- - Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Despite an official denial from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that a ransom was paid, the Pentagon’s inspector general last week moved a step closer to launching a formal investigation into charges that the military’s Joint Special Operations Command paid a large sum in a failed bid to win the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan last year.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee, has been pressing the Pentagon to investigate reports he first disclosed several months ago revealing that JSOC had made the payment to an Afghan national in the unsuccessful attempt to buy Sgt. Bergdahl’s release.

Defense and military officials have said the Army’s Delta Force secretive counterterrorism unit, working under JSOC, paid as much as $1.4 million to the Afghan. Analysts say that is much more than most payments made by the military to foreign informants for intelligence. The operation took place in the Afghan-Pakistani border region in late January or early February.

Sgt. Bergdahl was released in May after nearly five years as a hostage. He was traded in a controversial swap that freed five Afghan terrorists held at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

The Army is investigating whether Sgt. Bergdahl deserted his post in 2009 when he was captured, as members of his former unit have said.



William P. Goehring, acting assistant inspector general for congressional liaison, told Mr. Hunter in a Dec. 23 letter that investigators have begun contacting five military and civilian officials in response to a request that the inspector general review “whether a payment was either attempted or made in the return of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.”

“We take very seriously the allegations you have shared with this office,” Mr. Goehring said. “This agency will contact the individuals named in your letter to determine what further action, if any, is appropriate.”

Mr. Hunter welcomed the continuing inquiry. “There’s no doubt that the IG takes the allegation seriously, and I’m sure there’s little enthusiasm, within the Army and the Pentagon more broadly, for an investigation into what happened,” he told Inside the Ring in a statement.

“It’s still possible that the IG chooses not to take up the issue, citing a number of reasons or excuses, but investigators have an opportunity to set the record straight, as long as there is an interest and willingness to dig for the facts,” Mr. Hunter said. “In the preliminary [interview] meetings, the IG must not take ‘no’ for an answer.”

As disclosed by Inside the Ring on Nov. 19, the covert payment was made to an Afghan national claiming to be an intermediary representing the Haqqani network, an Islamist terrorist group that was holding Sgt. Bergdahl.

But instead of releasing the Army soldier, the Afghan absconded with the money, raising questions as to whether JSOC was duped and as a result ended up funding terrorism.

The inspector general official was responding to a letter sent Dec. 1 that identified five people, including one with JSOC, who Mr. Hunter said “have discussed and acknowledged the payment.”

Mr. Hunter’s Dec. 1 letter was sent in response to a letter in November from Mr. Hagel denying that a ransom was paid in the failed JSOC covert operation. However, Mr. Hagel appeared to sidestep questions about whether payments were made in the case.

“We have no information” that cash was given to the Afghan intermediary, Mr. Hagel said, leaving open the possibility that some type of payment — either a ransom or an informant reward — was made.

The Bergdahl release efforts were “fully consistent with our long-standing policy not to offer concessions to hostage takers,” Mr. Hagel said. Use of the word “concessions” as opposed to “ransom” raised further questions.

However, if the inspector general ultimately confirms the ransom payment, it would undermine a key tenet of the counterterrorism strategy against the Islamic State announced by President Obama in September.

The administration, through the Treasury Department, has launched a major push for foreign governments, corporations and families of captives to stop making ransom payments. Treasury officials estimate that Islamic State terrorists raised some $20 million in 2014 ransoming hostages.

A spokeswoman for the Pentagon inspector general had no comment.

Japan urged to go nuclear

The U.S. ability to use its nuclear forces to protect allies from nuclear attack is a myth, and as a result Japan should develop a limited nuclear weapons force to stave off blackmail from China’s growing nuclear forces, a top China affairs analyst says.

Arthur Waldron, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading authority on Chinese affairs, wrote in a recently published journal article that China’s aggressiveness toward Japan is part of a major territorial expansion by Beijing, whose military power is growing rapidly.

Over the past several years, China has stepped up anti-Japan rhetoric and military activities aimed at intimidating Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Mr. Waldron says the island dispute — large oil and gas deposits are at stake — reflects the larger problem of China seeking to dominate the region. In order to do so, Beijing is working to break up the defense alliance between Tokyo and Washington.

The alliance is under strain because the United States military is stretched thin by budget cuts and Middle East deployments, and the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia has been anemic.

The result is a series of Chinese policies and actions that are leading the region to a military showdown, said Mr. Waldron, who conducted extensive talks with senior Japanese officials several years ago.

Mr. Waldron, writing in the November edition of the Asia-Pacific Review, the journal put out by the Tokyo-based Institute for International Policy Studies, argues that better-armed U.S. forces in a conflict would quickly sink China’s new fleet of warships. But that conventional power disparity increases the risk of a U.S.-Chinese nuclear conflict.

With more than a decade of fighting in the Middle East, and pressure from the American business community to accommodate China, U.S. treaty guarantees are being called into question, and promises of U.S. military assistance and extended nuclear deterrence “are false and not to be believed,” he writes.

Japan should thus follow the example of Britain and France and build small-scale nuclear deterrent forces, Mr. Waldron said.

“No country with only a single nuclear missile submarine underway at any time would imagine that capability could help them start or win a war,” he says. “It is, however, more than sufficient to deter any attack for it threatens total devastation to the aggressor. Possession of such an asset makes nuclear blackmail impossible; lack of it makes such blackmail almost inevitable.”

“So the answer to our final problem, while difficult, is very clear,” he concluded. “China is threatening; U.S. extended deterrence is a myth; missile defense measures alone are not adequate. If Japan wishes to be safe, she must use the years ahead to develop an all around independent military capacity, including the sort of minimal nuclear deterrent that Britain, France, and other countries possess.”

Japan has an extensive civilian nuclear power infrastructure and large amounts of fissile material. Analysts say Tokyo could rapidly develop nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so.

A Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo said Mr. Waldron’s assertion that the United States will be unable to fully support Japan’s defense needs in the future is “not in line with what the U.S. and Japanese governments assume.”

“The development of nuclear weapons is also, politically, a nonstarter in Japan,” the official said.

Understanding Islamic State

The commander of U.S. special operations forces in the Middle East said last week that the U.S. military is failing to wage ideological war against Islamist terrorists.

“We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it,” Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata was quoted by The New York Times as saying. “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”

Other U.S. officials told the newspaper that despite recognizing the urgency of attacking the IS ideology, those efforts have produced no results.

The comments by the two-star general followed President Obama’s announcement in September of a counterterrorism strategy that included calls for rebutting the Islamist ideology motivating Islamic State terrorists. The president also called for the United Nations to develop over the next year a counterideology plan for use against Islamist terrorists.

Gen. Nagata’s comments are being viewed by some counterterrorism analysts as the culmination of a ban on discussion of the links between Islam and terrorism imposed by the White House three years ago. The policy followed criticism of an FBI training program and included a directive from the White House to the Pentagon to purge all military academies and service schools of lecturers and trainers who link Islam to terrorism.

Additionally, the White House ordered the Pentagon to conduct “cultural awareness” training for troops going to Iraq and Afghanistan that sought to eliminate Islam for all discussions of terrorism, according to an Oct. 14, 2011, memorandum from Jose S. Mayorga, assistant defense secretary for homeland defense.

The administration refuses to link Islam and the concept of jihad, or holy war, in governmentwide counterterrorism programs. Instead, it has required using the ill-defined term “countering violent extremism.”

Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

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