Mainstream U.S. politicians and media were quick to condemn Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, after his years as a Taliban prisoner in Afghanistan were deemed “desertion.” But another possibility is that Bergdahl was captured after he left his base in a failed attempt to report wrongdoing, says ex-State Department official Matthew Hoh.
By Matthew Hoh
Last week, charges of Desertion and Misbehavior Before the Enemy were recommended against Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Tragically, Sergeant Bergdahl was once again crucified, without evidence or trial, throughout mainstream, alternative and social media.
Sergeant Bergdahl was offered as a sacrifice to primarily Republican politicians, bloggers, pundits, chicken hawks and jingoists, while Democrats mostly kept silent as Sergeant Bergdahl was paraded electronically and digitally in the latest Triumph of the Global War on Terror.
That same day, President Ashraf Ghani was applauded, in person, by the U.S. Congress. Such coincidences, whether they are arranged or accidental, often appear in literary or cinematic tales, but they do, occasionally, manifest themselves in real life, often appearing to juxtapose the virtues and vices of a society for the sake and advancement of political narratives.
The problem with this specific coincidence for those on the Right, indulging in the fantasy of American military success abroad, as well as for those on the Left, desperate to prove that Democrats can be as tough as Republicans, is that reality may intrude.
To the chagrin and consternation of many in DC, Sergeant Bergdahl may prove to be the selfless hero, while President Ghani may play the thief. Sergeant Bergdahl’s departure from his unit in Afghanistan may come to be understood as just and his time as a prisoner of war principled, while President Barack Obama’s continued propping up and bankrolling of the government in Kabul, at the expense of American service members and taxpayers, comes to be fully acknowledged as immoral and profligate.
Buried in much of the media coverage this past week on the charges presented against Sergeant Bergdahl, with the exception of CNN, are details of the Army’s investigation into Sergeant Bergdahl’s disappearance, capture and captivity.
As revealed by Sergeant Bergdahl’s legal team, 22 Army investigators have constructed a report that details aspects of Sergeant Bergdahl’s departure from his unit, his capture and his five years as a prisoner of war that disprove many of the malicious rumors and depictions of him and his conduct.
As documented in his lawyers’ statement submitted to the Army on March 25, in response to Sergeant Bergdahl’s referral to the Article 32 preliminary hearing (which is roughly the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury), the following facts are now known about Sergeant Bergdahl and his time prior to and during his captivity as a prisoner of war:
–Sergeant Bergdahl is a “truthful person” who “did not act out of a bad motive.” –He did not have the intention to desert permanently nor did he have an intention to leave the Army when he left his unit’s outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
–He did not have the intention of joining the Taliban or assisting the enemy.
–He left his post to report “disturbing circumstances to the attention of the nearest general officer.” –While he was a prisoner of war for five years, he was tortured, but he did not cooperate with his captors. Rather, Sergeant Bergdahl attempted to escape 12 times, each time with the knowledge he would be tortured or killed if caught. –There is no evidence American soldiers died looking for Sergeant Bergdahl.
Again, these are the findings of the Army’s investigation into Sergeant Bergdahl’s disappearance. They are not the apologies or fantasies of his legal team, Marines turned anti-war peaceniks like myself, or Obama fawning conspirators. The details behind these facts are contained in the Army’s report, authored by Major General Kenneth Dahl, which has not been publically released, but hopefully will be made available to the public after Sergeant Bergdahl’s preliminary hearing next month or, if the desertion and misbehavior charges are pursued, during his court martial.
Just what events Sergeant Bergdahl witnessed that would compel him to risk his life, traveling unarmed through enemy controlled territory, to provide information to an American general, are not presently known.
We do know that the unit Sergeant Bergdahl belonged to underwent serious disciplinary actions both before and after Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture, that several of his unit’s leaders were fired and replaced both prior to and subsequent to his capture, and, from communications between Sergeant Bergdahl and his family prior to his capture, Sergeant Bergdahl was sickened and distraught over the actions of his unit, including its possible complicity in the death of an Afghan child.
It is quite possible Sergeant Bergdahl left his unit to report a war crime or crimes or other serious crime or crimes committed by American forces. He may have been trying to report a failure of his immediate leadership or it may have been something, in hindsight, that we would now consider trivial.
Such an action on Sergeant Bergdahl’s part would help to explain why his former platoon mates, quite possibly the very men whom Sergeant Bergdahl left to report on, have been so forceful in their condemnation of him, so determined not to forgive him for his disappearance, and so adamant in their denial to show compassion for his suffering while a prisoner of war.
This knowledge may explain why the Taliban believed Sergeant Bergdahl had fallen behind on a patrol rather than deserted. If he truly was deserting, then Sergeant Bergdahl most likely would have told the Taliban disparaging information about U.S. forces in an attempt to harvest friendship and avoid torture, but if he was on a personal mission to report wrongdoing, then he certainly would not relate such information to the enemy.
This may explain why Sergeant Bergdahl told his captors a lie rather than disclose his voluntary departure from the platoon outpost.
This would also justify why Sergeant Bergdahl left his base without his weapon or equipment. Before his departure from his outpost, Sergeant Bergdahl asked his team leader what would happen if a soldier left the base, without permission, with his weapon and other issued gear. Sergeant Bergdahl’s team leader replied that the soldier would get in trouble.
Understanding Sergeant Bergdahl as not deserting, but trying to serve the Army by reporting wrongdoing to another base would explain why he chose not to carry his weapon and issued gear off the outpost. Sergeant Bergdahl was not planning on deserting, i.e. quitting the army and the war, and he did not want to get in trouble for taking his weapon and issued gear with him on his unauthorized mission.
This possible exposure to senior commanders — and ultimately to the media and American public — of civilian deaths or other offenses would also account for the non-disclosure agreement Sergeant Bergdahl’s unit was forced to sign after his disappearance. Non-disclosure agreements may be common in the civilian world and do exist in military fields such as special operations and intelligence, but for regular infantry units they are rare.
Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture by the enemy, possibly while en route to reveal war crimes or other wrongdoing, would certainly be the type of event an embarrassed chain of command would attempt to hide. Such a cover-up would certainly not be unprecedented in American military history.
Similar to the assertions made by many politicians, pundits and former soldiers that Sergeant Bergdahl deserted because, to paraphrase, he hated America and wanted to join the Taliban; the notion that he cooperated and assisted the Taliban while a prisoner of war has also been debunked by the Army’s investigation.
We know that Sergeant Bergdahl resisted his captors throughout his five years as a prisoner of war. His dozen escape attempts, with full knowledge of the risks involved in recapture, are in keeping with the Code of Conduct all American service members are required to abide by during captivity by the enemy.
In his own words, Sergeant Bergdahl’s description of his treatment reveals a ghastly and barbaric five years of non-stop isolation, exposure, malnutrition, dehydration, and physical and psychological torture. Among other reasons, his survival must be attested to an unshakeable moral fortitude and inner strength.
The same inherent qualities that led him to seek out an American general to report “disturbing circumstances” could well be the same mental, emotional and spiritual strengths that kept him alive through half a decade of brutal shackling, caging and torture.
It is my understanding the U.S. military’s prisoner of war and survival training instructors are studying Sergeant Bergdahl’s experience in order to better train American service members to endure future experiences as prisoners of war.
Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, was roundly lampooned and criticized last year for stating that Sergeant Bergdahl “served with honor and distinction.” It is only the most callous and politically craven among us who, now understanding the torture Sergeant Bergdahl endured, his resistance to the enemy that held him prisoner, and his adherence to the U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for five years in horrific conditions, would argue that he did not serve with honor and distinction.
The moral, physical and mental courage the Army documents in its report on Sergeant Bergdahl stands in marked contrast to those Americans who offered such a laudatory welcoming to President Ghani last week.
President Ghani, who stole the Afghan presidential election last year in a manner incredibly gross and titanic, received a hero’s welcome by members of both political parties, many of whom have vehemently argued that Sergeant Bergdahl should still be a prisoner of war.
As he did for President Hamid Karzai in 2009, when President Karzai stole that year’s Afghan presidential election, President Obama ordered a similar muscular and fiscal continuation of American support for President Ghani.
Like President Karzai, President Ghani’s government is composed of warlords and drug lords. Many of those in power in Afghanistan are like Afghanistan’s Vice President, Rashid Dostum, known war criminals, while others are simply men who made vast fortunes aligning themselves with war criminals throughout Afghanistan’s bloody decades of war, such as Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (Abdullah Abdullah proved himself a competent ballot thief in last year’s presidential election too and was awarded with the extra-constitutional position of Chief Executive).
For these men, for their power and for their profit, President Obama has ordered a slowdown in U.S. troop departure from Afghanistan. This will keep the government in Kabul stable, while the commensurate supply of American cash will allow the patronage network, which is the actual mechanism of the Afghan government, to function.
However, just as President Ghani needs President Obama to ensure the Afghan government’s survival, President Obama looks to President Ghani to help preserve the pretense that the United States has been successful in its war in Afghanistan.
With American policies failing quite spectacularly throughout the Greater Middle East, at the cost of the suffering of tens of millions of people, President Obama cannot politically afford to see the Afghan government, a government the United States put and keeps in power, fall. So, at least until he leaves office, President Obama will continue keeping the Afghan government artificially alive.
As President Ghani visited Washington, the great lie of a war being won, so often seen in any empire’s history, was evoked over and over again. For all the posturing of the Good War, particularly during President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and his time in office, the reality of the war in Afghanistan is that hundreds of thousands have died, including 2,356 Americans, hundreds of thousands have been maimed, mutilated and wounded, and while the psychiatric casualties will probably fully never be known, the assumption must be that they number in the millions.
Afghanistan under Western occupation has remained a nation without an economy, sustained only by foreign assistance. The only industry to speak of is the drug trade, which provides the world over 90 percent of its opium and heroin and in which the Afghan government is heavily invested. Each year, under Western occupation, the drug lords have achieved near annual record crop yields.
The Afghan insurgency has prospered as well under American and NATO presence. The military victory against the Taliban, promised and assured by successive American generals, never materialized and now the Taliban are stronger than at any point since 2001.
Fueled by anger at foreign occupation and the predations of a corrupt government dominated by ethnic, tribal and traditional rivals, the Pashtun people of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan continue to provide the support necessary for the Taliban to each year kill record numbers of fellow Afghans, both civilians and security forces.
So as President Ghani arrived with his hand out in Washington, the quid pro quo being the propping up of his regime for the propping up of the Lie of the Goodness of the Afghan War, Sergeant Bergdahl was tossed to the crowd.
The deaths of other young men are blamed on him, without obedience to the fact that those young men died because they were in a war in Afghanistan, not because of the actions or inactions of a 22-year-old young man from Idaho driven to follow his conscience, and, I would bet, his faith as well, by the absurdity, malfeasance and murder of the war. Meanwhile, our politics and media tell us if we possess a compassion for Sergeant Bergdahl and his family, then we cannot care or express love for the families of those dead young men. The converse is staked out as a universal truth and so our anger, frustration, confusion, guilt, shame and sorrow over the war are transferred onto pawns of individual suffering and sacrifice.
This war without purpose and without end; this war that was trumpeted as a crusade against evil, but, as can be attested by the moral injury that haunts me and my fellow veterans, living with the knowledge that the trope of evil can often be found in ourselves, has shown us as morally blighted as our enemies, even as the countless generals who sponsored and endorsed this war have never been held accountable for their failures or held to answer for their “optimism.”
There has always been an Alice in Wonderland like quality to politics, public perception and war, more so in this day of never-ending political campaigns and hyper-partisanship. Up is down, small is big, and so on.
Such a phenomena is of no surprise as Sergeant Bergdahl, President Ghani and the Good War are juxtaposed, but the reality is that the war has failed and is far from good. President Ghani is not much more than an election crook surrounded by murderers, drug kingpins and war profiteers.
And Sergeant Bergdahl, well, from what we now know, he may just be the only decent man in any of this, a young man who sacrificed and suffered in war and who is now called a traitor and coward, because he simply may have just been trying to tell some truth about the Good War.
Matthew Hoh is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy. A former State Department official, Hoh resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. strategic policy and goals in Afghanistan in September 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Hoh served in Iraq. When not deployed, Hoh worked on Afghanistan and Iraq policy and operations issues at the Pentagon and State Department from 2002-8. [This story originally appeared as a blog post at HuffingtonPost.]