WASHINGTON (AP) — The Army sergeant who abandoned his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years will be court-martialed on charges of desertion and avoiding military service, a U.S. official said Wednesday.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will also be charged with misbehavior before the enemy, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the announcement on the record and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The charges are the latest development in a long and bitter debate over Bergdahl’s case, and underscore the military and political ramifications of his decision on June 30, 2009, to leave his post after expressing misgivings about the U.S. military’s role, as well as his own, in the Afghanistan war.
Desertion can carry a maximum penalty of death, but most military officials have said they believe that is not likely in this case.
The U.S. military planned an announcement at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which is expected to include the location of the court-martial.
After leaving his post, Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and held by members of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group tied to the Taliban that operates both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Last May 31, Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces in Afghanistan as part of an exchange for five Taliban commanders who were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
After spending about two weeks recuperating at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, Bergdahl was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas on June 13. He has been doing administrative duties at the base, awaiting the conclusion of the case.
The exchange set off a debate over whether the U.S. should have released the five Taliban members, who could return to the battlefield.
Sen. Lindsey Graham has said he had information that one of the five has already been in touch with members of the Haqqani network. All five are being monitored in Qatar.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a member of the Armed Services Committee, was asked by reporter Wednesday whether the charges raised doubts about the initial trade of Bergdahl for the Taliban members.
“I would think that it would raise doubts in the mind of the average American if those doubts weren’t raised already,” Wicker said.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl investigated the Bergdahl case, and spent months interviewing unit members and commanders, and meeting with Bergdahl and his attorney, Eugene Fidell, a military justice expert who is also a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. He submitted his report in mid-October, setting in motion a legal review on his report and how the Army can proceed.
The case was referred to Gen. Mark Milley, head of U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, and he has been reviewing the massive report for several months. He had a broad range of legal options.
Milley could have decided not to charge Bergdahl at all, recommend administrative action or convene a court-martial on more serious offenses.
Some within the military have suggested that Bergdahl’s long capture was punishment enough, but others, including members of his former unit, have called for serious punishment, saying that other service members risked their lives — and several died — searching for him.
A major consideration was whether military officials would be able to prove that Bergdahl had no intention of returning to his unit — a key element in the more serious desertion charges.
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