06/04/2014 10:53 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2014

The MIA/POW Flag No Longer Flies for POWs in Afghanistan


Nothing demonstrates how war has changed more than the fact that thousands of soldiers become prisoners of war (POW) or went missing in action (MIA) in previous conflicts whereas now, with the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, there are no American POWs. As we discuss the release of Bergdahl, it is important to recognize what his rare captivity demonstrates about America's new way of war.

His captivity shares some similarities with past conflicts. Like many prisoners in Korea and Vietnam, Bergdahl was held for a long time, in his case five years. During this time he likely experienced extreme isolation, mental and physical abuse, and manipulative efforts to convert him into a Taliban supporter. While he was held, his family and friends were uncertain and fearful about his status, his whereabouts and whether he would ever come home.

In many ways, however, Bergdahl's experience was different from past conflicts. His extreme isolation from those who shared his citizenship, language, and culture reveals the almost total lack of American POWs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bergdahl wasn't just a POW; he was the POW, the only American being held in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Those involved in national security and the military all knew his name and his status. People in Afghanistan at the time when Bergdahl was taken said that his capture led to the war's temporary shutdown as everyone focused on locating and rescuing him. This dramatic focus on one POW reveals the high level of sensitivity to American casualties in the Afghanistan conflict and the fear about what the Taliban would do with captives. MIA and POW figures in the low single digits, compared with almost 8,000 in the Korean War, also demonstrate a historic change in America's ability to rapidly locate and rescue missing military personnel.

Look at differences along three dimensions: theater, enemy and technology. The Vietnam jungle made it easy to ambush U.S. forces, and for individual soldiers to become isolated from their units. In comparison, Afghanistan's desert terrain, even when mountainous, makes keeping track of American forces easier and greatly facilitates the employment of dominant U.S. air power. The enemy in Vietnam saw more political advantage in prisoners than the enemy in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not as strong an insurgent force as previous adversaries. In Afghanistan the U.S. almost always has asymmetrical mass -- the tactical advantage in a fight, which was not the case in Vietnam or Korea. Contributing to that asymmetry, new technology has fundamentally altered the information space, creating huge advantages for U.S. forces. GPS technology allows American ground troops to accurately determine their location, which, when coupled with precision-guided munitions and other smart weapons, contributes to quick, accurate and directed support. Drones, which can linger and search over the battlefield, provide fantastic battlefield intelligence. Satellite/UHF and computer technology provide rapid and wide coverage, stretching the tactical battlefield so that units always remain connected and aware of each other. Individual emergency beacons facilitate soldiers' swift rescue and retrieval. When combined, these factors generate historically low levels of MIA and POW figures, dramatically changing the way these wars are fought.

The nature of war continually evolves as adversaries adapt, win and lose. The current way of war, especially insurgent and counterinsurgent conflict, contains random death and injury from IEDs and snipers, a frustrating inability to measure progress, and a revolutionary tactical change in the likelihood that soldiers will be taken and held prisoner. Sgt. Bergdahl's release, and with it the complete absence of American POWs in Afghanistan, make clear the fundamental transformation in the American way of war.