It’s Time for Better Options for Rescuing US Hostages
The deaths of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff give good reason why the Islamic State group must be crushed. Though less apparent in these tragedies is what the U.S. government must do differently to support Americans in captivity – specifically those held in hostile territory.
At this very moment, there are Americans in the custody of extremist organizations from Iraq and Syria, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. No different than what Foley and Sotloff experienced, these individuals are under constant threat and their lives are at risk every day.
The U.S. does not pay ransoms and is unwilling to make concessions with terrorist organizations. There is sometimes an opportunity for a rescue mission, but not always. And when a rescue is not feasible or unsuccessful, there is a presumption that other options are generally within reach to bring these Americans home. That assumption is wrong.
The unfortunate reality is that alternate efforts are not systematically developed and rarely exhausted when introduced. The problem is not a shortage of creative thinking – there is plenty of that already. The real problem is the lack of leadership and the fact that no single institution or line of authority exists within the federal government to support captives.
This often results in recovery operations with limited organization and difficulties due to the involvement of multiple government entities with varying degrees of interest and purview. The White House, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Pentagon and the military services are almost always uniquely involved in some way. Mostly, for non-uniformed individuals, it is the State Department and the FBI that lead operations despite possessing limited assets and access to the captor network.
One of the most vivid illustrations of this dynamic involves Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. To compete with the State Department-focused prisoner swap and to disassociate from infighting, a separate cell was created within the Pentagon – led by experienced and battle-tested individuals – to develop non-combat oriented solutions, more formally known as non-kinetic options, to do more than just recover Bergdahl. The objective was to recover all Americans held in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
The planning produced viable options that included no ransom payments to terrorists or disproportionate trades. The cell focused on Pakistan as the key element and presented ideas that leveraged Pakistan’s security apparatus and its influence with various captors.
The proposals were briefed, only to be passed over and ignored by mid-level bureaucrats. The ideas never reached the secretary of defense and they most certainly never reached the president, who approved the prisoner swap without knowledge of additional efforts under consideration within the Pentagon. The proposals were shelved and there has been no attempt or interest to reintroduce them. Some have application beyond Afghanistan-Pakistan and could prove useful for Americans held by the Islamic State group.
In the case of Foley, Sotloff and others, the Defense Department has taken a backseat the State Department and FBI. But as proven by the cell that developed non-combat options for Bergdahl, it is the Defense Department that is best positioned to lead these efforts.
This starts with directing a single line of authority through the Defense Department, empowered by the president, to maintain control and oversight, and guarantee efforts are properly developed, coordinated and sufficiently resourced. Further, the authority would pursue the full range of options – military and diplomatic. And a process should also be established to determine the most appropriate lead-department or agency for cases in non-contested areas.
The U.S. cannot stop the Islamic State and other organizations from taking Americans captive, unless these groups are decimated altogether. That day may come, but until it does the U.S. should not sit around and wait while there are Americans in enemy hands and the threat exists that more might be taken captive.