PFC Bowe Bergdahl – AWOL or DESERTER

Posted on Sun 06/08/2014 by


I got a call on Friday from Dave Rutherford, who last year retired from hosting his own radio show in Canada. I was a regular guest speaking about various security incidents and issues around the world and always felt he was a stand-up guy for a journalist, which is not a profession I have a high regard for. Although retired we’ve remained in touch and he called to get my take on the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl case. I’ve been following it since 2009 when I first heard the stories about his disappearance from a Forward Operating Base (FOB) which has since been corrected to have been a Combat Out Post (COP or just OP).

When the disappearance initially made the news I was not in Afghanistan and hadn’t been for almost 2 years so I relied on friends who were still there to give me the background. I received two variations of the story. The first was that then PFC Bergdahl had simply walked off the post without his gear in the middle of the night. I found this to be unbelievable at the time, we’d had 8 years of horror stories related to the way al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban treated prisoners and those they captured to know that no American in their right mind would expose themselves to torture that ended in a beheading on camera. The second version of the story made more sense to me…after pulling an extra duty (field punishment for a minor transgression) guard shift then PFC Bergdahl went to chat with some Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers he’d befriended who had obtained some locally made alcohol. Between the heat and the lack of everyday drinking it didn’t take long before then PFC Bergdahl was drunk and wanted more but the problem was the moonshine was gone and the village that the ANA had gotten it from was 2km away. My source told me that Berghdal (to avoid detection) ditched his battle gear to blend in and headed out with 3 ANA soldiers to walk to the nearest village to get more alcohol. It was unclear whether or not the ANA gave up Bergdahl (sold him out) or if they abandoned him to his fate when they got to the village but either way the Taliban heard he was there and scoped him up. Villagers have reported that a disorientated man passed through their village alone. Some thought he was high from smoking hashish while other thought maybe he was mentally ill or not in his right mind.

By 2010 I was back in Afghanistan and the hunt for Bergdahl had wound down significantly as it was believed that the Taliban had moved him into Pakistan and either sold him to the Haqqani network or were paying elements of the network to help move him about Pakistan and protect him. There was also signal intelligence that the ISI (Pakistani version of the CIA) was aware of him, the efforts of the Haqqani network and his general location. It was also evident that going into Pakistan to get him after the US had already violated Pakistani airspace and sovereignty during the operation to kill Usama bin Laden was not going to happen.

It was clear at the time he disappeared that he voluntarily left his post, it was clear that he’d left behind his battle gear including his body armor, his helmet, his weapon, and his night vision goggles. Rumors of a note being left behind denouncing his US citizenship and saying he wanted to go and help the Afghan people and not kill them existed but I’ve never spoken with or met anybody that saw or read an actual note…it’s always been I know a guy who read the note or saw the note or read a report about a note so I’m going to dismiss that for now. But based on the information of the day and subsequent interviews with his squad and platoon mates it’s as clear as clear can be that he purposefully and willingly left his post without permission. Today the Pentagon says the circumstances have yet to be clarified and I suppose that’s technically accurate in that because they haven’t spoken to him directly so they don’t 100% know why he left.

I think it’s also clear that the Taliban (I’m going to use the term Taliban from now on as we don’t when he was with the Taliban and when he was with their allies the Haqqani network) treated him poorly at different times and treated him well at times. We also know from signals intelligence that he attempted to escape and was successful twice suggesting that he once he was captured by the Taliban he did not want to remain with them. Again using the information gained from signals intelligence it would appear that his longest escape attempt lasted five days and when he was found he fought to avoid being recaptured so much so that it took 7 Taliban to subdue him. He was caged and beaten for a time after that attempt but he was also well treated at times playing soccer and taking target practice with an AK-47 provided by his captors. It would appear that like many former hostages that I’ve had the honor to meet and speak with, he for the most part did what was necessary to fit in, adapt to being the person his captors wanted him to be and was largely successful. The fact that he is still alive after 5 years suggests he was successful and the actions he took during captivity should not be questioned. Converting to Islam, pretending to care about your captors, making a connection are all things that come with being the Grey Man.

His parents led the charge to keep his capture in the media, out of frustration with the lack of effort by the US government they often took matters into their own hands reaching out directly to the Taliban, growing a beard, learning Pashtun and making sympathetic statements. Did Mr. Bergdahl go too far by suggesting that America should or would pay for the loss of Afghan children’s live on Twitter….maybe but I would argue that most parents will say or do anything to protect or save their children and that they should be cut a great deal of slack for their actions. In fact I would give them a great deal of praise for their efforts.

President Obama’s motives have been suspect from the beginning in my mind. Having come off of a very tough couple of weeks whereby his administration was under fire from both sides of the isle including normally very loyal members of his own party over the ever growing VA scandal I think he was given very poor advice when he appeared in the Rose Garden along with Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl to announce that now Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been released. I truly believe that he, and more likely his White House political team saw this deal and this public announcement as an opportunity to turn the news cycle towards the positive leading up to a foreign trip that would end with the D-Day remembrance which again would allow him to demonstrate his love and support of the veteran’s community. I can’t for a minute believe that the White House staff did not know the circumstances of the capture of then PFC Berghdal but like a kid in a candy store with no money they just couldn’t help themselves to the point of sending the hapless National Security Advisor and former UN Ambassador Susan Rice back out to do a Sunday morning talk show appearance where she again dutifully put her foot securely into her mouth by saying that he (Bergdahl) had “served United States with honor and distinction” which was like throwing gas on a smoldering fire. After the post-Benghazi talk show appearances you’d think she’d be better prepared but it would appear not.

Shortly after the Saturday afternoon Rose Garden ceremony members of Sgt. Bergdahl’s squad and platoon had taken to social media and to the airways to let people know this guy was no hero. Having been muzzled for five long years by a confidentiality agreement that they were forced to sign to prevent the circumstances of Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture from being made public these guys were fired up and wanted everybody to know that not only was Bergdahl no hero but that he was either AWOL or worse a deserter that had willingly left his post. When Susan Rice took it a step further and suggested that he had served with honor, a word that is sacrosanct within the military, all hell broke loose and those who were reluctant to go public did so with a fervor and soon it seemed that the President’s team had yet again led him down the wrong path looking to manipulate the news cycle. It was clear that the administrations normal attack dogs could not directly go after those who were also veterans and were there at the time so instead they moved towards the talking point of never leaving a man behind regardless of the circumstances that led to his capture. It was a good media tactic to follow and certainly got sympathy from MSNBC and CNN where hosts focused on the unknown circumstances of his capture, and the requirement and duty of the Commander-in- Chief to do anything possible to bring everybody home. While it may sway some it’s a straw man argument at best. What if the Taliban asked for all Gitmo detainees to be released or asked for a few dozen Stinger missiles? Would that have been approved? It’s ironic the President was attending the D-Day celebrations in the midst of this latest uproar and would probably be surprised to know that U.S. casualties on D-Day were: 2,499 dead, 3,184 wounded, 1,928 missing, 26 captured. Yes that’s right there were 1,928 men missing in action and therefore left behind not because commanders on the ground didn’t care or because President Roosevelt didn’t care but because the overall mission came first.

The President as Commander-in-Chief has a responsibility not only to those captured by the enemy but also to those currently serving and those who will serve in the future in Afghanistan and on any potential battlefield. By publically agreeing to immediately release five senior Taliban detainees that were being held at the Gitmo prison, two of whom were facing war crimes charges leveled by the United Nations he has put all serving soldiers at greater risk and made it clear where the bar sits for future negotiations.

The deal presented another problem for the administration as they are bound by a law signed by President Obama to provide Congress with a 30-day notice of any detainee release. The administration countered that due to the immediate nature of the decline in health of Sgt. Bergdahl and the speed at which the final deal was brokered did provide for sufficient notification. First the video that led the administration to believe that Sgt. Bergdahl was in imminent danger of failing health was taken in Dec 2013 and provided to the administration in April 2014 as a recent proof of life. Did the administration know that their recent proof of life was 6-months old and that his health had improved dramatically? Even so the way the deal was structured the US would be notified by telephone of the pickup site. It was three days before the call came which provided US forces with the location and the time that the exchange would be made. That’s 3 full days that the administration knew that a deal had been reached and while it doesn’t meet the 30 day requirement the law calls for, it’s 3 days during which the senior leadership of the Congress could have been notified of the circumstance of the release. One administration flack stated that they couldn’t get ahold of anybody in Congress other than Harry Reid who was notified on the Friday before the exchange took place on Saturday.

The idea that somebody, in the administration, couldn’t find the Democratic House Leader, Nancy Pelosi, or the Speaker of the House Boehner (who would be the President of the United States if something happened to both the President and Vice President) or Mitch McConnell the Senate minority leader is ridiculous at best and demonstrates willful deception at worst.

At the end of the day there are several questions and issues that need to be resolved.

  1. Update the initial investigation into the PFC Bergdahl’s disappearance.
  2. Should the initial investigation be proven to be accurate, charge him under the Uniform Code of Service Discipline as a deserter because to suggest that AWOL is more appropriate is to ignore the location and circumstances he was in when he left the OP.
  3. Sentence him to time served, but revoke his 2 promotions, back pay and benefits. Dishonorably discharge him as soon as he is considered fit enough for a discharge.
  4. Do everything possible to ensure Qatar lives up to the agreement to monitor the 5 former Taliban detainees for the next year.
  5. Apologize to the Afghan and American people and to Congress for misleading them about the circumstances of the capture and the decision to trade 5 senior Taliban operatives.
  6. Ensure that US citizens and the military operating on foreign soil receive the necessary threat warnings and protection they deserve after setting the bar so high for any future negotiations.

President Obama was looking to turn the page on negative press and instead just got a boat load more and in this case as in Benghazi scandal, as in Fast and Furious scandal, as in the IRS scandal, as in the spying on journalists scandal or the most recent VA scandal he and his administration need to be held to account by Congress and more importantly the main stream media. Pundits need to keep their eye on the ball and avoid the trap of commenting on whether or not Mr. Bergdahl’s beard or speaking Pashtun in the Rose Garden is anti-American. These were parents doing their best in the most difficult circumstance and instead focus on the circumstances of the capture of Sgt. Bergdahl, what the military is going to do about it and the details of the exchange. If the media and pundits can do this, those who naturally or instinctively protect the President will have little to yammer on about.