- By Rebecca Frankel
Rebecca Frankel is deputy editor at Foreign Policy. She is the author of War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love a New York Times bestselling book about canines in combat, the subject of her regular Friday column "Rebecca's War Dog of the Week," featured on The Best Defense. She has appeared as a guest on Conan O'Brien, BBC World News, and the Diane Rehm Show among others.
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.