United States Army solider, Bowe Bergdhal, 29, will face a court-martial on desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Previous recommendations of a milder hearing such as an intermediate tribunal, or “special court-martial”, have been rejected. These recommendations would have protected Bergdhal so that he wouldn’t face more than one year of imprisonment upon conviction. Instead, he will face a general court-martial, which doesn’t provide this level of cushion. If Bergdhal is found guilty, he could face a life sentence.
Bergdhal left his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009, which led to him being a Taliban captive for nearly five years. President Obama traded five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdhal. This was a highly controversial decision that was scrutinized by the public and many in the military. Members of Bergdhal’s platoon stated that he didn’t “lag behind on a patrol” but simply fled his post on foot. This type of betrayal made many military personnel deeply opposed to the trade-off simply on principle.
However, President Obama felt the necessity to follow through on the prisoner exchange. This was also negotiated without informing Congress, which broke a law requiring a thirty-day notice on transferring anyone from Guantanamo Bay. President Obama has been adamant about shutting down Guantanamo Bay in his presidency and many pointed to this as a political move to that end. This controversy was a demonstration of civil-military tensions between the political agenda of executive authority and the core beliefs of the military. In addition, many in the military and intelligence community cited concerns about releasing these Taliban prisoners back into circulation.
Bergdhal has claimed that he left his post in search for a larger command to express concerns about poor leadership and living conditions. He asserted that not long after he walked away from his post he considered returning. Before doing so, he planned on gathering intelligence from the enemy to ameliorate concerns about his motives. The validity of his defense and his fate will now be decided through a general court-martial.
d. SAIIA Occasion Paper No. 187, May 2014.