Monday, June 30, 2014

Sign Up the Geezers (Almost)

Army Reserve Sergeant First Class John Taffee recently made headlines when he graduated from basic training at the age of 55.  Taffee, a Coast Guard security contractor who spent 14 years in the Navy Reserve, had to complete basic to join the Army's reserve component and remain in the same pay grade (E-7).

And it looks like SFC Taffee may have some company, at least on the Air Force side.  The service announced last week it is raising the maximum enlistment age from 27 to 39 (for enlisted members).  Applicants seeking an officer's commission still must enter by 35, although individuals with needed skills (such as doctors) can obtain waivers and enter at a later age. 

The announcement was rather surprising.  The USAF has never had difficulty meeting its enlistment quota;  in fact, the joke among recruiters is that the typical Air Force office not only meets the quota for that service, it keeps the Army and Marine Corps busy as well, since candidates who can't meet the USAF's enlistment standards are often referred to the other services.

So why the change?  First, it's no secret that America (as a society) is getting older.  The vast waves of 18-25 year-olds who filled the nation's colleges--and military ranks--for decades have gradually dissipated.  To some degree, the armed forces are facing the same dilemma as those educational institutions that are now touting programs for "adult learners;" as the nation ages, it makes a certain degree of sense to go after demographic groups that will represent a larger share of our population in the years to come.  According to the Census Bureau, the number of Americans between the ages of 30 and 44 will grow by 5.8 million by 2023. 

As Morgan Housel noted in a 2013 column for The Motley Fool, none of this is surprising; it's simple demography:

"After the baby boom ended in the 1960s, the birth rate plunged. The baby boom peaked in 1957, when 4.3 million babies were born. By 1976, that number was down to 3.1 million. The sharp drop-off in births between the 1960s and the 1970s meant that the population of Americans aged 30 to 44 would decline in the early 2000s -- which is exactly what happened. But the birth rate tipped back up in the late 1970s and 1980s. By the 1980s, Americans were back to having close to 4 million babies per year. That cohort is now approaching its 30s, so the population of Americans aged 30 to 44 is about to begin rising again."

But--as we've observed in the past--accepting older recruits does have military consequences.  Many of us are less fit in our 30s than we were in our 20s, and it's a given that health problems increase as you age, a trend exacerbated by our sedentary lifestyle and obesity epidemic.  But relatively few people below the age of 40 are chronically ill, so the Air Force is confident is can find plenty of healthy, motivated recruits past the age of 30.  And since most airmen work in support roles (as opposed to direct combat), the USAF doesn't need large numbers of young people to fill infantry billets and positions requiring individuals in peak physical condition.

Older recruits also tend to be better educated and they (presumably) already have some experience in the workplace, so they should be easier to train.  But there are questions about their willingness to stay for the long haul, as opposed to pulling a hitch and heading back to civilian life.  Many of these recruits will probably take a pay cut from their last civilian job and--particularly if they have marketable skills--they will return to the private sector when the economy improves.  That doesn't provide much help with force experience levels and continuity--exceedingly important qualities among mid-level and senior NCOs, which form the backbone of the armed forces.  

But then again, the Pentagon has been signalling its preference for a more, shall we say, "transient" force.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been complaining about the high cost of the current military retirement system, which allows individuals to leave active duty in their late 30s or early 40s (after 20 years of service) and collect a pension for life that is equivalent to 50% of their base pay. 

Additionally, members of a DoD compensation panel recently recommended moving towards a 401k-style retirement plan, which would allow individuals to earn benefits for shorter tenures, with one catch: the pension checks wouldn't start rolling in until age 62.  Bumping up the enlistment age (along with other so-called benefit reforms) are aimed at reducing the retirement load.  An Air Force Master Sergeant (E-7) who retired at 55 would collect at least $300,000 less in retiree pay than his counterpart who left active duty at the age of 43.  When you factor in cost-of-living adjustments health care costs for retired service members, the savings are even greater.  Don't think those facts haven't been lost on the Pentagon bean counters who work the actuarial tables. 

There's another important reason the Air Force is raising its enlistment age.  It's becoming much more difficult to find youngsters in the prime recruiting cohort (18-to-25 year-olds) who meet the minimum standards of military service.  Recent estimates suggest that only 28% of young Americans in that age group meet entrance standards for the armed forces; the rest are disqualified due to such factors as the lack of a high school diploma, a history of drug abuse, the long-term use of certain prescription medications (such as ritalin), criminal records, obesity and an inability to achieve minimum scores on the military entrance exam.  Expanding the recruiting pool will make it easier--at least in theory--to find prospective recruits who can meet enlistment standards. 

It's worth noting that the other branches of service have not followed the Air Force's lead--at least not yet.  The maximum enlistment age for the Army (excluding prior service recruits) is 35; it's 34 in the Navy and the Marine Corps won't accept new recruits over the age of 28. 

But the Air Force is willing to take a chance, emphasizing that the expanded age range will allow it to maintain high standards for new enlistees.  And there's a certain truth in that; while the minimum ASVAB score for USAF enlistment is only 40, many jobs require a composite score of 65 or higher.  Given the failings of our education system--and the social pathologies evident among young adults--the Air Force is sending a signal that it won't be able to find enough high-quality recruits among that group to fill its ranks.  And given the (relatively) small number of airmen who will enter the service over the next decade, that is a rather damning indictment, indeed.                               




Lesson Learned (Barf Bag Edition)

What you eat does matter--particularly before a ride with the USAF Thunderbirds.  Air Force Secretary Deborah James recently experienced a "technicolor flight" with the Air Force demonstration team (official USAF photo).

Air Force Secretary Deborah James paid a visit to the Las Vegas area last week.  And, unlike her counterparts at the GSA, there was questionable or wasteful about the trip; Las Vegas is home to a pair of major USAF installations (Nellis AFB and Creech AFB) and missions that essential for the service. 

Creech, for example, is a major hub for Air Force drone operations around the world.  Many of the Predator and Reaper sorties flown over places like Afghanistan are actually directed by pilots and sensor operators stationed at Creech.  Nellis has been a key hub for USAF tactical training for decades; it is home for such major drills as Red Flag, Green Flag and the Joint Forcible Entry Exercise (JFEX), staged on the vast range complex, located north of the base.  The base also houses the USAF Weapons School (formerly known as the USAF Fighter Weapons School), which produces tactical experts in all platforms--and disciplines--related to air and space operations.  Our total air dominance in recent wars can be traced to the lessons taught (and practiced) at Nellis. 

So, it made a lot of sense for Secretary James to make a trip to Nellis, and it's a safe bet she'll return again before she leaves office.  According to the Washington Times, Ms. James saw--and experienced--quite a bit in Nevada, flying missions with crews of the E-8 JSTARS surveillance aircraft, and with rescue crews in HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.  She also got a look at training at the weapons school; as a graduate of that institution, I believe it should be high on every SecAF's visit list, given its impact on modern warfighting. 

But there was one other item of James's agenda, and apparently, it didn't go quite as smoothly.  To get the "full" Nellis experience, someone decided it would be beneficial for the Secretary to take a spin with the Thunderbirds during a training sortie.  The Air Force aerial demonstration team is also based at Nellis; due to recent budget cuts, the Thunderbirds were grounded last year, along with their Navy counterparts, the Blue Angels.  While the demo teams are back in the air again, it was decided that giving the SecAF a backseat ride might be helpful in securing future funding.

So how did it go?  Here's how Secretary James described her experience: 

“While at Nellis, I also was fortunate to fly along with ‘Thunderbird #4’ and actually participate in a scheduled practice with the entire USAF Air Demonstration Team. They are tremendous Ambassadors in Blue, performing in front of more than 100,000 in Oklahoma last weekend. I also learned to wait to eat lunch until after Thunderbird practice is complete!”

In other words, she barfed.  That raises an interesting question, namely, who cleaned up the backseat after her last meal reappeared in flight?  Protocol says if you puke, you clean it up, but its hard to imagine the pilot--or a a crew chief handing--some cleaning supplies to the SecAF, and saying "it's all yours, ma'am" (even if it was). 

But you've also got to wonder who decided to send Secretary James up in the wild blue after lunch.  Her experience took me back to my own days at the Weapons School; back in the 80s, the Air Force decided it would be a good idea to send non-rated types (intel officers, weapons controllers) through the program, and Your Humble Correspondent was lucky enough to be selected.  Sure enough, my class was the first to get back-seat rides in both F-15s and F-16s. 

As luck would have it, I was slated to be the second student to go up; one of my classmates was the first on the schedule, and his F-15 ride was very similar to what Ms. James experienced.  Making matters worse, he didn't switch off the intercom, so as the F-15 instructor (and his student) are going to the merge, all he can hear is Mr. Non-Rated in the backseat puking his guts out. 

After that, my mission became crystal clear.  Everyone--from my instructors to the F-16 IP I was scheduled to fly with--offered very straight-forward instructions: "whatever you do, don't puke."  And it was more than a matter of keeping the backseat nice and clean.  The Air Force was investing thousands of dollars in our training, including the flying hours associated with our orientation flights.  If the non-rated guys kept tossing their cookies, the backseat rides would end and (potentially) our presence at the school.  Back in those days, there are more than a few folks who believed that certain individuals who weren't pilots or WSOs didn't belong at the weapons school and they were looking for data to support that contention. 

With all that riding on my stomach, I took my F-16 flight a couple of days later.  We practiced lofts and laydowns, favored delivery profiles for nuclear weapons.  I had a blast, and managed to keep my breakfast (a granola bar) where it belonged.  I'm not sure if the non-rated folks still get backseat rides at the school, but at least I preserved them for a while. 

To be fair, the Thunderbirds do more maneuvering on a practice mission than I experienced, so you might say that Secretary James got a much "richer" experience.  Still, the profiles flown by the demo team aren't exactly a state secret, so you think that someone would have briefed her on what to expect, and cautioned against that giant salad or killer burrito at the Nellis O Club before the flight. 

Then again, we're not sure that Ms. James would have listened to such advice.  According to the Washington Times, a recent media profile disclosed that Secretary James earned the nickname..err, callsign..."Sledge" during her days as a staffer on the House Armed Service Committee for the approach she took to the job.  Maybe she figured if mere fighter pilots could handle a big lunch followed by high-G maneuvering, she could, too. 

Obviously, Ms. James figured wrong.  Pulling Gs is requires acclimation, and its best done without a full stomach.  However, we do give her credit for admitting that she barfed; more than a few VIPs have filled up an airsick bag (or two) in the back of an Air Force jet, and never admitted their "moment."  Chalk one up to a lesson learned the hard way, and we're still waiting for the Air Force to tell us who had the unpleasant task of cleaning up that backseat.                          


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Winning Formula?

Somewhere, former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley must be smiling. 

Legend has it that John F. Kennedy didn't know he had the nailbiter 1960 presidential race until he took a call from Daley on election night, and "Da Mare" addressed him as "Mr. President."  At that point, JFK knew he would carry the state of Illinois (by only 8,000 votes), and defeat Richard Nixon.  By various accounts, Mr. Daley and the Democratic machine, in the best Chicago tradition, stuffed ballot boxes and rigged to vote, ensuring Kennedy's triumph. 

Six decades later, the GOP establishment in Mississippi (apparently) took a page from the Daley playbook to drag incumbent Senator Thad Cochran across the finish line, and defeat Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel.  Unofficial returns show that Mr. Cochran--seeking his seventh term in the Senate--edged out McDaniel by just over 6,400 votes, out of more than 370,000 cast across the Magnolia State. 

According to the Washington Post, Cochran defied almost every convention of political wisdom with his narrow victory.  First, he managed to increase the size of the electorate in a run-off election, when there is normally a drop-off in voter participation; secondly, he brought more Mississippians to the polls by actively courting African-American voters, warning that Mr. McDaniel opposed food stamps and other social programs.  And finally, Cochran touted his seniority and the pork it brings home to Mississippi. 

But Cochran's victory was actually a study in sleaze and voter fraud.  McDaniel supporters noted that the number of run-off voters in Hinds County (which includes metro Jackson) far exceeds the number of registered Republicans in that county.  Cochran carried the county by 11,000 votes.  The incumbent also piled up wide margins in the Mississippi Delta, where African-Americans are a majority in many counties.  In one Delta locality (Jefferson County), turnout for the run-off increased by 92% (emphasis ours), and many of those voters were black.  By comparison, Mr. McDaniel increased his total in Hinds by only 1,000 votes and ran far behind Cochran in the Delta.  In the end, it was just enough Cochran to squeak by.

And how did Senator Cochran persuade large numbers of African-Americans to cross party lines and vote for him? By playing the race card.  John Fund of National Review posted this flyer, reportedly distributed by the Cochran campaign in black precincts: 

There were also robo-calls, with similar themes.  With Thad facing the end of his political career, the Mississippi GOP machine (with plenty of help from their buddies in Washington) pulled out all the stops, convincing enough Democrats--particularly black Democrats---to pull the lever for Cochran.
While party big-wigs congratulate each other on Senator Cochran's stunning "victory," they are ignoring a rather obvious question: how is this a winning formula?  McDaniel has refused to concede and may mount a write-in campaign in November.  Meanwhile, all of Thad's new-found liberal friends will return home in the fall and vote for his Democratic challenger, former Congressman Travis Childers.  Meanwhile, the odious tactics of the Cochran campaign may well keep thousands of conservative voters at home in November, and create a long-term rift in the Mississippi GOP. 
There is also the spectre of legal challenges and even criminal investigations.  In an interview with Brietbart, the chairman of Mississippi's Democratic Party almost begged McDaniel to contest the results, hoping that internecine warfare within the GOP will give Childers a chance in November. 
And don't be surprised if the feds get involved.  Republicans have been complaining about voter fraud for years; attorney general Eric Holder may not pass up the opportunity to bludgeon the GOP with one of their favorite issues.  Nothing like a full-blown investigation that could tar a number of key Republican officials and keep the scandal percolating through election day--and beyond. 
By most accounts, Mr. McDaniel's legal challenge may be on shaky ground.  After all, how can you enforce a Mississippi law that bans voters from voting in a primary if they have no intention of supporting the same candidate in the general election?  But McDaniel has every reason to feel aggrieved; Thad Cochran and his cronies did whatever it took to give him one last hurrah in the Senate, with little regard for the price to be paid by their "party."             

Monday, June 23, 2014

Fighting Back--the Right Way

Admittedly, we don't visit Wal-Mart's corporate blog very often.  But maybe we should; there's a recently-posted item that suggests the retailing giant may be taking a new approach with some of its critics and reminding us that "turning the corporate cheek" isn't always the best policy.

The item we reference is Wal-Mart's response to a recent op-ed in The New York Times by Timothy Egan.  As you might expect, Mr. Egan's column on Wal-Mart is a litany of the usual complaints about the company; workers earn starvation wages while senior executives rake in the big bucks; profits are excessive (and the Walton family is too rich), while rank-and-file associates have to rely on welfare to make ends meet.

Instead of ignoring the piece--or issuing some bland news release--Wal-Mart decided to do something a little different.  He critiqued Egan's piece much like an editor--or English instructor--pointing out factual errors, flawed sourcing and obvious distortions, all highlighted in red.

The "fact check" was the work of David Tovar, the company's vice-president for corporate communications.  "Tim--thanks for sharing your first draft," Tovar scrawls across the top of his review. "Below are a few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn't get published.  Hope this helps."

For his clever takedown of the Grey Lady, we'd say Mr. Tovar deserves a bonus or a raise, giving Egan more fodder for a future column.  But we also hope that David Tovar's colleagues in the corporate communications and public relations business are paying attention.  Despite that overwhelming urge to ignore critics, or be "helpful" by gently pointing out the company's side of the story, there are occasions when media snarks and critics deserve a little slap across the face.  And, if you can do it with a little style and flair (like Mr. Tovar), so much the better.

Clearly, Mr. Egan's column was an opinion piece, but it's equally obvious that he long ago abandoned any notion of fairness or objectivity towards Wal-Mart.  Indeed, we've always marveled that Sam Walton's big box chain has become the epitome of corporate exploitation and greed while competitors (helloooo....Target) get off scot-free.  Maybe it's because most of the political donations by Wal-Mart execs have gone to Republicans (or so we're told), while much of Target's political money finds its way to Democrats.  If Egan made a trip to Target, he probably find many of the same problems that are supposedly rampant at Wal-Mart.  But in the alternative universe of The New York Times editorial section, there is room for just one evil retailer, and that honor is reserved for the company in Bentonville, Arkansas.

One final thought: had we been in Mr. Tovar's position, there would be a little addendum to our critique, something along the lines of "Hey Tim: at least we have a business model that works."  At last report, Wal-Mart was both the largest employer and tax payer in America, and its economic muscle to force lower prices amounts to a 6.5% boost in household income for the nation's poorest families.   And by the way, that statistic comes from the liberal economist Jason Furman, appointed last year as Chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.  Hardly a member of the Vast Right Wing conspiracy.

As for The New York Times Company, not long ago it was begging Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim for a loan.  While digital circulations are on the upswing, the company has been bleeding red ink for years, thanks to such savvy moves as buying the Boston Globe for a cool $1 billion in the early 90s, then unloading it last year, at a fire-sale price of only $70 million.        



Monday, June 16, 2014

Setting the Stage for Another Snowden

It happens after every spy scandal, or inadvertent disclosure of classified material.  Congress passes a new law aimed at fixing the breach, the bureaucracy implements it, and....nothing really changes. 

The latest example of this trend can be found in the pages of Government Executive (h/t: Chief Buddy).  One year after Edward Snowden leaked some of our intelligence "crown jewels" to the media--and his new friends in Beijing and Moscow--we discover that the process of awarding security clearances is as screwed up as ever: 

"The three main companies performing employee security clearance checks for the Office of Personnel Management need to improve their case reviews and training to curb the number of investigations being closed prematurely, a watchdog said on Thursday.

The largest contractor, USIS, along with CACI and KSG, allow too many background check files to be submitted without review due to poor controls and staff training, according to a final audit dated June 4 by OPM’s Assistant Inspector General for Audits Michael Esser.

One contractor completed 15,152 background investigation reviews in one month, the bulk within minutes of each other on different days, the IG said. At least 17 investigation reports were not reviewed by the contractor in charge before being sent to OPM."

You don't need to be a Defense Security Service agent, or an investigator at OPM to see what's going on here.  The three contracting firms, under pressure to reduce backlogs of pending clearance investigations (for new personnel) and periodic updates (for those who already have clearances) is simply rubber-stamping background investigations, with little regard for what was discovered during that process.  When you're "completing" over 15,000 background investigation reviews in a few minutes, it's clear that contractors are pencil-whipping a lot of candidates through the system. 

If you've ever held a clearance, you know the background investigation is the most critical part of the vetting process.  After the applicant (or current holder) completes an exhaustive survey, investigators are supposed to examine all elements of the individual's life for at least the 10 previous years--and longer, if necessary.  All aspects of their existence are open to query, including personal associations, family relations, finances, education, travel and military service, just to name a few.  Questions developed by the questionnaire or through the background investigation are supposed to receive additional scrutiny, and if deemed serious enough, they may prevent the individual from getting a clearance, or retaining one that was previously granted. 

But that won't happen when you're closing thousands of investigations in only a few days, with little regard for required reviews and quality control checks.  According to the Washington Post, more than one million Americans have either a collateral (Secret) Top Secret or TS/SCI clearance, and with expected retirements in certain areas of the defense and intelligence communities, as many as 300,000 new applicants are awaiting initial adjudication, on top of current employees--and military personnel--who need to have their clearances renewed. 

Private contractors were supposed to ease this logjam, adding more investigators to the process and completing background checks more rapidly.  But some of their work has been shoddy, to say the least.  USIS, the largest of the clearance contractors, is being sued in federal court for fraud, accused of submitting more than 600,000 faulty or poorly-reviewed background checks over a four-year period.  In case you're wondering, USIS is the same firm that conducted background investigations on Snowden and Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. 

Can this mess be fixed?  Congress is offering even more legislation, but we think there's a better approach.  First, end the privatization process.  Take clearance investigations away from OPM (which has demonstrated it can't handle the job) and give it back to DoD.  Expand the Defense Security Service and put them back in charge of clearance investigations.  The process was more efficient when DSS's predecessor (the Defense Investigative Service) was in charge, and the same level of professionalism and competence can be regained with the agency in charge. 

It's a rare day when this blog calls for expansion of the federal bureaucracy.  But in this case, we believe, creating cadre of competent investigators (based on the old DIS model) would eliminate many of the problems being experienced through privatization scheme.  And one thing: it's time to end the "hurry up and get it done" approach to clearance adjudication.  Not long ago, it took an average of  six months to a year to clear someone for Secret material, and 18-24 months to grant a TS/SCI clearance.  With more Snowdens lurking out there, it's better to carefully examine someone's background, associations and beliefs before granting the clearance, instead of simply rubber-stamping a massive stack of background investigations to meet an arbitrary deadline.   
ADDENDUM:  If all this isn't bad enough, there is at least one giant loophole in the clearance investigation process that remains open: social media.  Edward Snowden's on-line profile included frequent rants about privacy and intrusive government, but investigators never checked his presence on Facebook, Twitter and other social media forums.  The Washington Times reported earlier this year that investigators are still officially barred from looking at the social media profile of a clearance holder or applicant.  The Obama Administration has stated it will test social media (as a part of investigation process) in the near future.                      


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Saving Kurdistan

A convoy of ISIS fighters rolls toward the conquest of another Iraqi city.  As government security forces dissolve, the Kurdish Peshmerga may be the only military forces capable of defeating the terrorists.   

Describing the current ground situation in Iraq as "grim" is tantamount to calling the Titanic disaster a minor boating mishap.  Fresh from their recent victories in western Iraq--and buttressed by thousands of fighters who poured across the border from Syria--the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has conquered wide swaths of Iraqi territory in only a matter of days.  Mosul, the nation's second-largest city, fell yesterday, prompting thousands to flee, including many of the Iraqi security forces assigned to protect the area.

According to witnesses, U.S.-trained (and equipped) Iraqi soldiers and police offered no resistance in many cases; they simply dropped their weapons--or handed them to the terrorists--and ran.  Never mind that they far out-numbered the terrorists and were better armed.  In most cases, the conquest only required a call from gunmen to tribal leaders advising security forces to lay down their arms and surrender.  In the few areas where police and troops put up a fight, there were reports of mass beheadings.

Since taking Mosul, ISIS formations have captured Tikrit (the citadel of Saddam Hussein's regime) and portions of Baiji, a major oil refining center and home to a powerplant that supplies Baghdad.  Looking at a map of the recently-taken areas, it's abundantly clear that the terrorists next objective will be the Iraqi capital.

As the security forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continue to crumble, there is concern that no group in Iraq is capable of stopping the terrorists.  And it's hard to disagree; most of Shia-dominated police and military formations have melted away in the face of attacks by Sunni terrorists.  There are some elite units in Baghdad that may put up a fight, but they may be too few in number to stop the ISIS onslaught.  Indeed, press reporting from Baghdad indicates that Mr. Maliki has suggested passing out weapons to civilians--anyone--willing to take on the terrorists.  Sources told The New York Times that the Iraqi Prime Minister asked for U.S. airstrikes against the advancing ISIS formations, but that request was rebuffed.

At this juncture, the only force believed capable of defeating the terrorists are the Peshmerga, which defend the semi-autonomous Kurdish homeland along Iraq's northern border.  Peshmerga units have intervened in the past to help the Iraqi government fight insurgents, but with the recent spat between Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurds may be less willing to help al-Maliki in a crisis they largely blame on the Prime Minister.

But the Kurds also recognize the danger posed by the ISIS and have been working with the few, remaining "moderate" elements in Syria's civil war to blunt the terrorist surge.  They have also stepped up security along the border of their region in northern Iraq, turning away refugees from Mosul and other locations overrun by the ISIS, fearing that militants will infiltrate their territory.  Kurdish officials also claim they could have defeated the terrorists in Mosul, if the Maliki government had requested their assistance--and if the Iraqi leader had made a greater effort to resolve disputes with the Kurds.

Which brings us to the salient point: the Peshmerga fought alongside U.S. forces in Iraq, and established themselves as a very competent military force (they claim that not a single American soldier died in territory defended by the Kurds) and this time around, they may be the only thing that can save Iraq from a complete collapse and takeover by the terrorists.  But given long-standing animosity between the Kurds and the Arab majority, it's unclear if Baghdad will give the Peshmerga the authority to do the job; additionally, the Kurds would face the challenge of deploying significant number of troops to other areas (read: Baghdad) while defending their home territory.  The Peshmerga would also lack the air cover and ISR support they enjoyed while U.S. troops were in Iraq.

Put more succinctly, it may be too late to stop an ISIS takeover of the capital.  What after that?  Iran may occupy southern Iraq, gaining territory--and the Shia population--it has long sought; the terrorists will control most of what's left, with the exception of Kurdistan in the north.  That's why Washington needs a Kurdish policy, and quickly.  Writing at Foreign Policy, John Hannah articulated the requirement very well, in an article published two years ago (emphasis ours).  A brief excerpt:

Say what you will about the American project in Iraq, its application in Kurdistan was well down the path toward success. As happened in Germany, Japan and South Korea after World War II, a few decades of intense American engagement had begun working wonders for the Kurds. Excellent security -- indeed, not a single U.S. combat death in areas under Kurdish control. A booming economy with growing levels of foreign investment. And an emerging democracy that, while far from perfect, has seen real opposition parties emerge, as well as a burgeoning civil society and media. Yes, corruption, lack of accountability, and uneven development remain serious problems. But certainly no worse than, say, South Korea circa the 1970s, at a similar point in that country's experience under America's wing.  
Properly nourished, Iraqi Kurdistan has all the makings of a U.S. strategic asset. Iraq's Arabs may have been profoundly ambivalent about a continued role for American troops. But not the Kurds, whose leaders loudly proclaimed their desire for a permanent U.S. presence, and whose population of some 5 million is overwhelmingly pro-American. Sharing borders with Iran and Syria, Kurdistan could play a vital role in U.S. strategy to combat the serious threats now emanating from those anti-American regimes. Kurdish security and intelligence forces are competent and battle-hardened, and after years of cooperation have built up excellent working relations with their U.S. counterparts, including in fighting Al Qaeda. And sitting atop 40-50 billion barrels of oil, Kurdistan is poised to become one of the world's largest petroleum producers, a major contributor to global energy security.  

Confident in its U.S. backing, Kurdistan could serve as both engine and anchor for the rest of Iraq's democratic development. But America's precipitous retreat has left behind a dangerous vacuum, a potential breeding ground for destructive acts of self-help that could easily spiral out of control That vacuum urgently needs to be filled by a concerted American strategy to define a new, "special" relationship with Iraq's Kurds.

At this juncture, it's not hard to imagine Kurdistan as one of our few, reliable allies in a very dangerous part of the world.  But Washington has always been reluctant to create such a relationship, for fear of complicating relations with Turkey (our erstwhile NATO ally); Iraq's Arab majority, or even countries like Iran and Syria.  

And the Kurds are not without their faults; in a 2008 article, Michael Rubin did an excellent job detailing problems with Kurdish leadership, to include corruption, cronyism, and even past cooperation with tyrants like Saddam Hussein.  But in a more recent Wall Street Journal article (published four months ago), Mr. Rubin identified the Kurds as "best bet," both in Iraq and Syria.    

Or perhaps we should say, our only bet.  The American experiment is apparently finished, thanks to the Obama Administration's unwillingness to maintain a U.S. military presence, and the corruption and incompetence of Mr. al-Maliki and his security forces.  But a secure and prosperous Kurdistan is worthy of our support and protection.  It is the one, shining success story of our long involvement in Iraq.  But, as the ISIS advances on Baghdad, the Kurds must rightly worry: what will Washington do when the terrorists (inevitably) come after them?  
ADDENDUM:  Similar thoughts from former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, writing in Politico magazine; he observes that one long-standing barrier to a Kurdish state in northern Iraq has seemingly been removed:

Ten years ago, the United States and Turkey opposed Kurdistan exercising even a fraction of the autonomy it has today. Bush administration plans for postwar Iraq (to the extent that there was any planning at all) envisioned Iraq as a centralized federal state of 18 governorates—where there would be Kurdish majority provinces but no Kurdistan government. Turkey had long opposed Kurdistan’s autonomy for fear of the example it might set for Turkey’s 15 million Kurds.

Today, Kurdistan and Turkey are the closest of allies. Turkey is Kurdistan’s most important trading partner and Turkish companies are the largest investors in Kurdistan. Turkish intelligence and military officials consult regularly with their Kurdish counterparts. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a close personal relationship with KRG President Massoud Barzani and a poisonous one with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In advance of Turkish elections, Erdogan and Barzani jointly addressed a large public rally in Diyabakir, the largest city in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast and Kurdistan is playing a constructive role in support of Erdogan’s effort to make peace with Turkish Kurdish rebels.

Earlier this week, a spokesman for Turkey's ruling party said Ankara would support the Kurds bid for self-rule, preferring an independent, secular, secure (and oil-rich) Kurdistan to the chaos that is The Rest of Iraq.  It should be noted that Mr. Galbraith is a long-time adviser to the Kurdish Regional Government and financial interests in the region.  But he's absolutely spot-on in regard to Kurdistan, and the role in must play in future U.S. relations in the Middle East.     


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Today's Reading Assignment

..The estimable Ralph Peters, writing at National Review online, examines how the Obama Administration has made a mockery of military honor with the Bowe Bergdahl case.  A brief excerpt:

"If this administration cannot embrace our military, might it not at least stop insulting those in uniform? No soldier is finally judged to have served “with honor and distinction” until his or her service is complete. There’s a glaringly obvious reason for that.

Of course, we’ve heard a series of increasingly ugly comments from White House staffers as their lionization of Bergdahl has collapsed. Administration hacks who have never served our country in any useful capacity stage-whispered that right-wing activists were “swiftboating” the reputed deserter. In fact, it was the other way around: The real character assassinations were launched from the White House, and they targeted soldiers from Bergdahl’s platoon who had, indeed, served with honor and distinction. Those courageous young men stood up for justice, refusing to allow the administration’s blithe betrayal of military values to prevail. In response, White House loyalists insinuated that Bergdahl’s comrades in arms might be psychopathic. This is Chicago politics leveled against truly honorable soldiers — yet more evidence of this president’s disdain for those in uniform.

Then, on Sunday, the New York Times front page — once again indistinguishable from its self-abusing editorial pages — snarked that Bergdahl’s unit was “known for its troubles” and that (Lord preserve us!) the soldiers in Bergdahl’s battalion, on dangerous duty at a harsh outpost, weren’t always properly attired. Well, ending the draft was great for our military, but dreadful for the country. Anyone who had served even a couple of months as a private at Fort Hood would grasp that soldiers sweating on sunbaked ground in eastern Afghanistan generally do not display the spit and polish of the Old Guard drill team performing in Washington, D.C.

And perhaps those bold reporters from the New York Times would like to criticize the imperfect field uniforms of SEAL Team Six or our Special Forces? To their faces."

Lt Col Peters also outlines how Bergdahl may beat any charges filed against him by the military--with a little help from the White House:

"First, the White House will pressure the military to deem Bergdahl unfit to stand trial. That stage is already being set. After doctors treating him declared Bergdahl physically fit to return home (guess he wasn’t dying, after all), they’ve kept him secluded in Germany, making it known that he is in their view mentally unprepared to return to the States. The administration is going to go with the defense that Bergdahl is unbalanced, was unbalanced, and will be unbalanced.

If military doctors refuse to play along, “impartial civilian experts” will be called in. If that doesn’t work and the “too crazy to court martial” defense flops, the next step will be to strong-arm the Pentagon to reduce any charge to the comparatively minor Absent Without Leave, or AWOL (although overwhelming evidence exists that Bergdahl deserted). Then Bergdahl’s lawyers could plead him out, retain some benefits (perhaps all of them) for him, and the administration can claim, “See! He wasn’t a deserter after all.”

If some unexpectedly ethical general refuses to play along and the case goes to a court-martial, the administration’s fallback will be to insist on a “thorough” reinvestigation that pushes any court-martial past Obama’s 2017 departure from office (one suspects that Team Obama would love to dump this in Mrs. Clinton’s lap)."

Sadly, I can't disagree with Peters' scenario.  We've been to the same rodeos and watched the brass fold like a cheap suit in the face of political pressure.  It's very clear that Mr. Obama and his advisers want the Bergdahl mess tidied up as soon as possible, and an Article 32 investigation--and subsequent courts-martial--don't fit into their plans.  If Bowe Bergdahl spends any time in jail--and that is highly doubtful--his stint behind bars will be very brief.  And a presidential pardon can't be ruled out, either.  Mr. Obama's recent body language suggests he is angry over criticism of the Bergdahl deal, and would be glad to pardon Bergdahl, just to stick another finger in the eye of his opponents. 

As Peters observes, evidence supporting Bergdahl's collaboration with the enemy has long been suppressed, and the Army led that charge, launching efforts to him the private as a "noble POW."  Mr. Obama's political operatives were only happy to embrace the big lie and now the question becomes: does anyone have the guts to tell the truth about Bergdahl's disappearance and subsequent relations with his captors. 

Don't hold your breath.         

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Return of the Master

Guess I should spend a little more time reading the comics.

Like a lot of folks, my time with the funny papers begins--and ends--with Dilbert.  Simply stated, Scott Adams is the best comic strip artist and writer of his generation; if you can't relate to Dilbert, Wally, Dogbert, the Pointy-Haired Boss and the rest of the gang, you've never worked in a cubicle, or been part of some soul-stealing corporation or government bureaucracy.

But before Scott Adams, there was Bill Watterson and "Calvin and Hobbes."  The adventures of six-year-old Calvin and his imaginary tiger friend, Hobbes, were appointment reading for millions of fans around the world, beginning in the mid-1980s.  Almost thirty years later, most can recall a memorable strip (or strips); Calvin as Spaceman Spiff; battles with his rival, Susie Derkins, the long, boring hours in the classroom with his teacher, Miss Wormwood, or just the give-and-take with Hobbes.  Watterson had a genuine gift for poking fun at almost everyone--and everything--as illustrated by one of our favorite installments:

The gags were clever, the artwork was often amazing, and effort was even more impressive when you consider that Watterson did everything himself.  No writers to help with the jokes; no art assistants to help with the drawing or inking. Bill Watterson remarked that "he put everything he had" into the strip, and no one could dispute that claim.

Watterson was also unique among comic strip artists, refusing licensing deals for his characters, a decision that cost him tens of millions of dollars, though various collections of Calvin and Hobbes have sold extremely well.  For fans of the strip, those volumes are all we've had for the past 19 years; Watterson retired the strip at the height of its popularity in 1995.  Since then, he has focused on painting and music, declining all requests for interviews and new projects involving his characters. Legend has it that Watterson refused a call from Steven Spielberg.

As for new strips, that appeared to be an impossibility.  When Calvin and Hobbes shoved off on that last toboggan run in 1995, Watterson signaledhat he was moving on as well.

But in recent weeks, there have been a couple of unexpected events.  First, the reclusive Mr. Watterson contributed poster art (and an interview) for "Stripped," a new documentary exploring the migration of comics from print to on-line.  And this past week, readers of Pearls Before Swine got a real treat.  Stephan Pastis, the creator of the strip, supposed "surrendered" the art portion of his strip to a precocious second-grader named Lib (that's almost "Bill" spelled backwards, as he observed).
Pastis, a former attorney, frequently makes fun of his artistic skills, so Lib's claims that she could do a better job was a riff on a long-running gag.

The substitute artist bit was Watterson's idea, and predictably, Lib/Bill executed her portions of the strip in the unmistakable style of "Calvin and Hobbes."  You can see the strips here, here and here.

Could this foretell a return by Watterson?  That's probably too much to hope for, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of the master.                      

Friday, June 06, 2014

"The Man Who Won the War for Us"

American troops prepare to go ashore in a Higgins Boat on D-Day, June 6, 1944

They remain iconic images of the "Longest Day:" American GIs, gathered behind the ramp of their landing craft, ready to splash ashore in Normandy.   Other photos, taken just moments later, capture the same men, wading through the surf towards the beach.  Many never made it; killed by German machine gun or artillery fire, or by simply stepping into an unseen hole in the sandy bottom; with more than 50 pounds of equipment on their backs, a soldier who slipped beneath the surface was likely to drown.

Given the immense human drama of D-Day, little thought is given to the miracles of organization, logistics and technology that delivered troops to the invasion beaches of northern France.  Operation Overlord came barely 30 months after America's entry into World War II.  On the eve of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army had only 600,000 men, many of them recent conscripts who were poorly equipped and inadequately trained.  Two-and-a-half years later, there were almost five million American soldiers serving overseas, organized into 80 divisions (emphasis ours).  While many of those formations were still green, there were plenty of battle-hardened units with combat experience in northern Africa, Sicily, Italy and the Pacific, among other locations.

Virtually all of those campaigns began with amphibious landings, and the difficult task of moving personnel and equipment from ship to shore.  While the Marine Corps and the Army would provide the troops, tanks, artillery, vehicles and supplies, the job of getting everything to the beach rested with the U.S. Navy, which had its own ideas about the "right types" of amphibious craft to get the job done.  Unfortunately, most of the American landing craft of the early 1940s were poorly designed and had a nasty tendency to capsize in heavy surf.

But an American entrepreneur had a better idea.  Andrew Jackson Higgins wasn't a naval architect by training; in fact, he dropped out of high school in Columbus, Nebraska after his junior year.  Interested in ships and timber, Higgins migrated to the Gulf Coast, where he became a successful importer and exporter of wood.  He also built a shipyard to service the vessels that carried his timber to distant markets.

Settling in New Orleans (where his shipyard was located), Higgins became aware of the pressing need for shallow-draft boats that could be used by trappers and the oil industry.  By this time, Higgins had completed several correspondence courses in ship design; that training, coupled with his own experience, allowed Higgins to develop a flat-bottomed model he called a "Eureka boat" that proved to be extremely popular with trappers and the oil companies.  It also attracted the attention of the Marine Corps, which foresaw the vast amphibious operations that would characterize war in the Pacific.  Not only could Higgins' craft keep going over such obstacles as sand bars and small logs; its motor was powerful enough to pull the craft off the beach after the Marines went ashore.

The Navy, however, refused to budge and Higgins appealed to then-Senator Harry Truman.  That set the stage for the "Battle of Norfolk," a competition between a Navy landing craft and a Higgins boat in May, 1942.  Both were assigned to put a 30-ton tank on the beach, through rough seas.  The Navy-designed craft almost foundered; at one point, sailors lined the sides, preparing to jump overboard if their boat began to sink. Higgins' design performed flawlessly, and his company received orders for thousands of additional landing craft.

To meet the demand, Higgins greatly expanded his New Orleans shipyard.  In the late 1930s, he had less than 100 employees at the facility; by 1943, more than 25,000 were working in the yard, producing various types of landing craft, PT boats and other light vessels for the war effort.  Higgins' workforce was completely integrated--virtually unheard of in a southern shipyard of that era--and regardless of their background, all workers doing the same job received equal pay.

On D-Day, most of the landing craft that ferried troops and equipment ashore were the Higgins design, and many came from his yard in New Orleans.  The two-fisted, hard-drinking man who told the Navy it "didn't know a damned thing about small boats" had revolutionized warfare.  No longer were amphibious forces required to attack through heavily-defended ports, to reach docks where troops and equipment could be off-loaded.  With Higgins' LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle/Personnel) and larger LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank), amphibious attacks could be planned over wider areas, complicating enemy defenses.  Even Adolf Hitler acknowledged Higgins' contribution to the war effort, referring to him as "the new Noah."  General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the Normandy  invasion, put it more succinctly, calling Andrew Higgins "the man who won the war for us." 

After the war, Higgins found himself in tax trouble with the IRS and struggled to keep his shipyard going.  Suffering from a stomach ailment, Higgins passed away in 1952; his son was forced the sell the business in 1957.  Mr. Higgins was largely forgotten in the years that followed, but interest in his boats--and his contribution to the war effort--was rekindled by veterans and historians.  The late Stephen Ambrose was instrumental in bringing the National D-Day Museum (now the National World War II Museum) to New Orleans, providing a venue to showcase Mr. Higgins and  his craft.  The LCVP on display at the museum is actually a replica, built from original plans, by surviving workers from Higgins' World War II yard.
ADDENDUM:  Early variants of the Higgins boat did not have a front ramp that could be lowered, allowing troops or vehicles to depart.  Disembarking or unloading from the original model meant "going over the side," an arrangement that was completely unsatisfactory.  When Andrew Higgins heard about a Japanese landing craft with a deployable front ramp, he described the system over the phone to his chief engineer, with directions to develop a similar system for his boats.  By the time he returned to New Orleans, his designers had a prototype ready.  

It was that type of visionary risk-taking that helped American win World War II.  Henry Kaiser had never built a ship before 1940, but that didn't stop him from opening shipyards that produced a Liberty Ship in as little as four days.  Henry Ford built a massive complex and workforce--from scratch--that churned out more than 8,000 B-24 Liberator bombers.  Today, the byzantine rules of military acquisition and contracting discourage that type of innovation.  If we fought the Second World War with today's regulations, we would have produced enough equipment for D-Day--by 1952.    




Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Metzger Defense

Amid the furor over the Bergdahl exchange, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took to Facebook and noted that the circumstances behind the soldier's 2009 "disappearance" (read: desertion) in Afghanistan will be investigated.  He also reminded readers that even if Sergeant Bergdahl is brought up on charges, he is "innocent until proven guilty." 

While that certainly is true, it looks like Bergdahl's lawyers might have a hard time convincing a military jury.  Soldiers who served with him are near-unanimous in their verdict on his actions, describing him as a deserter and a traitor.  And with more members of Bergdahl's unit coming forward with similar accusations, Army Secretary John McHugh released a statement similar to Dempsey's Facebook posting, promising a "comprehensive, coordinated review" of the case. 

Still, Sergeant Bergdahl may not be without legal options.  As we noted in our most recent post, the military has been surprisingly soft on deserters in the past, particularly when the nation is anxious to move on after a long war.  At worst, Bergdahl might spend a little time in the brig and get a bad conduct discharge, a far cry from the maximum punishment for troops who flee in the face of the enemy. 

And, if all else fails, Bergdahl's legal team might try some variation of the Metzger defense, named for the Air Force officer who disappeared after claiming she was kidnapped from a shopping mall while deployed to Kyrgyzstan in 2006.  Major Metzger resurfaced a few days later, with an incredible tale of overpowering her kidnappers, then running 30 miles to freedom (she is a champion marathoner).  When she returned to American custody, her blonde hair was brown and dye was still on her hands, one of many facts that didn't exactly comport with a kidnapping saga., the one outlet that refused to accept the spin on Metzger's disappearance, cataloged a long list of inconsistencies:

-- Metzger showed no signs of having run 30 miles barefoot through the Kyrgyz countryside in her "bid for freedom." In fact, her feet appeared to be in remarkably good shape, with no indications of cuts, bruises or blood.
-- The Air Force officer, who is a natural blond, was a brunette at the time of her repatriation. Dye on her hands indicated that Metzger did the job herself. Would a woman fleeing her kidnappers take the time to change her hair color? Or was the makeover aimed at covering up other activities that were the real reason for his disappearance.
-- Kyrgyz authorities doubted her story from the start, and even interviewed a local abortion doctor who claimed he performed that procedure on Major Metzger during the time she was missing. However, local cops were never allowed to follow-up on their initial interview with Metzger; she was flown out of the country less than three days after her return.
-- A source inside the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), which probed Metzger's disappearance, told that the USAF personnel officer flunked at least two polygraphs after her escape. One exam, administered at her home station of Moody AFB, GA, showed clear signs of deception.
-- No rape kit or pregnancy test was ever administered to Metzger, despite her alleged abduction by male suspects.
-- AFOSI agents investigating the case were told to "lay off" Metzger because she had "someone big by the         b---s."
But it worked.  Despite the gaping holes in her account, Major Metzger never faced any charges related to her disappearance in Kyrgyzstan.  Claiming she was suffering post-traumatic stress from her ordeal, Metzger was placed on the temporarily retired list for three years--with full disability pay--before returning to active duty status.  At last report, she was stationed at Travis AFB in northern California, and eligible for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. 

Admittedly, Metzger had friends in high places.  As a two-time winner of the women's division of the Air Force marathon, Major Metzger was well-known in military sports circles and a frequent jogging companion for senior officers.  A now-retired Air Force personnel officer (who served with Metzger at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ) remembers that she "ran with virtually every three and four-star who visited the installation."

One of those officers, General Garry North (now retired) was present when Metzger returned from captivity in 2006.  According to, the general pressed his personal coin into the hands of security forces personnel on the flightline and told them "you didn't see a thing."

Obviously, the circumstances surrounding Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance and repatriation are quite different.  But the Metzger case illustrates an important point: political exigencies and the preferences of military "leaders" can easily trump the mechanics of the UCMJ.   

Put another way: it's hard to envision the Army court-martialing Bergdahl after his "return" was announced in a photo op featuring his family and the commander-in-chief.  What was supposed to be an attention-diverting public relations and diplomatic triumph has (instead) become the latest debacle for an imploding administration.  There will be enormous pressure on military leaders to "tidy up" the Bergdahl case and dispose of it as quickly as possible.  And let's just say the military brass doesn't have an impressive record in resisting such pressure.

You don't need to be a military defense counsel to understand that Sergeant Bergdahl is going to need some legal assistance in the very near future.  And that's why a smart civilian attorney might well invoke the name of Jill Metzger in defending Bowe Bergdahl against possible charges.  If the military is willing to accept Metzger's (demonstrably) false claims of kidnapping and a 30-mile, barefoot dash to freedom, why shouldn't they go along with any tall tale that Bergdahl cooks up to explain his actions.

One more thing: if the Pentagon brass is serious about a full inquiry into Sergeant Bergdahl's disappearance (and they should be), then the Metzger case should be re-opened as well.  Eight years after the Air Force officer vanished and re-appeared in Kyrgyzstan, there are still more questions than answers.           


Monday, June 02, 2014

The Return

Work has been a bear for the past week, so I've been away from the blog.  Unfortunately, the pace at the office hasn't subsided, but some events literally demand a response, work schedule be damned.  Such is the case with the "deal" that secured the freedom of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive by the Taliban for the past five years. 

Talks aimed at winning Bergdahl's release have been going on, in fits and starts, for at least a couple of years.  Pentagon and State Department sources said over the weekend that one deal was rejected in 2012, because the Taliban wanted too much--the release of high-ranking operatives in exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afganistan in 2009.  That proposal was  rejected by then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and JCS Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who (reportedly) told the President that the U.S. would give up "too much" in the exchange. 

The objections of Mr. Panetta and Admiral Mullen were well-founded.  As details of the exchange emerged, it became apparent just how much the administration had surrendered in exchange for Bergdahl.  Five high-ranking Taliban figures will be released from Guantanamo Bay and sent to Qatar, where they will live under some sort of "house arrest" for the next year.  After that, presumably, the terror figures will be free to return to the battlefield, jeopardizing the lives of U.S. troops, intelligence operatives, Afghan security personnel and innocent civilians. 

Collectively, the five Taliban leaders represent a "brain trust" for future operations.  Thomas Joscelyn of the Weekly Standard offers profiles of the men being released, who represented some of the most dangerous figures captured during the War on Terror:

Mullah Mohammad Fazl (Taliban army chief of staff): Fazl is “wanted by the UN for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiites.” Fazl “was associated with terrorist groups currently opposing U.S. and Coalition forces including al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), and an Anti-Coalition Militia group known as Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami.” In addition to being one of the Taliban’s most experienced military commanders, Fazl worked closely with a top al Qaeda commander named Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who headed al Qaeda’s main fighting unit in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 and is currently detained at Guantanamo.

Mullah Norullah Noori (senior Taliban military commander): Like Fazl, Noori is “wanted by the United Nations (UN) for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims.” Beginning in the mid-1990s, Noori “fought alongside al Qaeda as a Taliban military general, against the Northern alliance.” He continued to work closely with al Qaeda in the years that followed.

Abdul Haq Wasiq (Taliban deputy minister of intelligence): Wasiq arranged for al Qaeda members to provide crucial intelligence training prior to 9/11. The training was headed by Hamza Zubayr, an al Qaeda instructor who was killed during the same September 2002 raid that netted Ramzi Binalshibh, the point man for the 9/11 operation. Wasiq “was central to the Taliban's efforts to form alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight alongside the Taliban against U.S. and Coalition forces after the 11 September 2001 attacks,” according to a leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment.

Khairullah Khairkhwa (Taliban governor of the Herat province and former interior minister): Khairkhwa was the governor of Afghanistan’s westernmost province prior to 9/11. In that capacity, he executed sensitive missions for Mullah Omar, including helping to broker a secret deal with the Iranians. For much of the pre-9/11 period, Iran and the Taliban were bitter foes. But a Taliban delegation that included Kharikhwa helped secure Iran’s support for the Taliban’s efforts against the American-led coalition in late 2001. JTF-GTMO found that Khairkhwa was likely a major drug trafficker and deeply in bed with al Qaeda. He allegedly oversaw one of Osama bin Laden’s training facilities in Herat.

Mohammed Nabi (senior Taliban figure and security official): Nabi “was a senior Taliban official who served in multiple leadership roles.” Nabi “had strong operational ties to Anti-Coalition Militia (ACM) groups including al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), some of whom remain active in ACM activities.” Intelligence cited in the JTF-GTMO files indicates that Nabi held weekly meetings with al Qaeda operatives to coordinate attacks against U.S.-led forces.

Making matters worse, the prisoner exchange was negotiated without notifying Congress, as required by law.  It's hardly the first time the Obama Administration has flaunted legal constraints and (in fairness) many Presidents have conducted secret negotiations with rogue states and terror-linked groups, in defiance of long-standing U.S. policies.  Given that reality, a better question would be: was the return of Bergdahl worth the risk posed by the release of five senior Taliban leaders. 

Obviously, the United States makes every effort to account for the status of POWs and individuals listed as missing-in-action (MIA) from all wars.  It's an article of faith for all who wear the uniform; the nation you serve will never forget about its POWs and MIAs--or spare any effort to bring them home--even after the guns fall silent.  As a soldier, Bowe Bergdahl had every reason to believe that America would honor its commitment. 

But not all who go missing receive the same treatment.  As you might expect, the U.S. devotes fewer resources to individuals who are suspected of collaborating with, or defected to, our enemies.  At least 21 American POWs refused repatriation at the end of the Korean War, though most eventually returned to the west and the few who faced military justice received only relatively minor punishment for their treasonous behavior.                 

Perhaps the case with the obvious parallels to Bergdahl is that of Robert Garwood, the Marine Corps Private First Class who disappeared while serving near Da Nang, South Vietnam on 28 September 1965.  There are conflicting accounts of why he vanished; Garwood (a motor pool driver) maintains he was dispatched to pick up a Marine officer at China Beach at 1800 local time.  But military documents suggest Garwood was off-duty and took a jeep to visit a local brothel where he was captured by the Viet Cong. 

Over the years that followed, Garwood was held at a series of enemy camps in South Vietnam.  Two POWs held with Garwood in the late 1960s, Army PFC Jose Ortiz-Rivera and Marine Lance Corporal Jose Agosto Santos, told U.S. debriefers that Garwood actively collaborated with the enemy, carrying arms and ammunition for them, and assisting in the interrogation of American POWs.  Two Naval Aviators held in the Hanoi Hilton, Commander Everett Alvarez and Captain John Fellowes told interviewers they heard propaganda broadcasts by an individual who identified himself as "Bobby Garwood," a Marine who had "crossed over."  Other Americans held with Garwood in the south also confirmed his collaboration activities with the enemy. 

Garwood finally returned to America in 1979, after passing a note to a Finnish businessman who was visiting Hanoi.  In the note, Garwood claimed that U.S. POWs still remained in North Vietnam, a claim he later admitted was bogus.  Back in the states, Garwood was convicted of assaulting a fellow prisoner of war and collaborating with the enemy.  He was reduced in rank to Private and given a bad conduct discharge.  To this day, Garwood maintains his innocence.

However, similarities between the Garwood and Bergdahl cases must be drawn carefully.  First and foremost, there is no firm evidence that Sergeant Bergdahl collaborated with the enemy.  But it is clear that he abandoned his unit in 2009, actions that could lead to AWOL and desertion charges.  He also participated in propaganda videos where he pleaded with the U.S. government to strike a deal for his release. 

Some of the soldiers who served with Bergdahl are less charitable.  Nathan Bradley Bethea was an infantry officer in the same unit; writing in the Daily Beast, he pulls no punches in discussing Bergdahl's disappearance and the events that followed:

"I served in the same battalion in Afghanistan and participated in the attempts to retrieve him throughout the summer of 2009. After we redeployed, every member of my brigade combat team received an order that we were not allowed to discuss what happened to Bergdahl for fear of endangering him. He is safe, and now it is time to speak the truth.

And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.

The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey later wrote that "[w]hether Bergdahl…just walked away from his base or was lagging behind on a patrol at the time of his capture remains an open and fiercely debated question.” Not to me and the members of my unit. Make no mistake: Bergdahl did not "lag behind on a patrol,” as was cited in news reports at the time. There was no patrol that night. Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted. I’ve talked to members of Bergdahl’s platoon—including the last Americans to see him before his capture. I’ve reviewed the relevant documents. That’s what happened.

His disappearance translated into daily search missions across the entire Afghanistan theater of operations, particularly ours. The combat platoons in our battalion spent the next month on daily helicopter-insertion search missions (called "air assaults”) trying to scour villages for signs of him. Each operations would send multiple platoons and every enabler available in pursuit: radio intercept teams, military working dogs, professional anthropologists used as intelligence gathering teams, Afghan sources in disguise. They would be out for at least 24 hours. I know of some who were on mission for 10 days at a stretch. In July, the temperature was well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit each day.

These cobbled-together units’ task was to search villages one after another. They often took rifle and mortar fire from insurgents, or perhaps just angry locals. They intermittently received resupply from soot-coated Mi-17s piloted by Russian contractors, many of whom were Soviet veterans of Afghanistan. It was hard, dirty and dangerous work. The searches enraged the local civilian population and derailed the counterinsurgency operations taking place at the time. At every juncture I remember the soldiers involved asking why we were burning so much gasoline trying to find a guy who had abandoned his unit in the first place. The war was already absurd and quixotic, but the hunt for Bergdahl was even more infuriating because it was all the result of some kid doing something unnecessary by his own volition."

According to Captain Bethea, at least six soldiers from his battalion were killed by the Taliban during the search for Bergdahl.  Other units took casualties as well; Bethea writes that an officer in a sister battalion suffered a human wave attack by enemy forces in August 2009 that killed two soldiers and wounded several others.  The officer believes the attack would not have occurred if his unit had received its normal allotment of drones and reconnaissance aircraft.  But the battalion--stationed in dangerous territory along the Pakistan border--did not have its normal assets, because "every intelligence asset in country had received new orders: find Bergdahl." 

Bethea does not expect Bergdahl to be punished, because a court-martial might give the enemy another propaganda victory.  Certainly, the optics (and narrative) surrounding his release seem to suggest that Sergeant Bergdahl may not be held accountable.  It's a little difficult to punish a soldier whose return was announced by the commander-in-chief.  And just yesterday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said that Bergdahl served with "distinction and honor."  We can only imagine how former members of his unit--and the families of those who died looking for him--reacted to that comment.  U.S. officials say that Sergeant Bergdahl tried to escape at least once during his captivity, but how does that square with these comments, made in an e-mail to his parents just days before his disappearance:

“I am sorry for everything here,” he wrote. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid.”

Bergdahl also complained about fellow soldiers. The battalion commander was a “conceited old fool,” he said, and the only “decent” sergeants, planning to leave the platoon “as soon as they can,” told the privates — Bergdahl then among them — “to do the same.”

“I am ashamed to be an American. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools,” he concluded.

“I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting.”

While Bergdahl's views--and his desertion--are repulsive, the exchange "deal" served several purposes, beyond the reaffirmation of America's commitment all who go missing on the battlefield.  For starters, it represented another step in our exit from Afghanistan for an administration anxious to clsoe the books on that war.  And, having given the Taliban a great deal, some administration officials expressed private hopes that the exchange might jump-start peace talks. 

Returning the five Taliban commanders also helps President Obama reduce the population at Guantanamo, helping him make belated progress on his long-standing promise to close that facility.  That won't be enough to turn out his base in November, but it may help him solidify his current standing in the job approval polls, and limit collateral damage to some fellow Democrats. 

And here's the bonus: with Bergdahl's release now dominating the news, the ever-festering VA scandal is no longer on the front pages.  Clearly, the prisoner deal--as bad as it is--could have been concluded weeks ago.  But waiting until now to finalize the details (and announce it) clearly served domestic political purposes.  Expect to hear a lot more about the Bergdahl saga in the weeks, including TV interviews and the obligatory cover stories in outlets like People.  Meanwhile, revelations about veterans dying at the hands of the VA recede further in the public's mind.

At the end of the day, America released five of the most dangerous men on the planet for a soldier who deserted his unit on the battlefield.  Not long ago, an exchange of that type wouldn't even be contemplated; now, the fact that such deals are made speaks volumes about a nation that puts political expediencies ahead of such concepts as honor, integrity, security and personal accountability. 
ADDENDUM:  The POW-MIA issue is a personal one for me.  In 1944, my mother and her family received word that her brother Walter had gone missing in combat on Peleliu.  No trace of Walter, a Marine Corps PFC, was ever found.  Other Marines in his unit believe he was blown apart by a Japanese mortar shell.  To this day, he remains one of 3,000 Marines who remain unaccounted for in World War II.  But there were never any questions about the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, or his conduct under fire.