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Hostages: Assets in Hybrid Wars?

The Pentagon has been mostly mum on the American soldier who has gone missing in eastern Afghanistan and is believed held by the Taliban. It appears on the face of it to be an unusual case of a soldier who walked away from his combat outpost and abruptly fell into enemy hands.

The insurgent Haqqani network claims to have the soldier and according to recent reporting by Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal, intelligence officials believe he has been moved to a Haqqani safe house somewhere in Northwest Pakistan. The U.S. military has been pushing hard against the Haqqani network with raids and strikes, partly in an effort to gather intelligence on the missing soldier’s whereabouts.

The unusual circumstances of the missing U.S. soldier may mean it is simply a one off that is unlikely to be repeated. However, there was an interesting detail in the Army’s report on a Taliban attack that briefly overran a remote Army outpost in eastern Afghanistan last year, an attack that left nine U.S. soldiers dead.

Former scribbler Tom Ricks, now at CNAS, has been reporting out details of the Wanat battle. He got hold of the closely-held Army official report, written by historian Douglas Cubbison for the Combat Studies Institute. Paraphrasing the report, Ricks writes: “overrunning the outpost doesn't appear to have been the aim of the insurgents, who instead seemed to have been trying to capture soldiers or their bodies. Two of the American dead appeared to have been dragged several yards, probably in a failed attempt to do so, [Cubbison] notes.”

Without interrogating insurgent commanders at Wanat, it’s unlikely that the true aims of the operation will be known, but it’s possible that further efforts to capture coalition soldiers on patrol or stationed at remote outposts may follow.

I was talking to RAND’s David Johnson the other day about Israeli military adaptation and training in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon war and lessons from its various irregular wars. He said a good chunk of IDF training is dedicated to teaching soldiers how to avoid being captured by either Hezbollah or Palestinian Hamas because captured soldiers create such a big political issue. The 2006 Lebanon war was launched in part to create conditions for the release of abducted IDF soldiers and to deter additional abduction attempts.

I don’t mean to equate the U.S. conflict against the Taliban in Afghanistan with Israel’s conflict against either Hezbollah or Hamas; there is an entirely different psychology at play in Israel regarding captured solders.

But the hybrid or irregular wars of today are waged with different rule sets than past, more conventional, fights. It’s not entirely out of the realm to imagine the insurgent Haqqani network in Afghanistan or the Taliban seizing an American, or European, soldier and selling the hostage to Al Qaeda for propaganda uses in imitation of Hezbollah.

Today’s wars are carried out very much in the public space where information operations aimed at public will are every bit as important as maneuver operations and insurgents in Afghanistan know of the contentious public debate on the war underway in western capitals.

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