Father of 1st US Afghanistan fatality blasts prisoner swap with Taliban
By JON HARPER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 3, 2014
WASHINGTON — The father of America's first fatality in Afghanistan denounced the Obama administration for releasing Taliban prisoners that he holds responsible for his son’s death, saying the move was a slap in the face to every American who died in the war against terror.
Johnny "Mike" Spann, part of a CIA paramilitary unit, was killed Nov. 25, 2001 during an uprising by Taliban prisoners near Mazar-e-Sharif a month after President George W. Bush ordered U.S. forces into Afghanistan to punish al-Qaida and its allies for the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Two of the five Taliban prisoners released last weekend from Guantanamo prison in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl were present during the uprising at Qala-i-Jangi prison, according to U.S. documents obtained by The Washington Post. They were Mullah Mohammad Fazl and Mullah Norullah Noori.
Spann's father, Johnny Spann, told Stars and Stripes that his first reaction to the exchange was "disappointment and disbelief.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Spann recalled. “It’s a slap in the face to everybody that’s died in this war on terror... Every American that’s lost their life to the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaida — this is a slap in their face to know that we had five high-powered leaders that we just turned loose.”
Details of the two mullahs' roles in the uprising have never been publicly spelled out by the U.S.
Nevertheless, Spann, 65, of Winfield, Alabama, is convinced the two were responsible even if they weren’t the ones that pulled the trigger.
“I’m convinced from all the reports and all the information that I have that that was a planned event from the night before, and [the Taliban] knew exactly what they were going to do and when they were going to do it. And I think that those two men were part of it — part of the planning,” he said.
“Everybody that was inside there had a hand in it. Nobody tried to protect Mike’s life — not a single soul in there tried to. Everybody in there was hell-bent on killing Americans... Mike lost his life inside Qala-i-Jangi, and yes, I hold everybody responsible that was inside that prison for Mike’s death... Everybody inside Qala-i-Jangi has blood on their hands and was a part of it,” he said.
Questions about the 2001 uprising have been raised again since the release of Bergdahl, 28, of Hailey, Idaho.
Bergdahl went missing in June 2009 in Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan while serving with a unit of the 25th Infantry Division from Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Some former members of Bergdahl's unit have accused him of deserting and that American lives were lost looking for him.
Bergdahl is currently at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was sent soon after his release.
Spann is withholding judgment on Bergdahl for now. But even if Bergdahl wasn’t a deserter, Spann thinks the trade wasn’t worth it.
“I see no equality in what was traded for Bergdahl. I don’t see no equality as far as value there,” Spann said. “I mean [the detainees] were very valuable to us as far as they were responsible for a lot of American lives... They weren’t the average Joe out there carrying a rifle on the battlefield. They were leaders. They were the people that were planning things.”
Obama has defended his decision, saying America had a "sacred duty" to ensure that no U.S. servicemember was left behind on the battlefield.
Spann thinks the U.S. government should try to get American prisoners of war freed, but he says the Taliban can’t be dealt with like a normal enemy at the end of a conflict.
“Certainly the U.S. needs to always work for the release of those [American] prisoners,” Spann said. “If we knew that we were making a deal with a responsible group of people and we knew that they were going to lay down their arms and they were not going to continue to try to kill Americans, then you might consider that to some extent. But now, we don’t have any agreement like that in this war with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This war on terror is nowhere near over.”
Spann also thinks the swap sends the wrong signal and will put more Americans in danger.
“[Our enemies] know that they can get an American and they can hold them hostage, and at some point we’ll trade,” he said.
Still, Spann can sympathize with Bergdahl’s parents, who have made a high-profile effort to push for their son’s release. They appeared next to Obama in the Rose Garden on Saturday after Obama announced the swap.
“If it was my son, would I want him home? Why yeah. But... that’s a reason that parents and kin folks can’t be on the jury and they can’t be the judge because they would be biased... You can ask a parent, ‘Well, if that was your son, would you want him home?’ Well, of course I’d want him home. But if your son committed murder, would you still want him home? Yeah, the majority of the people [you asked] would want him to not go to jail... But that’s not the way this system works. They’re not the judge, and your kin folks don’t get to decide that,” Spann said.
Spann thinks Obama doesn’t understand the raw emotions people in his position feel.
“I’d almost bet you that if one of President Obama’s children had been killed in this war or on 9/11, he would have a different reflection and a different attitude as far as any leniency that he would give to al-Qaida and Taliban leaders who have been active in the death of Americans,” he said.
Spann thinks about Mike and the 9/11 attacks all the time.
“I’ve got a big picture in the front of my office of the towers smoking and falling with the airplane sticking out of it. Every day I see that. I’ve got several pictures of my son throughout my office. So it’s constantly on my mind that I remember him and I remember those people that died on 9/11, because when I walk into the front door, the first thing I see is that photo of the towers,” he said. “[My] disbelief is we would give five people back that were instrumental... in the deaths of thousands of American people all the way back to 9/11.”
Spann thinks the released detainees will try to kill more Americans, and he mocks the Obama administration’s assurances that measures are in place to prevent them from doing that.
“I don’t think any responsible American will look at this situation and think that they’re going to go to Qatar [where they’ll spend the next year under the supervision of the Qatari government] and Qatar is going to keep them under some kind of security measures where they’re not going to be able to have any kind of influence on the Talban and al-Qaida movements throughout the world. I just don’t believe that... I just don’t think they were rehabilitated. I think that’s sort of a joke for us to think that or even suppose that they have been. And I think they’ll be out there costing more American lives or more American deaths,” he said.