Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been a controversial figure ever since he slipped away from his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban. On Monday, the Army announced he would face a general court martial and be charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The latest season of the podcast “Serial” also explores Bergdahl’s story. Below, we try to answer some of the most common questions regarding this unusual case:
How did Bergdahl end up leaving his base?
Bergdahl was five weeks into a deployment in southeastern Afghanistan and frustrated with his mission and his leaders. He and his fellow soldiers weren’t going after the Taliban as aggressively as he wanted, and his sense of disillusion added to the disgust for the Army that he had begun developing while still in basic training.
Looking to make a stand, Bergdahl hatched a plan: He would run away from his platoon’s tiny outpost in Paktika province late on June 29, 2009. He would stay away from the Army a day, maybe two, and then reappear about 19 miles away at a larger installation and demand to air his grievances with a general. He knew that the region was crawling with insurgents, but he had “outsize impressions of his own capabilities,” according to an investigating officer.
Carrying just a disguise, a knife and some provisions, Bergdahl was captured by insurgents by 10 a.m. the following morning, beginning four years and 11 months of captivity and torture by the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban, according to Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the senior officer who carried out an investigation of Bergdahl’s actions and interviewed him at length.
Is there any evidence he was trying to join the Taliban?
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding this question. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff reported last year that Afghan villagers near their base remembered Bowe wandering around. He appeared to be heading deliberately toward areas where there were Taliban, the villagers said.
The question is: What was his motive? Bergdahl said in “Serial” that he deviated from his plan to head 20 miles to a larger base when it dawned on him that he was in a world of trouble. It made sense in his mind at that point, he said, to find Taliban fighters so he could bring back some sort of intelligence as a way of trying to get out of trouble.
Did any soldiers die or get injured while looking for Bergdahl?
This is a complicated question, and one that has received a fair amount of reporting over the last year.
Coalition forces across eastern Afghanistan altered their operations that summer looking for Bergdahl, exposing soldiers to additional and dangerous missions. That remains a sensitive point, amid allegations from Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers that at least six U.S. troops died because of his actions. The problem is that the Army has kept a lot of what those operations involved under wraps even today, and it’s hard to say from the outside which expeditions were aimed at finding Bergdahl and which would have been done anyway.
This part is indisputable, though: He absolutely put the lives of others at risk, and did so knowingly. His take in the “Serial” podcast so far is that he knew he was causing massive problems, but felt compelled to do so to report problems in his unit.
How did he come back?
Bergdahl was recovered in May 2014 in a controversial swap in which the White House approved the release of five Taliban detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They are now in Qatar.
Critics say the Obama administration did not get the best deal it could considering that other American hostages were being held in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it appears the government could not make secure the release of others, and was concerned that Bergdahl would not be able to manage for much longer.
What do we know about his five years of captivity?
He was kept in isolation and was beaten regularly to the point that his body was permanently damaged. Bergdahl will require a lifetime of medical care as a result of the injuries he sustained, according to Curtis Aberle, a family nurse practitioner and case manager for Bergdahl at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Aberle has said the soldier suffered muscular nerve damage in his lower legs, degenerative back damage and a loss of range in motion in his left shoulder that prevents him from lifting heavy objects. The nurse practitioner has also said that Bergdahl suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.
What is Bergdahl doing now?
He has a desk job now with the Army, which said Bergdahl is suitable for duty after going through a battery of tests. Notably, the Army has assigned a couple of soldiers to watch over him. His case remains hugely controversial. On Monday, the Army said he will face general court-martial, raising the possibility that he could face life in prison after being held captive for five years.
General court-martial is the highest level of trial in the military justice system. If convicted, Bergdahl could face life in prison. Desertion can carry a death penalty, but Army officials have said that will not occur in Bergdahl’s case.