The Complex

Iraq Is Afghanistan Prologue for Some Senators

Hanging over the confirmation hearing Thursday for the next U.S. commander in Afghanistan was not the country's disputed election or its widespread corruption, both of which threaten to unravel any progress the United States has made there.

Instead, Gen. John Campbell faced questions about Iraq, where, in parts of the country, militants from the Islamic State have overrun security forces trained by the United States at a cost of more than $25 billion. Now it's believed that, without help, the Iraqi security forces will be unable to retake areas seized by the Islamic State.

But not so long ago, U.S. military officials were confident in the capabilities of the units they were training in Iraq and would update Congress and the media about the progress they were making in building those units' capacity.

What members of the Senate Armed Services Committee heard Thursday morning about the Afghan military -- that it's capable and mostly responsible for the largely nonviolent elections that took place in April and June -- sounds eerily familiar. And they fear that as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, what's happening in Iraq is a preview of what could happen in Afghanistan.

"I watch and analyze the mistakes in Iraq, and I think many of them are going to come to pass in Afghanistan," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), referencing the failures of the Iraqi Army but also the facilities, roads, and governance structures that the United States rebuilt in Iraq and that have since fallen apart or fallen to the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS.

And now some of the military equipment left behind by the United States is also in the Islamic State's control.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, the nominee to take over U.S. Special Operations Command, whether it's true that the Islamic State has moved U.S. armored vehicles -- known as MRAPs -- out of Iraq and into Syria.

Votel said that "at a classified level" he has seen reports that would indicate equipment is moving across the "former border between Iraq and Syria." Votel currently serves as head of Joint Special Operations Command, which carries out the military's most top-secret missions.

The equipment seizure means that the moderate rebel groups supported by the United States in Syria will be facing an enemy armed with U.S. equipment stolen in Iraq.

To keep Afghanistan from going down a similar road, lawmakers asked Campbell to provide his own independent assessment of how quickly U.S. troops should leave Afghanistan, even if it means keeping them stationed beyond President Barack Obama's goal of a complete withdrawal by 2017.

"I would suggest that one of your missions is to continue to assess the readiness and the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces, because it wasn't ISIS so much as the collapse of the Iraqi Army that led to the debacle that's currently unfolding in Iraq," said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).

Another concern is whether the ethnic makeup of the Afghan security forces will threaten their cohesion in the absence of U.S. presence like it has in the Iraqi security forces.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) noted that many of the generals the United States trained in Iraq were later replaced by people with political connections to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

"We want to make sure the same thing doesn't happen in Afghanistan," he said.

Seeking to reassure the committee, Campbell responded: "I don't want to see what's happening in Iraq today happen in Afghanistan."

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued last week that the collapse of the security forces in Iraq didn't happen overnight and that their defeat in cities such as Mosul was about more than a lack of military capability. Some of the Iraqi soldiers were bribed or bullied into laying down their arms by the Islamic State, he said.

"They undermined [the Iraqi security forces] by stripping away their will to fight for a government that didn't support them," Dempsey said on July 3. "They didn't collapse in the face of a fight. They collapsed in the face of a future that didn't hold out any hope for them."

For McCaskill, both Iraq and Afghanistan represent proof that the U.S. love affair with counterinsurgency strategy has been a disaster.

"We put a Band-Aid on a cancer," she said, describing how the U.S. military was able to impose order in Iraq while it was in the country, but that it all fell apart once U.S. troops left.

And in Afghanistan, "I think you're being given an impossible task," she told Campbell.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Complex

Congressman Asks Pentagon to Probe Whether U.S. Paid for Bergdahl Release

A California Republican claims he has enough evidence suggesting that the U.S. government may have paid a ransom to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to warrant investigation by the Defense Department's Inspector General.

Conspiracy theories about the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's May 31 release from being held in captivity by the Haqqani network are rampant and many lawmakers and Americans wonder why the administration traded five Taliban warriors for one American soldier.

One particular question lingers: Did anyone in the government pay ransom, attempt to pay ransom, or use a third party to pay ransom, to win Bergdahl's release? The Obama administration flatly says "no" -- and that it was never even contemplated.

But the lawmaker, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., a former Marine, says he has enough information to make him think the government may have shelled out as much as $1.5 million for Bergdahl. The soldier was rescued by U.S. special operators in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan after being held prisoner for nearly five years. Bergdahl apparently wandered off his small combat outpost in Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan in June 2009. An investigation into whether he deserted his unit is underway. He is in a "reintegration phase" at an Army medical facility in Texas where he has begun to return to a normal life, even going so far as to eat out. He has made no public statements.

Hunter sent a letter to Defense Department Inspector General Jon Rymer this week demanding that he investigate the alleged ransom.

Acknowledging the White House's repeated denials, Hunter wrote: "Due to information I have received, I believe it is necessary for the Inspector General to review and determine if a payment was either attempted or made and whether Congress and the public were misled."

The letter, dated July 7, was provided to Foreign Policy.

"We did not pay cash for Sgt. Bergdahl's recovery, we have no information that anyone else did, and we did not consider paying for recovery as a part of these negotiations," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told FP via email.

The Haqqani network, which originated in Pakistan and has ties to Pakistan's intelligence service -- not the Taliban -- was Bergdahl's captor. But the administration released five Taliban members who had been held in Guantánamo Bay to Qatar, giving rise to the conspiracy theories, because, although the Taliban and Haqqani network have an operational and financial relationship, they are distinctly different groups. So what the Haqqanis got out of the deal is the subject of much speculation.

Joe Kasper, Hunter's deputy chief of staff and spokesman, told FP that the congressman received information outlining different options under Pentagon consideration to free Bergdahl. These "lines of effort" included a "kinetic option" in which special operators would rescue Bergdahl, and paying ransom. As much as $1.5 million was paid in February but didn't necessarily win Bergdahl's release, Kasper said. But it may have led to the Taliban-Bergdahl swap three months later, he said.

"There's good reason to believe that a ransom was either attempted or made in February 2014," Kasper said.

Hunter has proof of who within the Defense Department was aware of the "other lines of effort," who briefed higher-ups, and where the information originated.

"We have names and entities and all that stuff," Kasper said.

Hunter is not sharing the proof, he said, because it could jeopardize the IG investigation he seeks. In the letter to Rymer, Hunter said he could provide those investigators with a timeline and more detailed information, if desired.

A spokesperson for the Defense Department's Inspector General's office said Hunter's letter had arrived earlier this week and the request was under review.

Buzzfeed reported in June that Bergdahl's family had opened up a separate channel with Taliban representatives to buy his freedom with $10 million cash that was to be paid by private sources. Those talks reportedly started in 2012 and continued until Bergdahl's release.

U.S. Army via Getty Images