July 12, 2014

Military chiefs support the release of the "Taliban Five" for Sergeant Bergdahl - well, sort of....

Click on image to go to the Senator's website and access the actual letters

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, Chair of the powerful Armed Service Committee sent letters to the senior U.S. uniformed military leadership asking them "for their opinions" on the release of what have now become known as the "Taliban Five" in exchange for the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier held captive by the Taliban since 2009.

The Senator published the responses to his letters on his website and issued the above press release. (You can click on the image and read the press release and the letters on the Senator's website.)

The letters are from the seven senior military officers in the country:
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey (U.S. Army)
- Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld (U.S. Navy)
- Chief of Staff, U.S. Army General Ray Odierno
- Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General James Amos
- Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert
- Chief Staff, U.S. Air Force General Mark Welsh
- Chief, National Guard Bureau General Frank Grass (U.S. Army)

A key quote from Senator Levin: "Each of these military leaders emphasized a simple principle – America does not leave its troops behind. The unanimous support of the Joint Chiefs for securing Sergeant Bergdahl’s release is a powerful statement on the importance of that commitment. I give great weight to their views, and I believe it’s important for the American people to hear them."

Unanimous support? For the recovery of Sergeant Bergdahl - yes. For the release of the detainees - not so much.

I understand that Senator Levin is a politician and this was basically a political exercise, but I think some comments about this request and the nature of military service are in order.

The Chairman and Vice Chairman were involved in all aspects of the decision, so of course they support it.

The other five (the four service chiefs and the National Guard chief), of course unanimously support the efforts to gain the repatriation of an American being held by hostile forces - that should come as no surprise.

However, none of them were consulted before the decision was made to release the Taliban detainees in exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl, nor were aware of the operation to do so until it was over. They stated that in their responses and mostly declined to pass judgement on the wisdom of releasing the detainees.

It is not surprising that the four service chiefs were not asked for their input to the decision. Since the implementation of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, the chain of command flows from the President as Commander in Chief to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander (in this case, commander of the U.S. Central Command).

Note that the Vice President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs are not in the operational chain of command. The Chairman provides advice to the President and Secretary of Defense, and executes the orders. The service chiefs train, equip and organize their respective services and provide trained and equipped units to the combatant commanders.

When these senior officers are asked by a Senator if they support a decision of the President/Commander in Chief, they are obliged to answer the question. It is important to consider that these officers serve at the pleasure of the President, and work either directly or indirectly for the Commander in Chief.

The responses should not be a surprise. These officers follow orders - they are not going to contradict the Commander in Chief outside of military channels. The Senator knows that - he was looking for a quote....