn't be new, nor a direct result of Bergdahl's release if they tried kidnapping American troops now.
5. In any case, a bunch of the conservative commentariat is trying to generally turn this episode into the next Benghazi. Obama seems to have been thrown into an untenable position by an opposition party gunning for him: Don't rescue Bergdahl, and appear weak and unwilling to uphold America's sacrosanct "never leave a man behind" philosophy. Rescue Bergdahl, and appear to be a cheese-eating surrender monkey.
Even Cody, the tweeting soldier, seems politically motivated at parts in his otherwise credible account of Bergdahl's disappearance. Cody is a political conservative who's railed against libtards, minimum wage and the government while championing Cliven Bundy and shedding no tears for the convicted killer in Oklahoma whose execution was badly botched last month. That's enough to question his opinions, if not the basic facts of the situation he describes in Afghanistan.
Will all this hurt the president in an election year?
One one hand, yes and no. It is great red-meat for the Obama-hating crowd, if generally meaningless to most voters who, regardless of the circumstances, are glad an American's back home and are anxious for the Afghanistan war to come to an end. There were no good options for Bergdahl's recovery, and defense planners went for the least bad one.
On the other hand, who gives a damn about the optics or the politics or Democrats or Republicans, really? This is less about Barack Obama, or the daily news cycle, or the future of the republic, than the fact that, true to its word and regardless of the cost, the United States didn't leave Bowe Bergdahl behind. Would that this country could keep more of its promises.
The important thing is: This was war, and war is complicated and absurd and troubles the people we sent to fight it. There are no tidy endings, just individual narratives, and we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss any of them. As Bethea, the soldier in Bergdahl's battalion who calls him a deserter, puts it:
I forgave Bergdahl because it was the only way to move on. I wouldn't wish his fate on anyone. I hope that, in time, my comrades can make peace with him, too. That peace will look different for every person. We may have all come home, but learning to leave the war behind is not a quick or easy thing. Some will struggle with it for the rest of their lives. Some will never have the opportunity.
And Bergdahl, all I can say is this: Welcome back. I'm glad it's over. There was a spot reserved for you on the return flight, but we had to leave without you, man. You're probably going to have to find your own way home.