Bowe Bergdahl a conundrum for US as Afghanistan conflict winds down

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 9:00pm


The case of US army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009, has arisen again as Washington and other countries engage in diplomatic efforts to free him.

But if he is released, will the nation's only prisoner of the Afghan war be viewed as a hero or a deserter?

While tattered yellow ribbons still adorn power poles in his native Hailey, Idaho, others are expressing conflicting thoughts about Bergdahl's plight as the war winds down, with President Barack Obama threatening to withdraw all United States troops this year unless the Afghan government signs a crucial security agreement.

They are convinced that on June 30, 2009, just a few months after he arrived in Afghanistan, Bergdahl walked away from his unit, which was deployed in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, adjacent to the border with Pakistan. While they do want Bergdahl home, they think he should have to answer allegations that he deserted his unit.

Bergdahl was last seen in a video the Taliban released in December.

At this year's Grammys, celebrities were photographed wearing Bowe bracelets. In the past two years, billboards with Bergdahl's face have popped up in key US cities. One shows a smiling Bergdahl, in an army uniform, with the message: "He fought for us ... Let's fight for him!"

In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine quoted e-mails Bergdahl is said to have sent to his parents that suggest he was disillusioned with the US mission in Afghanistan, had lost faith in his army's mission there and was considering desertion.

He told his parents he was "ashamed to even be American".

Bergdahl, who mailed home boxes containing his uniform and books, also wrote: "The future is too good to waste on lies. 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."

The e-mails could not be independently authenticated. Bergdahl's family has not commented on the allegations of desertion, according to Colonel Tim Marsano, a spokesman for the Idaho National Guard. Marsano is in regular contact with Bergdahl's mother, Jani, and father, Bob, who has grown a long beard and has worked to learn Pashto, spoken by his son's captors.

A defence department official said that if Bergdahl was released, it could be determined that he had more than paid for leaving his unit, if that's what happened.

Still, it's a conundrum for commanders under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the equal application of the law, according to the official.

Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said if there was evidence that Bergdahl left his unit without permission, he could be charged with being absent without leave, or desertion.

Were Bergdahl to be charged with desertion, the maximum penalty he would face would be five years in prison and a dishonourable discharge.

A case of being absent without leave would not require proof that he intended to remain away permanently. The maximum punishment for that would be a dishonourable discharge and 18 months' confinement, he said.