- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

A U.S. soldier kidnapped by the Taliban is at the center of an escalating controversy about how he came to be captured - an event that could be a propaganda bonanza for the insurgents.

The Pentagon declined to comment on allegations that Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl left his post unarmed on June 30 before his capture in eastern Afghanistan.

“All I can tell you is, the conditions surrounding his capture are under investigation,” spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright told The Washington Times. “Its not wise at this point to reach conclusions prior to the investigation being completed.”

Military blogger Matthew Burden, who runs the BlackFive Web site, told The Times that the soldier “walked off [his base] with a water bottle and [a military ration pack] on some kind of he-man expedition.” He said he received this information from a contact involved in the massive manhunt the military has launched and confirmed it with two other sources.

Fox News military analyst retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters sparked a firestorm of controversy last weekend when he called Pfc. Bergdahl a “deserter,” adding that if that were the case, “the Taliban can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills” by killing him.

Outraged lawmakers of both parties wrote to Fox News demanding an apology for the comments. The 23 House members, all U.S. military veterans, wrote that they watched the comments “with incredulity and disgust,” adding that Mr. Peters view was “was repulsive and deserves to be repudiated by your news organization.”

The Republican signatories include Reps. Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter, both from California.

Mr. Peters told The Times Thursday that he regretted his remarks.

“I unquestionably over-spoke in the heat of the moment,” he said. “I hope Pfc. Bergdahl comes home safely for the sake of his family, and so he can face military judicial proceedings.”

Mr. Peters added that he had been angered by what he called the news medias “lionization” of Pfc. Bergdahl. “Nothing will make me back down from my conviction that Pfc. Bergdahl does not deserve to be made a hero.”

A Fox News spokeswoman, who asked that her name not be used, said the network had not received the letter.

Analysts say the controversy underlines the degree to which the soldiers fate is becoming a media spectacle, which could have profound implications for the way U.S.-led military operations are perceived in Afghanistan and around the world.

“Terrorism has always been theater,” said former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss.

Pfc. Bergdahl appeared, earlier this week, in a video released by his Taliban captors, saying he was their guest and being well-treated. He said Americans were being misinformed by their leaders about the situation in Afghanistan and urged them to demand the withdrawal of the U.S. military.

Mr. Voss, who now works for Insite, a New York-based security consulting firm, said the audience for the video was “people in the region and beyond trying to decide whose side theyre on” in the fighting between Taliban insurgents and the U.S.-led international coalition.

“Already you are seeing people saying this guy is being better treated than [U.S.-held] detainees at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib … If the U.S. government remains silent, those observations will stand.”

Mr. Voss said the video was “very well orchestrated … they are feeding him, there is nothing threatening visible.”

“They have put a lot of thought into this,” he added, saying the Taliban propaganda effort was “increasingly sophisticated, they are learning.”

“The Taliban do information operations better than anyone, certainly better than us,” said Mr. Burden. Meanwhile, the U.S. “military is focused on one thing and that is getting him back.”

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