Bowe Bergdahl: just a deserter, or did he try to join Taliban?
Pressure builds on Barack Obama as more rumours swirl about the motives of Bowe Bergdahl
If President Obama was not aware before of the military origins of the expression 'Snafu' - for Situation Normal All F***ed Up – he certainly is now.
The decision to swap Sgt Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban chiefs held at Guantanamo Bay on the basis that "we don't leave our men and women in uniform behind" looks like going down as one of the biggest Snafus of this administration.
Not only has the world learnt that Bergdahl was almost certainly guilty of desertion, but it is now alleged by at least one fellow soldier that he deserted in order to join the enemy.
Obama's National Security Adviser Susan Rice, it seems, could hardly have chosen a more inadvisable phrase when she described Bergdahl as having served his country "with honour and distinction". While the photograph of Obama appearing next to Bergdahl's bearded father looks likely to haunt America's 44th President.
At least six fellow soldiers died, according to the US media, in the bid to find Bergdahl after he disappeared from his post in Afghanistan on 30 June 2009. And if that were not enough, the family of one of those killed, Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, was apparently lied to by military authorities who tried to pretend he had died for a noble cause – on a mission to capture a top Taliban commander – not in a vain attempt to find a deserter.
And as the saga develops more twists and turns than an episode of Homeland, it now looks as as though the claim by Bowe Bergdahl's father that his son was having difficulty speaking English after so long in captivity was no more than a ruse to protect him from awkward questions. A professor of linguistics says, in essence, that only someone aged 12 or under could forget their mother tongue.
The story of Lieut Andrews
Darryn Andrews died a hero in Afghanistan on 4 September 2009 when he and his team ran into a Taliban ambush. Facing an insurgent aiming a rocket-propelled grenade directly at him, he could have dived for cover. Instead, he pushed his fellow soldiers aside and took a direct hit.
As the Daily Beast reports, his postumous Silver Star came with the citation: “Second Lieutenant Andrews fatally placed himself between the incoming enemy fire and his fellow comrades. His courage under fire was essential in saving another Soldier’s life, and saving the lives of five other Soldiers who were with him.”
Back home in Texas, Andrews left a son, not yet two, and a young wife, pregnant with their second child. They and his parents were told by the Army at the time that he had been on a mission to capture a top Taliban commander.
Only when the Bergdahl prisoner swap was revealed last week did the truth come out – that the Taliban commander had already been captured earlier in the day and that Andrews's unit was actually searching for Bowe Bergdahl, who had "slipped away from his post" two months earlier.
Did Bergdahl try to join the enemy?
Several weeks before Bergdahl disappeared, he was asking local villagers where he could find the Taliban because he wanted to join them, according to a claim made by a soldier writing on Oaf Nation. It is not yet possible to verify this account – but compared with a lot of articles and comments made in the wake of the prisoner swap announcement, it has the ring of authenticity.
"Here is what I know, not from hearsay, but because I was there," writes the soldier who says he was serving with the US Special Operations Command when he was called on to search for Bergdahl .
"Bergdahl became a sympathiser, walked off his post to seek out the Taliban in order to join their ranks, to help and live with them. In exchange for his release, the United States released the following five known Taliban - Khairullah Khairkhwa, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mullah Norullah Noori, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mohammed Nabi - who were immediately welcomed back into the Taliban network."
The soldier claims: "According to a few close friends of his and some letters he wrote home, he just wanted to find himself. Bergdahl left behind his weapon and other sensitive items, shipped his personal belongings home to Idaho, only taking some water and his knife.
"Bergdhal had simply become disenchanted with Army life and wanted to seek out the Taliban on his own free will. As more of the information came in, my unit, along with others in the community, simply stopped looking for him."
Obama and Rice 'just don't get it'
The fury of fellow soldiers is expressed by a retired US Army officer, Ralph Peters, in an article for the National Review. Addressing Barack Obama and Susan Rice, Peters says: "By trying to sell him [Bergdahl] as an American hero, you’ve turned a deserter already despised by soldiers in the know into quite possibly the most hated individual soldier in the history of our military. I have never witnessed such outrage from our troops."
Peters points to the fact that no one in Obama's inner circle has served in uniform. "Both President Obama and Ms. Rice seem to think that the crime of desertion in wartime is kind of like skipping class. They have no idea of how great a sin desertion in the face of the enemy is to those in our military."
The President, says Peters, "has so little understanding of (or interest in) the values and traditions of our troops that he and his advisers really believed that those in uniform would erupt into public joy at the news of Bergdahl’s release — as DC frat kids did when Osama bin Laden’s death was trumpeted."
Has Sgt Bergdahl lost his tongue?
Bowe Bergdahl's father Robert suggested when he appeared alongside President Obama at the White House – before the controversy broke – that his son was having trouble speaking English after five years in captivity.
But is it really possible for someone to forget their native language? The answer, according to Monika Schmid, linguistics professor at Essex University, writing for The Conversation, is that it would only be feasible if the person had lost contact with that language before puberty.
Anyone over the age 12 whose regular use of their mother tongue was interrupted "might have some problems accessing the correct words, they may become somewhat less fluent and they may develop a foreign accent – but none of these will seriously impair their functioning in that language." Bergdahl was 23 when he disappeared from his post.
Schmid writes: "Any problems that he [Bergdahl] may currently have, for example, remembering some English words, speaking with a foreign accent or making grammatical mistakes, are likely to be temporary, and to disappear quickly – probably within weeks."
This, suggests Schmid, is "good news for Bergdahl and his family". Given the questions Bergdahl faces when his convalescence is over, that is a moot point.