Bowe Robert Bergdahl (born March 28, 1986) is a United States Army soldier who was held captive by the Taliban-alignedHaqqani network in Afghanistan from June 2009 until his release in May 2014. The circumstances under which Bergdahl went missing and how he was captured by the Taliban have since become a subject of intense media scrutiny.
Bergdahl was released on May 31, 2014, as part of a prisoner exchange for five Taliban members who were being held at thedetention center at Guantanamo Bay. This exchange quickly became a political controversy within the United States.
According to The New York Times, a former senior military officer briefed on the investigation into Bergdahl's disappearance said that on the night he went missing, Bergdahl left a note in his tent that said he was leaving to start a new life. Fox News reported that the letter said that Bergdahl wanted to renounce his citizenship. According to SenatorSaxby Chambliss, the White House said there was no note during a meeting with Congress on the release of Bergdahl.
Bergdahl went missing on the night of June 30, 2009, near the town of Yahya Kheyl in Paktika Province. Accounts of his capture differ. In a video, Bergdahl stated that he was captured when he fell behind on a patrol. Taliban sources allege he was ambushed after becoming drunk off base; U.S. military sources deny that claim, stating, "The Taliban are known for lying and what they are claiming [is] not true". A Department of Defense spokesperson said, "I'm glad to see he appears unharmed, but again, this is a Taliban propaganda video. They are exploiting the soldier in violation of international law." Other sources said Bergdahl walked off base after his shift or that he was grabbed from a latrine. According to an AP article from 2009, theU.S. Department of Defense attributed his disappearance to "walking off his base in eastern Afghanistan with three Afghan counterparts and was believed to have been taken prisoner".
General Nabi Mullakheil of the Afghan National Police said the capture occurred in Paktika Province. Other sources say that he was captured by a Taliban group led by Maulvi Sangin, who moved him to Ghazni Province. He was held by the Haqqani network, an insurgent group affiliated with the Taliban, probably somewhere in Pakistan.
Bergdahl was a private first class when captured; he was promoted in absentia to specialist on June 19, 2010, and to sergeant on June 17, 2011.
Circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance
A Pentagon investigation in 2010 concluded that Bergdahl walked away from his unit. Bergdahl wrote e-mails to his parents in which he reported having become disillusioned with the war effort and bothered by the treatment of Afghans by American soldiers. He said in his e-mail he was ashamed to be American. Some sources say he left an explanatory note before leaving, though this was denied.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said: "The questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity" and that the military will investigate how Bergdahl was captured. "Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty.[...] Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family."
Some soldiers who served with Bergdahl have called him a deserter. Nathan Bradley Bethea, a member of Bergdahl's battalion wrote a Daily Beast article stating that there was no patrol the night that Bergdahl went missing, and that Bergdahl had talked about his desire to walk to India. Bethea wrote that the brigade received an order not to discuss Bergdahl due to safety reasons, but now that he has been found there is not a need for further silence. Cody Full, a member of Bergdahl's platoon, said "He knowingly deserted and put thousands of people in danger because he did. We swore to an oath and we upheld ours. He did not." Full said that Bergdahl had mailed his computer and other possessions home prior to his disappearance.
On July 18, 2009, the Taliban released a video showing the captured Bergdahl. In it, Bergdahl appeared downcast and frightened. ADepartment of Defense statement issued on July 19 confirmed that Bergdahl was declared "missing/whereabouts unknown" on July 1, and his status was changed to "missing/captured" on July 3. In the 28-minute video, his captors held up his dog tags to establish that the captured man was Bergdahl. Bergdahl gave the date as July 14 and mentioned an attack that occurred that day.
In December 2009, five months after Bergdahl's disappearance, the media arm of the Taliban released a video of "a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan" titled "One of Their People Testified". The Taliban did not name the American, but the only U.S. soldier known to be in captivity was Bergdahl. U.S. military officials had been searching for Bergdahl, but it was not publicly known whether he was being held in Afghanistan or in neighboring Pakistan, an area off-limits to U.S. forces based in Afghanistan. On December 25, another video was released showing Bergdahl in a combat uniform and helmet. He described his place of birth, deployment to Afghanistan and subsequent capture, and made several statements regarding his humane treatment by his captors, contrasting this to the abuses suffered by insurgents in prisons. He finished by saying that the United States should not be involved in Afghanistan and that its presence there is akin to the Vietnam War.
The Taliban originally demanded $1 million and the release of 21 Afghan prisoners and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist convicted in a U.S. court on charges of attempted murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan prisoners sought were being held at Guantanamo Bay. The Taliban later reduced its demand to five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl's release.
On April 7, 2010, the Taliban released a third video of Bergdahl, with a full head of hair and a beard, pleading for the release of Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo andBagram. In November 2010, Bergdahl appeared briefly in a fourth video and in May 2011, in a fifth video.
In June 2010, Bergdahl managed to escape his captors but was recaptured after five days. In August 2010, it was reported that a Taliban commander named Haji Nadeem said Bergdahl was helping to train the Taliban in bomb-making and infantry tactics. The Pentagon dismissed the reports as Taliban propaganda.
In December 2011, it was reported that Bergdahl had managed to escape again the previous August or September but was recaptured after three days. In June 2013, Bergdahl's parents received a letter from him through the Red Cross. In January 2014, the United States received another proof of life video dated December 14, 2013. In it, Bergdahl mentioned the death of South African president Nelson Mandela, showing that the video had been filmed after December 5.
According to soldiers from Bergdahl's platoon, fellow soldiers described an increase in attacks against the United States in Paktika Province in the days and weeks following Bergdahl's disappearance. Two Pashto-language leaflets were distributed by the U.S. military in seeking Bergdahl. One showed a smiling GI shaking hands with Afghan children, with a caption that called him a guest in Afghanistan. The other showed a door being broken down and threatened that those holding Bergdahl would be hunted down.
CNN reported that, according to soldiers involved in the operations to find Bergdahl, at least six soldiers were killed in the search. A spokesman for the Pentagon said that it is impossible to confirm whether anybody's death was directly linked to the search for Bergdahl, but said the Pentagon will look further into the circumstances of the deaths being associated with the search.
Due to resources being diverted to find Bergdahl, the closing of Combat Outpost Keating was delayed, which may have led to eight American soldiers being killed on October 3, 2009, after 300 Taliban insurgents overran the base. A former senior military officer disputed that the diversion of resources led to the attack, noting that COP Keating was in "a dangerous region in Afghanistan in the middle of the ‘fighting season’" and that "it is 'difficult to establish a direct cause and effect.'” According to The New York Times, "A review of the database of casualties in the Afghan war suggests that Sergeant Bergdahl’s critics appear to be blaming him for every American soldier killed in Paktika Province in the four-month period that followed his disappearance."
According to a senior U.S. official, Bergdahl told military officials that he had been tortured, beaten, and held in a cage by his Taliban captors in Afghanistan after he tried to escape. He told medical officials that he was locked in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time as punishment for trying to escape.
On May 31, 2014, Bergdahl was released by his captors and recovered by Delta Force, a Special Mission Unit component of theJoint Special Operations Command in eastern Afghanistan. The release was brokered by the American, Qatar, and Afghanistan governments with the Taliban, in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees transferred to Qatari custody for at least one year. On 10:30 a.m. (EDT) May 31, 2014, Bergdahl was handed over by 18 Taliban members to a special operations team in eastern Afghanistan, near Khost on the Pakistani border, in what was described as a "peaceful handover". A video of the handover was later released by the Taliban.
Bergdahl was treated by U.S. military medical staff at an undisclosed base in eastern Afghanistan. He was then transferred toBagram Airfield before being flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, for medical treatment. On June 13, 2014 he was flown by military plane to San Antonio, Texas where he was taken to the Brooke Army Medical Center to complete his recovery and reintegration.
The Taliban detainees – known as the "Taliban Five" – who were transferred from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to custody in Doha, Qatar, are Mohammad Fazl, Khairullah Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Norullah Noori, and Mohammad Nabi Omari. They were the Taliban army chief of staff, a Taliban deputy minister of intelligence, a former Taliban interior minister, and two other senior Taliban figures.
Some U.S. lawmakers have said that the prisoner swap that led to Bergdahl's release may have been illegal. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014mandates that all prisoner transfers from Guantanamo Bay require 30 days' notice to Congress, which was not done in this case. Though U.S. federal law states that the president must inform Congress at least 30 days in advance of any transfers at Guantanamo Bay, no notice was given. When President Barack Obama signed the bill, he released a signing statement saying that the restriction interfered with the president's executive power as commander-in-chief. The White House released a statement acknowledging that the release of the Guantanamo prisoners did not comply with the law but cited the president's signing statement, and "unique and exigent circumstances" as justification. One year earlier, Jay Carney (then-spokesperson for the White House) had assured the press that the decision to free Bergdahl would only be made after consulting Congress, in accordance with said law.
For months, U.S. negotiators sought to arrange the transfer of five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay detention camp to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The transfer was intended as one of a series of confidence-building measures designed to open the door to political talks between the Taliban and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.That move – at the center of U.S. strategy for ending the long, costly conflict in Afghanistan – was supposed to lead directly to Bergdahl's release. The Taliban has consistently called for the United States to release those held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for freeing Western prisoners. But the Guantanamo transfer proposal ground to a halt when the Taliban rejected U.S. conditions designed to ensure transferred Taliban would not slip away and re-emerge as military leaders. Ultimately, the Obama administration agreed to the prisoner exchange, allowing Bergdahl to be released on May 31, 2014.
Debate over negotiations
Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said he was "extremely troubled" and that "This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages". This sentiment was repeated by Congressmen Buck McKeon and James Inhofe, who released a joint statement saying that terrorists now have a "strong incentive" to capture more soldiers.
Anderson Cooper asked White House spokesman Jay Carney if it can "still be said that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists" to which Carney replied:
It can be ... because when you put on the uniform of the United States and you go and fight on behalf of your country in a foreign land at war, and you’re taken captive by the enemy, the principle that we don’t leave our men and women behind doesn’t have an asterisk attached to it depending on who’s holding you.
Cooper followed up by asking "Even if it was a group like Al Qaeda, there would be negotiations with them?" to which Carney replied:
What I’m saying is he was a prisoner in an armed conflict, and we were engaged in an effort for five years to try to recover him. As an admiral said on TV today, he said when one of your shipmates goes overboard, you go get them. You don’t ask whether he jumped or he was pushed or he fell. You go get him first and then you find out.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Bergdahl was a "prisoner of war" and that "We didn't negotiate with terrorists".
Time magazine published an article stating that the Taliban are:
[N]ot really a 'terrorist' enemy as we commonly understand the word. The group is not on the State Department’s official list of terrorist organizations and has long been a battlefield enemy in the ground war for control of Afghanistan. It is not plotting to, say, hijack American airplanes—even if it does have sympathies with people who are. Ditto the Taliban leaders released over the weekend.
Time pointed out that the United States and other countries have "negotiated with terrorists" multiple times in previous years.
In February 2014, CNN published an article discussing the possibility of releasing Bergdahl in exchange for the five Taliban, and concluded that "discussions about the release of Bergdahl with the Afghan Taliban are not directly with a terrorist organization per se, but instead with an insurgent group that has a terrorist wing".