On June 30, 2009, the day Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked into captivity, American forces in Afghanistan had not allowed a single service member to fall into enemy hands.
Since July 1, 2009, the U.S. has not had a second prisoner of war in that country — a remarkable record, given it is America’s longest war against foes who seek hostages.
The war has lasted more than 12 years, replete with hundreds of close-in firefights, Taliban ambushes, surprise raids on isolated outposts and a smattering of helicopter crashes. Nearly 850,000 U.S. service members have deployed to the land of the Taliban and al Qaeda, a mountainous forbidden place where the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were conceived and planned.
The Bergdahl release May 31 in exchange for five senior Taliban leaders highlights something not often talked about: For all of the setbacks in the long Afghanistan campaign, captured Americans have not been one of them. That is not to say the Taliban do not seek U.S. POWs for propaganda and, as seen in the Bergdahl swap, bargaining chips to free imprisoned comrades.
“The United States military has been a high-value target since the war began, and the Taliban has not been able to get their hands on our people for pretty basic reasons,” said retired ArmyGen. John M. Keane, who has advised commanders in the Afghanistan War.
Those reasons include: use of overwhelming force, quick-reaction rescue teams, sophisticated intelligence and old-fashioned heroism.
Also, the Taliban lack sophisticated anti-aircraft systems. Vietnam War POWs faced far superior Soviet-designed air defenses. The North Vietnamese were able to capture U.S. ground combatants, albeit with a much larger and organized land force, compared with the Taliban.
Still, the Afghan enemy, despite overrunning some posts and pinning down Americans, has not scored a capture in battle.
The U.S. military has gone to school on how to win quickly, all but ruling out the chance of capture. In Afghanistan, targeted compounds are attacked with large forces. Intelligence
systems blanket a site for days. Spy planes watch the action and relay live video to commanders. Backup ground and air units can arrive in minutes.
Nate Self, a highly decorated former Army Ranger officer, says another factor is that commanders strictly judge the risks before sending troops from forward operating bases, or “outside the wire.”
Mr. Self is one of the war’s first celebrated heroes: In 2002, he led a quick-reaction Ranger unit onto a snow-covered mountaintop to rescue a Navy SEAL who was on a mission to kill al Qaeda operatives. The SEAL had been shot dead. Mr. Self’s men ran into a hive of terrorists who engaged from all sides during a 15-hour-long gunbattle.
Mr. Self, who earned the Silver Star for valor and was a presidential guest at a State of the Union Address, said air power helps prevent the capture of any POWs.
“I think it was a combination of several factors,” he said. “We had overhead surveillance on the guys that were fighting there, even the ones who were isolated. We absolutely had air power to our advantage, which helped to curb the advances of the enemy and repel the enemy where needed. And we responded very quickly with a reinforcing effort. Timing there was everything. The POW possibility was very real in that battle.”
Tactics and heroism
Gavin West, a former Marine Corps officer who deployed to Afghanistan, said the way Taliban fighters engage in combat sometimes keeps them too far away to grab prisoners.
“When the Taliban does mount an attack, it is often in the form of an ambush, which they often conduct from significant standoff distance,” Mr. West said. “For instance, we would often find their [rocket-propelled grenade] firing positions at 300-plus yards from their intended target. Because of the distance, it made their fire less effective but allowed them to ‘hit and run’ often before we could bring maximum force to bear on them. It is a technique [that] does not lend itself well to taking any POWs.”
In some instances, it was not so much tactics as extraordinary heroism that prevented a capture.
In the 2008 Battle of Wanat, the Taliban penetrated an Army outpost and inflicted heavy casualties. But the surviving soldiers fought bravely, and helicopter gunships arrived to repel the invaders.
Wanat was just one example. Throughout the war in Afghanistan, the military has awarded medals for valor to personnel who stuck by and defended wounded buddies until rescue forces arrived.
Army Capt. William Swenson and his combat patrol team found themselves suddenly surrounded by 60 or more Taliban fighters in Kunar province in 2009. Capt. Swenson ignored the Taliban demand for surrender as he called in air support, stopped one enemy rush with a grenade, and recovered two wounded soldiers, preventing their capture.
“With complete disregard for his own safety, Captain Swenson unhesitatingly led a team in an unarmored vehicle into the kill zone, exposing himself to enemy fire on at least two occasions, to recover the wounded and search for four missing comrades,” reads the official citation for his Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest, awarded last year by President Obama.
Capt. Swenson lived the Army soldier’s creed, which says, in part, “I will always place the mission first; I will never accept defeat; I will never quit; I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
Charles Gittins, a special adviser to the defense secretary on POW affairs in the early 1990s, said intelligence is far better today than during Vietnam.
“We know the enemy deployment and strengths by use of drones, infrared, and other sensors, so we rarely enter a fight where we are significantly outnumbered and our position overrun as happened in Vietnam on many occasions,” Mr. Gittins said. “When a position is overrun by the enemy, the wounded typically end up POW or dead. Our tactics now in expected engagements are to use overwhelming force, whether it be ground or ground with robust air support. We don’t lose many engagements where we have good intelligence.”
Retired ArmyGen. Keane cited two battlefield components.
“No. 1, we win every fight that we’re in and we pick up their POWs on the battlefield versus the opposite,” he said. “And No. 2, the only other source of POWs would be to shoot our airplanes down, and they’ve have had very little success in doing that and, in that, being able to take prisoners.”
Asked by The Washington Times why no service member aside from Sgt. Bergdahl has been captured in Afghanistan, a U.S. defense official said: “Having one service member listed as missing-captured during the war in Afghanistan could be attributed to a variety of factors to include every conflict is different, the training of our quick reaction forces and their ability to quickly react to various situations, the majority of engagements are lopsided in our favor as we have the ability to call for fire support, and we take force protection very seriously.”
Now comes a new test. With the Bergdahl trade, the three bad actors in Afghanistan — Taliban, al Qaeda and the Haqqani network of terrorists — know the value of nabbing an American warrior.
Rep. Sam Johnson, Texas Republican, was held nearly seven years in the “Hanoi Hilton” by vicious communist guards during the Vietnam War.
This month, he sent an open letter to House members and senators quoting a Time magazine story that said the Taliban, fresh off the prisoner trade, more than ever want to capture American service members.
“Our worst enemies just confirmed that President Obama’s unilateral decision, in effect, put a price on the head of each soldier, sailor, airmen, coast guardsmen and Marine serving abroad in defense of freedom,” Mr. Johnson said. “From here on out, every single American, both military and civilian, has a right to be fearful.”