Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
To bring kidnapped soldier home, U.S. ready to talk to Taliban
First Published Feb 17 2014 08:54 pm • Last Updated Feb 17 2014 08:56 pm

Washington • In an effort to free American captive Bowe Bergdahl before the bulk of U.S. forces leave Afghanistan this year, the Obama administration has decided to try to resume talks with the Taliban and sweeten an offer to trade Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the Army sergeant, current and former officials said.

Five members of the Afghan Taliban who have been held at Guantanamo for years would be released to protective custody in Qatar in exchange for the release of Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and is thought to be held in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, an allied insurgent group.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

To refresh the American offer, which has been on the table for more than two years, senior officials from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies decided within the past month to allow the simultaneous release of all five men. Taliban representatives had objected to the previous plan to release the prisoners by ones or twos as a test of Taliban and Qatari intermediaries’ ability to make sure the men did not return to militancy.

Two people familiar with the decision stressed that it was the Taliban that broke off negotiations nearly two years ago and that the U.S. door to talks has been open since. The renewed offer has not been formally made, and no State Department or other officials have immediate plans to travel to Doha, Qatar, where any contact facilitated by the Qatari government would take place.

The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Friday that U.S. officials are eager to get the soldier back.

"He’s been gone too long," Kirby told reporters during a briefing. "We want him back. We’ve never stopped trying to bring that about. He’s never far from anyone’s mind here."

Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline parts of a strategy they described as a last-ditch effort to engage the Taliban.

The mid-January decision by officials at the level of deputy secretary would confine any new talks to the prisoner issue. Negotiations would not attempt wider engagement with the Taliban on a host of issues related to the future of Afghanistan. U.S. officials had once hoped to use the prisoner exchange as a means to build confidence for those larger discussions, which would also have involved the Afghan government. Now, the United States is primarily focused on getting Bergdahl home.

Officials at the Pentagon said last month that they had obtained a new video of Bergdahl, the first evidence U.S. officials have seen in nearly three years that the soldier remains alive. They had long been seeking evidence that Bergdahl was still living, because of reports that he had attempted to escape once and because of concerns about his health, a U.S. official said. The United States intercepted the video before its makers intended to release or broadcast it, the official said.

Bergdahl, an army infantryman assigned to a unit from Alaska, was taken captive after walking off his base in the eastern province of Paktika, a decision that confounded his comrades and commanders in Afghanistan. The U.S. military launched a massive manhunt, fearing it would be nearly impossible to find him if his captors smuggled him into Pakistan. The Taliban soon took credit for capturing him and offered to release him in exchange for $1 million and 21 Afghan prisoners.

story continues below
story continues below

The Taliban broke off talks before they ever really began in 2012, and an effort to resurrect negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government last year ended in an embarrassing shambles. A political office promised to the Taliban was readied in Doha but closed two days after it opened in June amid a row over the raising of a flag the Taliban used when it ruled Afghanistan prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Taliban representatives remain in Doha, and the office is a de facto political headquarters.

Separately, the Pentagon has examined the feasibility of trying to negotiate Bergdahl’s release directly with the Haqqani network, which is part of the broader Taliban insurgency but operates separately. The network is widely believed to be holding the solider in Pakistan, two others familiar with that exploratory effort said.

Preliminary studies have looked at whether the Haqqanis would engage in talks to trade Bergdahl for Haqqani prisoners captured by U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and held at a prison adjacent to Bagram air base, one current and one former U.S. official said.

The United States is holding a "handful" of Haqqani prisoners in Afghanistan, one official said. The exact number has not been disclosed.

At one point in 2012, U.S. officials tried to feel out the Haqqanis through a senior member of the network held at Bagram, but there was no response, one official said. Another person familiar with the effort said similar exploratory planning was done to test whether the Haqqanis might be paid off or otherwise enticed to let Bergdahl escape.

There is no "actionable" intelligence on Bergdahl’s exact location, one official said, and a U.S. military rescue mission has long been effectively ruled out.

The United States has even less traction with the Haqqanis, branded a terrorist group in 2012, than with the main Taliban organization. A State Department official met once with Haqqani representatives more than three years ago, but there has been no further contact, two officials said.

In an apparent attempt to draw Haqqani support for the separate Guantanamo-related bargain, one of the five prisoners who would be released was a relatively low-level member of the Haqqani network, one official said.

Next Page >

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment

About Reader Comments

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.