The exchange of five Afghani prisoners held at Guantanamo for Bergdahl has raised an unprecedented political firestorm, with congressional Republicans (and a few Democrats, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein) accusing the Obama administration of acting illegally by failing to notify Congress of their intent to release the Afghani POWs at Gitmo, and some of Bergdahl’s former platoon comrades accusing him of desertion and even treason. Given the acrimony and the seriousness of some of the accusations, Bergdahl’s actions and those of the Obama administration will surely be scrutinized minutely in the weeks and months ahead.
In the meantime, here are a few of the facts and relevant issues as we currently understand them. PFC Bowe Bergdahl, 28, is a man of varied interests, having studied martial arts, fencing, and ballet dancing. Homeschooled and raised as an Orthodox Presbyterian, Bergdahl appears to have grown uncomfortable with his faith; he practiced Buddhism at a monastery in 2007 and 2008. After graduating from infantry school in the fall of 2008, Bergdahl was deployed to Afghanistan, at an outpost in the eastern part of the country not far from Pakistan called Mest-Malak. Bergdahl displayed a strong interest in the local language and culture and began learning Pashto, the language of many Taliban. He also allegedly began expressing skepticism to friends over the validity of the military mission.
Bergdahl disappeared from his base on the night of June 30, 2009, leaving behind his military gear. In the ensuing effort to find him, as many as six American soldiers lost their lives to Taliban attacks. A few days before his disappearance, he is alleged, in an article in Rolling Stone magazine in June 2012, to have sent an e-mail to his parents sharply criticizing the U.S. military and its role in Afghanistan. “I am ashamed to be an American,” Bergdahl wrote, adding that “the future is too good to waste on lies.” This e-mail has not been substantiated by other media sources, and, while professing disgust with the military, does not indicate any plans to desert, defect, or betray the United States.
On the other hand, as CNN announced on June 3, the Pentagon, after investigating Bergdahl’s disappearance, did conclude in 2010 that the soldier left the base without authorization, though the circumstances of his subsequent capture by the Taliban are still unclear. It therefore appears that there are grounds for accusing Bergdahl of going AWOL, although claims of treason appear premature, to say the least.
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Screen capture from video of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl standing with a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan: AP Images