US soldier taken by Taleban may face life in jail

A still from a video of Bowe Bergdahl taken while he was being held in Afghanistan. Picture: AFP/Getty
A still from a video of Bowe Bergdahl taken while he was being held in Afghanistan. Picture: AFP/Getty
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The United States army sergeant who abandoned his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taleban could face life in prison if convicted of both the charges he is facing.

Sgt Bowe Bergdahl has been charged with misbehaviour before the enemy, which carries a maximum sentence of life. He was also charged with desertion, which carries a maximum of five years in jail.

Bergdahl could face a dishonourable discharge, reduction in rank and forfeiture of all his pay if convicted.

The case now goes to an Article 32 hearing to be held at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. That proceeding is similar to an investigating jury. From there, it could be referred to a court-martial and go to trial. A date for that hearing has not been announced.

The charges are the latest development in a long and bitter debate over Bergdahl’s case. They also underscore the military and political ramifications of his decision on 30 June, 2009, to leave his post after expressing misgivings about the US military’s role, as well as his own, in the Afghanistan war.

After leaving his post, Bergdahl was captured by the Taleban and held by members of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group tied to the Taleban that operates both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Last May, he was handed over to US special forces in Afghanistan as part of an exchange for five Taleban commanders who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and were moved to Qatar.

After spending two weeks recuperating at a US military hospital in Germany, Bergdahl was sent to Brooke Army Medical Centre at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. He has been doing administrative duties at the base, awaiting the conclusion of the case.

The prisoner exchange set off a debate over whether the US should have released the five Taleban members.

Little is known about what the five have been doing in Qatar, where they are being monitored by the government. Some politicians have predicted the five would return to the battlefield.

Afghanistan’s peace council in 2011 requested the release from Guantanamo of one of the five, Khairullah Khairkhwa, because it thought he might be able to help foster reconciliation talks with the Taleban.

Some within the US 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 other service personnel risked their lives – and several died – searching for him.

A major consideration was whether military officials would be able to prove he had no intention of returning to his unit.

US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “We have a commitment to our men and women serving overseas, or in our military, defending our national security every day, that we will do everything we can to bring them home, and that’s what we did in this case.”