NATO Forces

Hostages Rescued by ISAF, and Why ISAF Has to Blame the Taliban

Aid worker Linda Norgrove, North East Afghanistan

Aid worker Linda Norgrove, North East Afghanistan, killed in 2010 in a similar rescue attempt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Relaxed and Ready for the ‘Nam

I’m back on the blog after some much-needed time away. Currently working on a piece designed to regale all of you with how Barbados is just like Afghanistan, since that’s what would-be pundits do: make everywhere else sound like their particular field of “expertise.” Or just make everything here sound like the ‘Nam (Thank you, Reuters…or maybe it’s just a Reuters editor who has no real idea how it works here and can watch Mad Men and tell the kids on the reporting team “Yup, I had a tie like that. Man, I miss drinking in the office.” All I’m saying is that if your touchstone for war references always revolves around choppers leaving Saigon, you may have lost your relevancy and you probably drive your reporters bonkers.).

Good News Today

For now, some good news out of Afghanistan, actually. Well, good news for the hostages that were rescued, since their captors all died in the raid.

So good news, then:

British nutritionist Helen Johnston, Kenyan medic Moragwa Oirere and two Afghans were rescued in Badakhshan province on Friday after being captured on 22 May, the Nato-led Isaf said.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron called it an “extraordinarily brave, breathtaking” operation.

Five hostage takers were killed during the rescue, Nato said

The group – all employees of Switzerland-based aid group Medair – were making their way on horseback to the remote, mountainous province of Badakhshan, in north-eastern Afghanistan, when they were captured.

A fifth member – another Afghan national – was released soon afterwards.

These stories don’t always end this well, unfortunately, as Linda Norgrove lost her life when Navy SEALs attempted to rescue her in 2010, and an eerily similar series of events Badakhshan resulted in the deaths of Dr. Karen Woo and 9 others earlier that same year .

So good stuff, really: I’m always a fan of stories that end in hostages not getting dead.

What I’m not a fan of is the NATO knee-jerk response to blame the Taliban. For contrast, this from the BBC story:

Police in Badakhshan, which borders Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, described the gunmen as part of a criminal group which was taking advantage of the challenging terrain and the loose grip that Afghan security forces had on the area.

But the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville, in Kabul, says heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s found during the raid suggest the kidnappers did have links to insurgent groups such as the Taliban.

And this from the NATO release earlier today:

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirms the rescue of four civilians who were being held by insurgents in Northern Afghanistan during an early morning raid today.

Heavy Weapons Do Not An Insurgent Make

First of all, Mr. Sommerville’s assessment that heavy weapons must mean insurgents isn’t completely flawed: larger caliber weapons could indicate insurgents, but it also could indicate local warlords stocking up, and who aren’t above the occasional “kidnapping for ransom” scheme to supplement their income.

Or it could be that they’re simply low-level thugs who have friends in the insurgency.




The beauty of being the armchair quarterback is that you’re never ever wrong. Having an opinion in a situation like this where it’s really tough to get the dead guys to a) talk, or b) show their Quetta Shura Decoder Rings means that speculation will be rampant. And no one gets to be wrong.

But ISAF will insist that these were actual insurgents, actively fighting the government.

Note the difference in the BBC story and the ISAF release: BBC writes that the weapons “suggest the kidnappers did have links to insurgent groups,” while the ISAF release states unequivocally that the hostages “were being held by insurgents.”

This is despite the fact that the Badakhshan authorities are stating that it’s local criminal gangs.

What’s the difference, really? End of the day, it’s all some dudes with beards and floppy sandals carrying AKs, right?

Like all things here: sorta.

Criminal/Insurgent: It’s Not Quite a Potato/Potahto Groove

The difference in the two identifications is that countering an insurgency gives one a lot more leeway in how one goes about killing people (read: not so much need for the due process). Since ISAF views them as insurgents, then going in guns first is completely acceptable.

If the hostage-takers were simply criminals, then they might actually need to be subjected to the Afghan judicial process (such as it is: thanks, America!), vs. just getting shot dead.

If they’re insurgents, then killing them without a warrant or probable cause falls under that “all things okey dokey” category.

If they’re just common criminals, then killing them within the borders of a (theoretically) sovereign nation with a judicial system might actually smack of one of them there warcrimes.

That being said, it’s also in the interest of the Badakhshan authorities to paint them as common criminals: that any insurgent activity is gone, and they just need more help from Kabul in the form of “lawyers, guns and money” (miss you, Uncle Warren) to help keep the peace using the po-lice. This kind of transition from a counter-insurgency force to an actual protect-and-serve arm is a crucial activity for the Afghan National Police and other entities with that word in their job title. But that kind of law-and-order governance-y stuff makes life tougher for ISAF, so they’re slow to call anything like this purely a criminal act.

In my time here in Afghanistan, I’ve seen the “insurgent” label slapped on events that were later found, with little further investigation, to be connected to criminal elements vs. any kind of Taliban/Haqqani/whoever-we-can-blame-this-week action. The “Taliban” and their ilk make a convenient bogeyman that only serves to justify the continued presence and nearly unilateral actions by ISAF forces in dealing with the insurgency.

Since transition to rule of law and sovereign nation operations requires a delicate touch and something that resembles a Status of Forces Agreement (vs. the nearly toothless Strategic Partnership Agreement), all of which is still years away, ISAF will continue to make the case that these kinds of events are definitely insurgent-related.

Also, it’s just a lot easier to shoot-shoot-bang-bang vs. trying to subject anyone to what passes for criminal prosecution here in this country.

UPDATE: Wherein ISAF Hedges Its Bets

Ran across this little gem after the original posting.

At :30, Lt. Gen. Bradshaw calls the hostage takers a “criminal insurgent grouping.” Vs. a legal one, I suppose.

Words are weird.

So goodie, everybody wins.

No Need to Trouble Yourself, ANSF. We’ll Rescue the Foreigners.

What’s also interesting to note is how despite the fact that ISAF continues to tout “Operation Ready or Not” when it comes to stating that Afghan forces are in the lead, this was entirely an ISAF operation. From the ISAF statement:

“First, I would like to thank the Afghan Ministry of the Interior and Minister Mohammadi for their tremendous support throughout this crisis. Second, this morning’s mission, conducted by coalition forces, exemplifies our collective and unwavering commitment to defeat the Taliban,” said Gen. John R. Allen, commander, International Security Assistance Force.

“I’m extremely grateful to the Afghan authorities and proud of the ISAF forces that planned, rehearsed, and successfully conducted this operation. Thanks to them, Ms. Helen Johnston, Ms. Moragwe Oirere, and their two co-workers will soon be rejoining their families and loved ones.”

Apparently ISAF’s #ANSFCanDo means #ISAFCanDoWhenItComesToExpatHostages.

No need to draw larger conclusions about the readiness of the ANSF to take over an entire country when there wasn’t a single Afghan unit (even one of those awesome commando crews that saved Kabul back in April) that could conduct a raid against five insurgents in a cave. Or gully. Or whatever.

I guess caves and gullies are really, really complicated.

Maybe ANSF gets the next one. Like in 2015.


  • OH. El Snarkistani. Barbados must have been VERY good, because the brilliance level, snark/serious analysis balance, are *off the charts!!!” Every Thomas Friedman, et all. piece should come with mandatory ready of IASK, as the “only known antidote.” And important point about that pesky “rule of law” stuff too.

    • Well thanks…terribly kind words. Found a follow-up piece today that actually enforces the thought that these were criminals, but “aligned with insurgents.” Will be updating the post accordingly.

      At some point I’m going to only talk to cabdrivers a al Friedman in order to do my job.

  • Words are hard… Yet you manage to make them easy… Love the post, hate the politics of generalising something to make it fit in their little rule book…might be just as easy an corrupt to change the rules as they go. These things will never change well beyond 2014, 15 or whenever. Least we forget the hostages did make it out alive, and for that I am sure they are grateful.

  • Your tone is sanctimonious. You ignore the obvious. The rescue team had one choice, and made it: Get the captives out alive, as well as themselves. Have you ever gone into a cave where guns would be pointed in your face?

    • Not sure what obvious point I’m ignoring. I make no judgments about the decision to shoot anyone. What I am being tonily sanctimonious about is the fact that ISAF, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, is making the case that these were insurgents.

      And no, I’ve never gone into a cave/gully/whatever where guns would be pointed at my face. Just for the record.