Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Living on the Edge: Lost in the Bosporus and Robbed (Nearly) in Kazakhstan

This may be the last of my "Living on the Edge" series of posts for awhile, at least until I can get back overseas or hear some more good stories from friends.

Spontaneity is not my style, at least not in any type of grand gesture.  Planning for contingencies to ensure that I am where I am supposed to be when I am supposed to be there is a central to my modus operandi, especially when traveling overseas.  When I’m traveling alone, I build plenty of time into my schedule to be where I need to be.

So my own decision and actions shocked me that spring, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  I was in Istanbul for a quick overnight stay by myself.  I had just finished escorting a group of cadets through Vienna, Brataslava, Uzhgorod, Lviv (Lvov), Kiev, Simferopol, Yalta, and Sevastopol.  As the cadets traveled back I was heading to Almaty, Kazakhstan to explore the option of sending cadets there for language immersion or a study abroad program.

I flew from Kiev to Istanbul.  My arrival was memorable.  I speak no Turkish so I was hopeful I could communicate my needs sufficiently while in the country.  At the time my wife and I were huge fans of the television reality series Amazing Race.  The taxi scenes from the show played out in my mind as I walked out to find transportation to my hotel.  But, I was prepared.  I had the name and the address of my hotel printed with a basic map.  It was all in Turkish making it simple to communicate.  As I sat in the taxi I confidently handed the papers to the driver.

He looked at it for a few seconds.

“Do you know where this is,” I asked.

“Yes, yes, “ he answered nodding his head.

Quickly we pulled out from the airport.  Within five minutes he was on his cell phone with my directions in one hand asking someone for directions.  He obviously had no clue where we were going or how to get there, which was shocking since I had purposefully stayed in an area frequented by tourists so that it would be easy to find.

Eventually he found the general area and had some young boy run ahead of him to lead him directly to the hotel.

My hotel was in an amazing spot.  Within just a short walk I could see both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Hagia Sophia

Blue Mosque

My itinerary allowed me about 20 hours in Istanbul before my flight to Almaty.  With limited time I had planned two excursions near my hotel.  The afternoon I flew in I walked to the Grand Bazaar.  The place was amazing.  Somehow I made it out with some money left in my pocket.  That evening I had an amazing dinner in a small café not far from the Hagia Sophia. 

The next morning I had a delicious breakfast served buffet style at my hotel.  From there I went to the Spice Market.  After purchasing paprika, cardamom, saffron, Turkish delight, and other treats, I began to make the trek back to my hotel.  As I was walking along the waterfront I saw a boat ready to leave for a cruise of the Bosporus.  Looking at my watch, I realized that I had at least four hours before I would have to leave for the airport.  As part of my intel gathering the night before, and from speaking with friends, I had heard that some cruises last only a short time. 

Deciding to be spontaneous I purchased a ticket and got on the boat with my backpack and bags of spices.  It was an amazing trip as we headed out and made a few stops.  After about an hour I kept expecting us to turn back.  After an hour and a half of heading in the same direction, north toward the Black Sea, I began to lose all interest in the sites and the cruise.  As my anxiety increased I tried to find something in English that would tell me the course and schedule of the boat.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything.

Finally, I heard a female English accent coming from another part of the boat.  I drifted toward it hoping to ask some questions of a traveler with more experience in the city.  She mentioned to her friends that we were only one or two stops away from the last and the boat would turn around there.  Relief flooded over me, as it now appeared that I would make it to my hotel in time to get my luggage and go to the airport.  Then I heard say something to her friends about hiking to a nearby castle.

Unable to remain quiet any longer, I asked, “How long does the boat stay at the last stop before it starts the return trip?”

“Not long, “ she said.  “About three hours.  Just long enough for everyone to make the hike to the castle if they want.”

Panic hit.  I had no idea if I would make it back in time.  I walked around some more and heard someone mention that we would be stopping on the Asia side and that the taxis there would be few.  Listening I realized that I a few other travelers had made the same mistake as me.  They had got onto the wrong boat, the long cruise as it were instead of the short cruise.

As the boat approached the final stop, I was determined to be the first to any taxi that may be waiting.  I nudged my way to the edge of the boat with all of my bags in hand.  With the boat still a foot or two from the dock I jumped and ran up to the street.  There was one taxi ahead of me.  Looking back I saw a group of four or five people running for the same taxi.  It was too many to share a taxi so I didn’t wait for them. 

Out of breath I interrupted the lone taxi driver who was talking to some other locals.  Luckily I had a card with my hotels address and was able to communicate my need to hurry.  Now, I had years of watching movie and television scenes where the character offers the taxi driver more money to drive faster, but this first time that I did it and had results.  My driver flew down the highway, making detours here and there to void traffic snarls. 

We reached my hotel about thirty minutes after my planned departure time.  My driver agreed to wait while I ran in to check out and retrieve my luggage.  I’m sure the staff thought me rude as I ran past to my room and then ran back down, throwing my keys on the counter.

As fast as he could my driver navigated the streets to the airport.  Jumping out I paid him a prince’s ransom then dashed inside.

One more moment of panic hit as I watched the security personnel freeze on my suitcase after they had put it through the x-ray machine.  They began to speak briskly amongst themselves pointing at the bag and then at me.  At first I was unsure of the cause of the excitement, then I saw a sign indicating that travelers are required to announce if they have any type of knife in their luggage.  I hadn’t seen the sign and they had found my small pocketknife on the x-ray.

Finally one gentleman approached me, asking in broken English if I had a knife in my suitcase.  I answered affirmatively and tried my best to apologize, offering to leave the knife behind so I could make my flight.  He only nodded his head once, then turned away from me to confer once again with his colleagues.  Moments passed so slowly as I waited for some resolution, hoping I was headed to some Turkish holding cell.

In the end the same person approached me with a clipboard and asked me to sign my name.  Unsure what I was signing, I was a bit worried.  Maybe it was a confession to transporting something highly illegal.  I signed it anyway and waited for the consequence.  As soon as I had signed they grabbed me and pushed me forward, handing me my suitcase.

“Hurry, run, or you’ll miss your flight.”

Luckily I made it and jetted to Almaty for the second time in my life.
My flight landed in Almaty just before two in the morning.  I was sleepy and in a hurry to get to the Intercontinental Hotel as soon as possible.
Intercontinental Hotel - Almaty, Kazakhstan

Travel, especially overseas, demands an extra awareness of security.  Since I was traveling alone, I was extra sensitive to any threats or risks--arriving in the middle of the night only made the experience that much more exciting.  Security protocols in these countries encourages government travelers to take official, marked taxis and not take rides with individuals who are simply trying to make an extra buck with their own car.

Clearing customs and passport control with my luggage in hand, I stepped out into the public concourse to find several dozen individuals offering their services.  Looking around I found a young woman holding aloft the sign of the local taxi company.  She quickly made her way to me then led me outside to the waiting vehicles asking in English for my destination.

We stopped at a car that was full of four or five young men.  Security protocol, as well as common sense, dictates that riding with multiple unknown individuals may not be safe.  As I started to protest the selection of taxis, all of the young men except for the driver exited the car.  The driver, an ethnic Russian, came around to put my suitcase into the trunk.  I kept my backpack with me.

Crawling into the backseat, I hoped I could stay awake for the 20-30 minute drive into the city.  The lady communicated my destination to the driver and we pulled away.  Within 20 yards the car stopped, however, and a young Kazakh man in his early to mid-twenties got into the front seat.  I started to protest again when I heard the doors lock.  Looking at the car door I saw that the locks had been broken off so that I would be unable to unlock and open the doors on my own.

Immediately the adrenaline kicked in as I realized I might be in a dangerous situation.  The driver and his friend started to whisper to each other in Russian as we pulled away.  While I couldn’t make out what they were saying, I decided to make myself as undesirable a target as possible. 

I leaned forward, intruding on their conversation, and said in Russian, “Ah, the Intercontinental Hotel!  I’ve been there several times and can’t wait to get there again.  It’s only about 20 minutes away, right?”

My suspicions were rewarded, not in a delightful way, as they both looked shocked and concerned over my ability to speak Russian.  Glancing furtively at one another, they were trying to find another way to communicate.  I didn’t give them the opportunity.  I began to speak of my previous trip to Almaty and my familiarity with the area, although I may have made it sound like I had been there several times.

I was unsure if their plan was simply to shake me down for extra cash, rob me, or something worse.  As I spoke with them I wished that I had moved my pocketknife into my backpack.  The driver repeatedly put his hand between the seats grasping what I feared maybe a gun, but I wasn’t certain.

In an effort to reduce the impact of any robbery or shakedown I always travel with the bulk of my cash hidden, with just enough on my person to hopefully appease any would be criminal.  I decided to make it clear that I had only limited cash and that I hoped it would be enough to pay for the taxi ride.  I promised that if it wasn’t enough I could get it out at the ATM at the hotel, knowing that most other ATMs in the city would be closed at that time of night.

They didn’t tell me how much they needed right up front, but said that it needed to be exchanged for tenge, the Kazakh currency.  I offered to make the exchange for my US dollars at the Intercontinental.  Instead they said they had a local place that was still open to make the exchange. 

Once again the adrenaline kicked up another level.  The plan would be either to get me to reveal how much money I had so they could shake me down or to straight up rob me or worse.  As we made a detour to their local currency exchange, I rummaged through my backpack for anything that might be used as a weapon.  My only option was a pen that I quickly tucked into my jacket pocket.  I also tucked $100 into my pocket to make the exchange.

We stopped along a street in an unidentifiable part of town.  The door was unlocked so I could exit and both of them escorted me inside a building.  Inside we approached a closed window in a hallway.  With both of them standing close enough to me to touch both of my shoulders, one of them knocked on the window.  A young lady opened it and quickly exchanged my dollars for tenge while the two looked closely at the money in my hand. 

As we walked back to the car I ran through various escape scenarios, wondering if I could get away and if I did if I would be able to contact the police or find another ride to the hotel.  Helped back into the car we drove away.

My anxiety increased as I wondered if we were headed to the hotel or somewhere else.  Both the driver and his friend continued to look back and forth at each other, obviously unsure of what to do.  Finally the Intercontinental Hotel came into sight.  As we pulled into the circular driveway out front, they popped the trunk of the car but didn’t unlock my door.  The bellboy came out from the hotel and pulled my suitcase from the trunk, then waited for me to pay my driver and get out.

The driver and his friend turned to look at me.  I don’t remember the amount the asked for in tenge but it was about the equivalent of $200. 

“I don’t have that much,” I said.  “I only exchanged $100 and I don’t have much more in cash.  I can get more from inside the hotel.”

I gave the driver what I had.

“Give us the rest now.”

“I don’t have it.”

At this point the bellboy had come to my door and was reaching out to open it for me.  The driver hit gas, pulling ahead several feet out of the reach of the bellboy.  I looked around and saw the security guard from the hotel take notice of my situation.  He began to walk out of the hotel in case his services were needed.

“Give us the money now!”

“I only have another $40 in US.  Will that cover it?”

The bellboy had almost reached the car again prompting the driver to pull away again quickly.  Now the security guard was aware of the situation.  He pulled his handgun and started to run toward the car.  The driver pulled further ahead.

“Give me everything you’ve got now!”

I pulled out the two $20 bills in my pocket and put it in his hand.

The door unlocked.

“Get out now!  Get out now!”

Opening the door I released my grasp on my meager pen that I fully intended on using as a weapon.  I grabbed my backpack and rolled out of the car that was already starting to move forward.  Both the bellboy and the security guard arrived in time to help me up off of the ground and escort me into the hotel.

Sleep didn’t come easily that night as I played through the scenario and what else could have happened over an over again.

The next day, after completing my business, I was supposed to fly back to Kiev to stay there for a few more days.  I had had enough.  After two weeks of constantly being on the move and the excitement of the previous 24 hours, I was ready to be home.  As quickly as I could I changed my flight back home via Amsterdam and Minneapolis.

Other Living on the Edge Posts:
Mafia and Guns in Russia

The Party of the Government: Abuses of Power by the IRS and the Expectation that We Believe and Accept

Let’s review what IRS Commissioner Koskinen is asking us to believe as he testifies cheerfully to Congress:

1.     It was pure coincidence and chance that Lois Lerner’s computer crashed and that emails were lost at a time that coincides with the focus of the investigation into the targeting of conservative groups.
2.     That the IRS tried desperately to recover her lost emails but decided not to recover them from a known source, the back up tapes that hold the information for six months; and that we shouldn’t have any suspicions about this fact.
3.     That in determining whether or not their had been a criminal violation connected with the loss of the emails, it is best to rely on the IRS leadership exercising common sense to make a determination rather than actually reviewing criminal code.
4.     That an agency that requires citizens to maintain 7 years of financial records in case of an audit, cannot put in place a system that can reliably maintain electronic records for any period of time.  Remember, this is an agency that has little forgiveness for citizens who legitimately lose records or make honest mistakes.  The price tag for a reliable system is $10-$30M which is too high.  Meanwhile the IRS spent over $80M in annual bonuses to its employees.

Other pieces of information that we should accept regarding this entire incident and chain of events:

1.     That Lois Lerner invoked the Fifth Amendment, yet there was no crime committed.  Rather, we should accept that this was an abuse of power by an aberrant few.
2.     That John Koskinen, a man who has donated over $100,000 to the Democratic Pary, Democratic candidates, and liberal causes as well as thousands of dollars directly to the campaign efforts of Barack Obama, is an unbiased, impartial, and disinterested administrator of the Internal Revenue Service and is best qualified to lead the agency through a time of controversy and to make sure that no crime was committed—a crime that limits the reach of conservative groups.

Here are a few questions Commissioner Koskinen and President Obama may be thinking:
1.     Why would any of us ever think that the IRS overstepped its bounds by attacking groups based on political ideology? 
2.     Why would any of us ever think that such blatant abuse of power was condoned and perhaps encouraged by the very head of the agency? 
3.     Why would we ever be suspicious that the President of the United States would indicate, explicitly or otherwise, to the leadership of the IRS that they should use their powers to fix what he felt was an incorrect decision by the US Supreme Court?
4.     Why would we suspect that Commissioner Lerner and the agency destroyed on purpose emails that may be central to the investigation, especially in light of her utilizing her Constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment?  (By the way, can we get a list of other incidents of emails being lost over the past few years, or was it just these ones?)
5.     Why would we not trust a man who has donated $100,000 to the Democratic and liberal causes to clean up this mess?  If the president trusts him, then we should trust him.
6.     Why should we be concerned that the agency that can so easily lose emails at any time and target specific groups based on their political views will also be in charge of administering the Affordable Care Act?

Even if we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that we live in a galaxy where everything lined up so that the very emails needed were the ones that were lost accidentally through a hard drive crash and then were not recovered, perhaps the present IRS Commissioner, the President of the United States, and those one the left who are defending the indefensible could understand why the rest of us might be a little suspicious and untrusting. 

The issue of the IRS targeting any specific group unfairly should be a non-partisan issue.  It should be a national issue.  Once such an abuse of power, whatever the cause, is allowed to pass unpunished, it becomes easy for all sides of the political spectrum to engage in such behavior in the future.  A biased, partial, and interested IRS is not in the interest of any American.  It will undercut even further public trust in government giving rise to abuses of power and reactions to abuses that will pull at the very threads of the nation.

We cannot allow career politicians and corrupt bureaucrats to seek after power for the sake of power.  They must remain the servants of the people.  The government cannot become a political arm on its own.  We must avoid the scenario described by George Orwell in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four:

"In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird." 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Living on the Edge: Brett, the Cultural Warrior, in China

Life for the past few years has been rather benign in terms of facing unexpected physical danger.  I haven’t had guns pulled on me or worried that the next moment could be last, although any moment could be my last…or yours.  After sharing a few of my somewhat frightening incidents from my overseas travel, I’d like to share a few stories about one of my friends who has had extensive experience overseas as well. 

For the sake of these stories, we’ll refer to him as Brett.  Brett and I worked together at the Air Force Academy.  He is a product of that great institution.  Two interesting facts about Brett: he is large and physically fit (he was a football player at the Academy) and he studied and speaks Chinese.  During his time on the faculty of the Academy he traveled extensively to China and a few other places.  Often he was leading groups of cadets or officers for language and cultural immersion programs.  The following stories are true and accurate, at least as far as I can recollect.  Not all of these stories involve danger to Brett.

Motorcyclists Beware
During one of his trips to China, I don’t remember the city; he and a group of officers were making their way across town on foot.  As they came up to a busy street, it was evident that crossing would be a bit tricky.  After watching for a bit they finally saw a break in traffic and took off running for the other side.  Immediately upon entering the roadway Brett noticed a small motorcycle, the kind that are common in China’s sprawling cities, barreling toward him.  He hadn’t seen it before he started to run.  With no way to avoid a collision, Brett reacted quickly to make it as painless as possible for both him and the motorcyclist. 

Maneuvering his large frame he managed to lift the now shocked person off of his motorcycle and spin so as to avoid missing the motorcycle.  As carefully as he could he set the smaller man down on his feet.  Both of them looked at each other and began to apologize profusely to the other. 

As far as I know Brett eventually made it across that road.  His new friend had an amazing story to tell his friends that evening about being swept off of his motorcycle by a large American, thereby narrowly avoiding death or a lengthy hospital stay.  I bet he still tells that story today.

Really, I just want a haircut!
Qindao, China

Once again in China, perhaps on the same trip mentioned above, Brett and his compatriots were at a large city away from Beijing at a beer festival.  Now, Brett doesn’t drink all the time, but when he starts drinking beer he can drink quite a few without much visible effect.  I’m not sure how much he had to drink that night, but I think it may have played into his decisions that give us this wonderful story.

Sometime around midnight, or just after, Brett decided it would be a good time to get a haircut.  He had noticed a barbershop in the hotel with the lights still on and apparently open.  Now China, like other places in the world, has places of business that offer more than one type of service.  After certain hours they are more likely to engage in their alternative (i.e., not explicitly stated) form of business.  In China a purple light by the door usually will indicate that they are presently engaging in the alternative form of business. 

As Brett walked toward the barbershop he confirmed that there was no purple light so he assumed he could get the needed haircut.

Walking into the shop, he looked at the young lady there and in his best Chinese said, “I need a haircut.”

She smiled at him, and then quickly reached out with her hand grabbing his crotch.  Rocking on his feet a bit, he looked down at her realizing what was happening.

“No, I really need just a haircut, nothing else.”

The young lady, probably a bit shocked and confused herself, led him to a chair and sat him down.  A young man came around and proceeded to cut his hair.

Again, I’m sure this incident led to some incredulous stories by the two Chinese people working in the “barbershop” that night.  In my imagination I picture the young man, who had cut Brett’s hair, arriving home to tell his family or close friend, “It turns out that I can cut hair.  I never tried it before, but I was good at it.  I may see if I can get on the day shift.”

Excuse me, I’m French!
Working at the Air Force Academy in the Office of International Programs and with the Department of Foreign Languages, Brett and I had the opportunity to work with instructors, cadets, and officers from all over the world.  Between the different instructors of different languages at the Academy, as there probably is on all faculties, there is a good deal of teasing and ribbing about language, history, and culture.  Unfortunately, speakers of French were often a common target for all the others.  Usually we managed to keep our teasing internal, but occasionally it slipped out to others.

During his many trips to China Brett and his traveling companions were obvious foreigners.  Often as they would negotiate to hire a taxi the driver would ask them if they were French.  At first he just responded in the negative and moved on with his day.  Finally one day his curiosity got the better of him. 

He asked their driver, “Why do you and other taxi drivers always ask if I’m French?  Do you have a lot of French tourists?”

“Well, not really a lot of French tourists, it’s just that we hate the French.”

“Really, why do you hate the French?”

“They’re arrogant and rude.  Don’t you know that?  I thought everyone knew that.”

A day or two later during the trip Brett was on the subway when he committed a social faux pas, nearly crushing some native Chinese citizens.  As he began to apologize a nefarious idea bubbled to the surface.

He looked at his victims and said with some disdain, as if it were their fault, “Excuse me, I’m French.”

At the time of the trip the World Cup was in full force resulting in an extra measure of international awareness and competition.  At a local market he bought a shirt with the flag or map of France.  Wearing it he began a social experiment.  He would commit some act of rudeness and then dismiss it by saying, “Excuse me, I’m French.”

His traveling companions would follow along to gauge the reaction of those he offended.  Usually their shock at such vulgar behavior quickly turned to understanding and acceptance with his phrase, “Excuse me, I’m French.”

I don’t remember all of the offenses he committed, but it’s always fun to hear him tell the story.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.  A group of cadets that went over several months later for a semester abroad had heard of the experiment and decided to recreate it throughout their trip.

How is this a story of danger, you ask?  Well, let’s just say Brett didn’t exactly increase the love the Chinese have for the French people.

Other Living on the Edge Posts:
Lost in the Bosporus and Robbed (Nearly) in Kazakhstan
Tales of Danger Abroad
Mafia and Guns in Russia

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Miasma of Secretary Hagel's Inaccurate Justifications: The Bergdahl Trade

As I track Secretary Hagel’s remarks to the House Committee regarding the prisoner exchange of five senior Taliban military commanders for Sgt. Bergdahl, I am a bit surprised by the justifications for the trade and the disregard for obvious and serious consequences.   Below is a short attempt to address some of the issues that the Secretary fails to explain adequately, particularly in light of the fact that many of these issues prevented the US from executing this trade previously.

“Sgt. Bergdahl has rights.”

On this point I agree with Secretary Hagel, in principle.  Sergeant Bergdahl is entitled to fair treatment under the law and his rescue and return rightfully was a priority of the Department of Defense.  The circumstances surrounding his disappearance and apprehension by the Taliban, however, were enough to influence decision makers not to pursue the trade or rescue previously.  If it was part of the equation previously, is it fair to claim that it must be set aside as a factor completely now that the trade has been made?

No 30-Day Notice to Congress

The Executive Office of the United States Government needs the flexibility to act, in a limited manner in most cases, in the interest of the nation on short notice, subject to the review and approval of the US Congress.  This situation was unique enough that Congress required a formal notification 30 days prior to any trade.  Obviously they felt that the situation, and potential for ill formed motives, may need to be reviewed.  Currently Secretary Hagel and the President are claiming that their intel sources indicated that the trade was subject to severe time limitations which restricted the ability of the White House or the DoD to inform Congress.  There is no reason that I can see, with my limited view, that senior leadership in Congress, particularly those that are members of select committees, should not and could not have been informed in a timely manner.  Rather the White House and DoD deliberately circumvented the requirement.  Effectively this allowed the President to pursue this action with no oversight of other elected officials—officials who may have sought to nix the trade.  Instead President Obama acted according to his own desires for his own purpose.

Secretary Hagel is correct when he stated, “I value the Defense Department’s partnership with Congress and the trust we have developed over the years.  I know that trust has been broken.”

Secretary Hagel allowed what many consider a poor trade that has a negative impact on national and world security for what appears to be President Obama’s as yet undisclosed political purposes.  Trust has definitely been broken, but not just with Congress.  It’s also been broken with the men and women who serve in uniform, their families, the American people, and our allies and supporters in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

Rep Adam Smith (D): We Didn’t Negotiate with Terrorists

Representative Smith made the absurd argument that we didn’t negotiate with terrorists because we are at war with the terrorists.  He either doesn’t have a clear definition of the term terrorist and what it means to combat them, or he conveniently set aside that understanding in order to make these comments.  If we extrapolate further meaning from his comments, then it stands to reason that all a terrorist or terrorist group needs to do in order to be considered legitimate is to enter into violent armed conflict with a state actor.

Incentive for Further Kidnapping and Hostage Taking

When faced with the accusation that the trade will motivate and inspire the Taliban to capture other US military members, Secretary Hagel correctly points out that capture of US military has been a stated goal for over 12 years.  What he fails to point out or admit to is that the ramifications for this trade go way beyond the simple goal of capturing US military members.  By concluding this trade we have done the following:

-       Provided a level of legitimacy to the Haqqani Network and the Taliban that they did not have before this.  They now have a serious claim to legitimacy which strengthens them at home and elsewhere

-       When they do capture US military members they will now expect something significant in return.  The motivation to capture has now increased.

-       We have now put at risk softer targets in softer locations.  Military members and their families are now more lucrative targets outside of combat zones.  Regular American citizens are also more lucrative targets.

-       Again, we strengthened the resolve of the terrorist groups while weakening that of our allies and supporters in the region.

Planners, Not Trigger Pullers

Secretary Hagel, in justifying the trade, made the argument that the five who were released were planners and that there was no evidence that they had ever pulled the trigger in combat operations against US forces.  There is also no evidence, as far as I know, that Hitler shot a Frenchman personally; or that Osama bin Laden piloted one of the aircraft in the 9-11 attacks.  There are no good arguments for letting these five go in any type of exchange.

The act of the trade of these five for Bergdahl put them back on the battlefield in the hearts and minds of those who are fighting on both sides.

This Administration is exhibiting dangerous leadership by making decisions that weaken our national security and strengthen the idea and legitimacy of terrorism as a legitimate means to gain and utilize power and influence.

I can’t help but believe that Secretary Hagel knows that at best his points are weak and at worst dishonest and inaccurate intended to mislead Congress and the American people.  

Every wise, legal, and legitimate effort should have been made to return Sergeant Bergdahl to the United States with a comprehensive understanding of the situation based on the knowledge and information available.  Negotiating with terrorist groups in exchange for terrorist leaders does not fall under the category of wise, legal, or legitimate.

For further discussion, please see my previous blog posts:

Friday, June 6, 2014

Return to the Battlefield: A Misconception of the Term

Leading up to and since the open negotiations and prisoner exchange with the terrorist Haqqani Network, some of the debate has swirled around whether or not the five Taliban prisoners will return to the battlefield.  The very question of whether or not they will return to the battlefield is largely irrelevant in this type of warfare. 

Terrorism is the use of indiscriminate and shocking violence in an attempt to gain a political voice or to gain political control.  The goal is not to kill or destroy the enemy.  Rather the goal is to gain credence for a set of ideas that are often radical.  Violence is a tool used to push those ideas to the forefront and to give them legitimacy.  Radical political groups may resort to terrorism when their ideas can gain no traction under the accepted set of rules.

Terrorists seek open negotiations and intercourse with the legitimate power structures because it provides them with a significant degree of legitimacy.  It's an important step in ascending to some degree of power and influence.  This is why wise governments and leaders are careful in how they interact with terrorist groups and states that sponsor terrorism.  Open interaction can give legitimacy to their radical ideas and their radical methods for promoting their ideas. 

The Bergdahl prisoner exchange provided the terrorist groups in the region with a significant victory.  How?  First, it gave them a greater sense of legitimacy.  If the US government will negotiate openly with them, then obviously they are important.  Second, it demoralizes the enemies and opposition of these terrorist groups.  If the Haqqani Network and the Taliban were able to force the US Government to negotiate and take an obviously bad deal, that indicates that these terrorist groups are powerful and influential and that they are ascending in power.  Third, it serves as motivation to members of the terrorist groups and their sympathizers.

By releasing these five terrorists, especially considering their backgrounds and stature, in any manner to any place in the world has reintroduced them to the battlefield.  How?  The battlefield is not a physical location.  It's not simply a place where they can plan and execute terrorist attacks.  The battlefield is in the minds of the people--in the minds of the people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the United States, and elsewhere.  Their release was a significant battlefield victory for terrorist groups all over the world--and President Barack Obama handed it to them on a silver platter in exchange for one prisoner against the advice of his military and against the advice of the US Congress.

Either the President of the United States does not understand the nature of the conflict against these terrorist groups or he was willing to accept a significant defeat.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dangerous Leadership: Open Negotiations with Terrorists

The prisoner/hostage exchange between the US Government and the Haqqani Network,
a known terrorist group that operators in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a complete failure
in leadership by this president, the Secretary of Defense, the member of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff who were on board with this decision, and by any other senior US military
leaders who did not resign in protest over this decision and action.

Here are two quotes, one by President Obama and one by Rear Admiral John Kirby,
Pentagon Press Secretary:

“He is an American soldier,” Rear Adm. John Kirby said. “It doesn’t matter how he was
taken captive. It doesn’t matter under what circumstances he left. … We have an
obligation to recover all of those who are missing in action.”

"Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we
still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity,” Obama said. “We don’t
condition that.”

President Obama and Admiral Kirby, you are correct we should get back every soldier,
airman, sailor, and marine-those who are captured so that we may rescue them and
those who desert so that we may hold them accountable.

What we should not do, ever, is negotiate with a terrorist group. President Obama,
Secretary Hagel, and everyone else who made the decision to implement this swap has
now put a price on the head of every American service member, whether they are
captured or simply desert.

The fact that this man is a deserter makes the negotiations and swap of prisoners for a
hostage that much more onerous. The leadership of President Obama and his advisors has
resulted in a world that is more dangerous for those who serve in the military and likely
for all US citizens who travel abroad.

In the past our government has worked behind the scenes to secure the release of
American hostages held by terrorists. The impact of those decisions is questionable and
likely lead to additional hostage taking. Unwise past actions do not justify current
actions. At least in the past our political and military leaders were wise enough not to
negotiate so openly with terrorists.

Senior Pentagon officials, military and civilian, should have tendered their resignations
before fulfilling the orders to implement this swap. I don’t call for this lightly, but the
potential ramifications for such a brazen and open negotiation with terrorists for a
hostage are that frightening.

This begs the question of why President Obama decided that this swap was worth the
potential costs. What did he hope to gain out of it at this point? The swap could have
taken place at any time during the past couple of years, yet it wasn’t done until now.
What is the political reasoning behind a swap of five dangerous members of the Taliban
for a soldier who is considered a deserter by his fellow soldiers? Why do the swap and
why do it now?

The majority of military members will not see this as a sign that the President of the
United States is concerned for them enough to make a trade should they be taken
prisoner by a terrorist. Rather many will see that the President of the United States and
senior military leadership are willing to put them at the risk of greater harm for the sake
of a deserter and a yet to be revealed political agenda. President Obama suffers either
from a lack of understanding of how the world works or he has little regard for the safety
and security of our service members. Neither is a good option.