A NATO War Dog Is The Taliban's Newest Hostage

Early Thursday morning, Taliban forces in Afghanistan released a video proving, it claimed, that the militants had captured a U.S. military dog. The footage shows a group of bearded men holding up machine guns and standing around a brown dog tied to a length of chain.

The BBC's David Loyn had one of the earlier reports detailing the Taliban's claim that they had captured the dog -- allegedly named "Colonel" -- after a night raid which, among other alleged triumphs, netted weapons "of a type frequently used by American special forces."

Headlines and Twitter chatter furiously repeated the news: The Taliban has a U.S. war dog.

But about midday Thursday, Military Times reporter Jeff Schogol, after doing some admirable digging, revealed that the dog seen in the footage was in fact not part of the U.S. military -- but rather from another NATO force. 

Reached via Twitter, a Taliban spokesman claimed the dog was captured following a Dec. 23 raid by U.S. forces in Alingar district, Laghman province. The spokesman also claimed six U.S. troops were killed in the raid. NATO announced two deaths for that day in separate attacks: One in eastern Afghanistan and one in southern Afghanistan.

When asked if the dog would be released, Military Times was referred to another Taliban spokesman, who did not respond to repeated emails.

A NATO spokesman did not have any information about how the dog was captured.

"We can confirm that a military working dog went missing following an ISAF mission in December 2013," Army Lt. Col. Will Griffin said in an email to Military Times on Thursday. "It is [International Secutiry Assitance Force] policy to defer identification to the appropriate national authorities."

This news then ricocheted around the Internet. The BBC updated its original report to say that "U.S. military sources say the dog belonged to a coalition partner and the BBC understands it was working for British forces." To my knowledge -- though I imagine this story will continue to unfold as it gains even more attention -- this is the latest and most up-to-date information about the dog in the video.

The initial reaction and mostly unquestioning acceptance that this dog was attached to U.S. forces wasn't a bad guess. Based on the footage, I would guess the dog is a Belgian Malinois, one of the two breeds most often employed by U.S. forces. He's trim and fit and looks like no other Afghan hound I've ever seen, eliminating the possibility that these fighters stumbled across some gear and outfitted a random dog. Moreover, the dog's gear appears to be legitimate. Depending on the mission, military dogs are often outfitted with these kinds of packs, which sometimes include a flexible camera with night vision capabilities.

So, how did this dog end up in the Taliban's hands? It's not as uncommon as you might think for a dog to get separated from his handler during a firefight. Most of war dogs have excellent off-leash capabilities and are not always by their handler's side or tethered to a retractable leash. And even the best-trained dog who has shown nothing but a hearty endurance for the sound of gunfire and RPG blasts can still have a bad reaction to an explosion or the chaos of a mission gone wrong. Still, as one handler I spoke to Thursday morning and who deployed to Iraq with his dog in 2004, said "If the guys had to leave the dog and weapons behind, they were in some serious shit."

To some, it might seem silly or even ridiculous that the Taliban is touting the capture of a dog as if they've delivered a major blow to their enemies. It's not. In fact, no one has a better understanding than the Taliban of how effective these dogs are in countering asymmetric warfare and how many improvised explosive devices they uncover.

These dogs are such a threat to insurgents that they have become a sought-after target. In Iraq and Afghanistan, militants have placed enormous bounties on handlers and their dogs. Handlers and other service men and women who have gotten hit in a firefight have speculated to me that the original target had almost undoubtedly been the dog. As one handler who was about to depart on yet another deployment to Afghanistan told me in an interview last year, he didn't necessarily feel more prepared for another tour of hunting IEDs simply because he'd done it before. The insurgents watched the dog handlers, he said, and constantly tried to outpace the animals, both in how they planted bombs and where they hid them.

In every war that dogs have been employed, they have become prime targets. The Vietcong placed bounties on U.S. dog teams and offered upwards of $20,000 for a kill. During WWI, war dogs were often captured and retrained rather than killed, as they were considered a valuable asset. Though they clearly understand the animals' value, I doubt very much that the Taliban would take such a nuanced view of these dogs.

I actually find this video a bit hard to watch. While the dog appears docile, he is to my eye ill at ease. His ears remain mostly flat, his tail might wag, but it does so uncertainly and is otherwise tucked between his hind legs. These are not men he knows.

The person I'm thinking of now is this dog's handler. If he has seen this footage, maybe it's given him a sense of hope or maybe a clearer sense of the fate his dog will meet. But either way, these service men and women have lost one of their own. Sure it's "just" a dog, but that dog was in the business of keeping them safe. At the end of the day, that counts as a loss. And I'm sorry for them.

Rebecca Frankel is the special projects editor at Foreign Policy and the author of the forthcoming book War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love.



Did An Acquitted War Crimes Suspect Just Show How To Get Off The Treasury Department’s Blacklist?

The Treasury Department quietly removed a former Croatian general from its sanctions blacklist after the accused war criminal filed a lawsuit to clear his name. Ante Gotovina's success could provide a roadmap of sorts for the accused terrorists, war criminals and drug kingpins who feel they've been wrongfully languishing on the list.

U.S. financial sanctions have been credited with bringing Iran to the negotiating table by decimating its economy, but they're not just used against Tehran. Thousands of alleged criminals of all stripes, from embezzlers to supporters of various dictatorships, have also found themselves in Treasury's crosshairs.

Getting off the rolls is a long, difficult process that, in a twist worthy of Kafka, involves petitioning the same Treasury Department office that initially issued the sanctions. Those on the blacklist aren't entitled to a hearing, to see the evidence being used against them, or even to a prompt response. Gotovina, after waiting more than a year, finally sued the government on Jan. 6.

More lawsuits could follow now that others on the blacklist have seen that legal motions can spur the Treasury Department to act.

"You're basically putting the screws to them and forcing their hand because they're going to have to answer one way or another in court," said Erich Ferrari, a lawyer who's built a practice representing people who want to get off the sanctions list.

He doesn't always succeed. Ferrari recently lost a case when a federal court upheld Treasury's sanctions against Fernando Zevallos, a disgraced former businessman serving time in a Peruvian prison for allegedly running an international drug business through an airline that he owned.

A United Nations tribunal indicted Gotovina in 2001 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. In 2003, then-President George W. Bush sanctioned him after Gotovina fled rather turn himself in to authorities. He was arrested in 2005 in the Canary Islands and jailed at the Hague. Gotovina was convicted in 2011 of war crimes and sentenced to 24 years in prison, but that decision was overturned on appeal in November 2012.  

Gotovina is now a free man who wants to get into tuna farming. It's hard, though, to start an international business while you're on a Treasury Department blacklist. No American person or company can sell you equipment, insure your boats, or process your banking transactions.

"Those practical impediments to his livelihood are eliminated by being taken off the list," said Stephen Gavin, Gotovina's lawyer and a partner at Patton Boggs LLP.

Gavin said Treasury didn't call or send a letter to notify Gotovina that he was no longer on the sanctions blacklist. In a brief online notice, the head of the Treasury office only that "circumstances no longer warrant" keeping Gotovina's name on the list.

*Correction, Feb. 7, 2014: The original title of this blog post wrongly implied that Ante Gotovina was still an accused war criminal. Gotovina had actually been cleared of those charges in 2012 and is no longer tied to any alleged wrongdoing. The title has been corrected.

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