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Question of the Day
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
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