Taliban ready to deal on captive US soldier

2014-04-24 12:53
This image grab from an undated video reportedly posted on the internet by Taliban militants allegedly shows US soldier Bowe Robert Bergdahl. (File, AFP)

This image grab from an undated video reportedly posted on the internet by Taliban militants allegedly shows US soldier Bowe Robert Bergdahl. (File, AFP)

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Washington - The captors of an American soldier held for nearly five years in Afghanistan have signalled a willingness to release him but are unclear which US government officials have the authority to make a deal, according to two individuals in the military working for his release.

Critics of the release effort blame disorganisation and poor communication among the numerous federal agencies involved.

An ever-shrinking US military presence in Afghanistan has refocused attention on efforts to bring home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 30 June 2009.

About two dozen officials at the State and Defence departments, the military's US Central Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Special Operations Command, the CIA and FBI are working the case - most of them doing it alongside their other duties, a defence official said.

Bergdahl's captors are anxious to release him, according to a defence official and a military officer, who both spoke to The Associated Press only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the case publicly.

"Elements in all echelons - from the top of the Taliban down to the folks holding Bergdahl - are reaching out to make a deal," the defence official said.

‘Proof of life’

The military officer, who said the effort was marred by distrust on both sides, said those holding Bergdahl have indicated what they would be willing to do to prove to the US government that they want to deal, but that the US has not formally responded to that outreach.

Bergdahl, aged 28, of Hailey, Idaho, was last seen in a "proof of life" video released in December. He is thought to be held by members of the Haqqani network, which operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to US troops in the war.

The Haqqani network, which the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2012, claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.

Republican Representative Duncan Hunter wrote earlier this year to Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, saying it was critical that efforts to free Bergdahl are not overcome by bureaucracy.

"Given the significance and necessity for centralised command and control, which I have been informed is little to nonexistent, I urge you to seriously consider the idea of directing an individual to organise, manage and co-ordinate activity that involves multiple elements of the federal government working toward Bergdahl's release," wrote Hunter, a Marine veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Days later, Hagel appointed Michael Lumpkin, assistant defence secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, as the point person for the Bergdahl case at the Pentagon. Hunter viewed that as a good step but noted that Lumpkin only has jurisdiction over the Pentagon work, not the other agencies.

A month after Lumpkin's appointment, Hunter wrote to President Barack Obama, asking him to make the Defence Department the lead on all efforts to get Bergdahl back "with the specific aim of achieving a faster resolution than can be provided by the Department of State". He also asked Obama to name one co-ordinator to oversee the entire Bergdahl effort.

‘Comprehensive synchronisation’

The State Department is leading the most publicised approach to getting Bergdahl back - a plan to exchange him for five Taliban detainees at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The department declined comment on Hunter's letters and referred questions to the White House.

"The reason Sergeant Bergdahl remains a captive is because he is being held by a terrorist organisation, not because of a lack of effort or co-ordination by the US government," said Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the National Security Council.

The defence official and military officer paint a different picture.

When the Hagel's office and CENTCOM separately learned about the Bergdahl video in December, there was confusion about who should tell the family, the defence official said. The secretary's office ended up informing the family.

That angered CENTCOM, which believed it was its responsibility to tell the Bergdahls. Neither was communicating with the other about the video notification, the defence official said.

In August 2012, Obama contacted Bergdahl's parents weeks after they expressed frustration that the government wasn't doing enough to secure their son's freedom. But in May 2013, Bob Bergdahl told a POW/MIA gathering in Washington that he was pleased with the government's efforts to bring his son home.

Navy Commander Amy Derrick-Frost, a Defence Department spokesperson, also defended the effort, saying the Pentagon was committed to the safe and immediate release of Bergdahl and that Lumpkin was spearheading the "comprehensive synchronisation" of efforts throughout the department and with other agencies.

Suspended ‘mediation’

The Pentagon is exploring several avenues to get Bergdahl released, including one that seeks to negotiate with the Haqqani network, according to an individual familiar with the government's efforts.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to publicly discuss the Pentagon's efforts, said some government officials also are looking into ways to seek the simultaneous release of Bergdahl and four civilians, including a woman who was pregnant when she went missing, believed held by militants.

All avenues are fraught with difficulties.

In late February, the Taliban said it had suspended "mediation" with the United States about swapping Bergdahl for the five Taliban detainees, blaming the "current complex political situation" in Afghanistan.

There also is some congressional opposition to the prisoner swap. According to military documents, one of the five served as interior minister during the Taliban's five-year rule of Afghanistan and had direct ties to Osama bin Laden.

"That's dead," Republican Senator John McCain said when asked about the prison swap idea. "It hasn't gone anywhere for a couple of years."

McCain, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for more than five years, also said Obama administration officials first told Congress that they wanted to release five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo as a confidence-building measure to jump-start talks with the Taliban.

"I said that was insane ... to do that," said McCain, a frequent critic of the Obama administration who believes the government's approach to getting Bergdahl back is in disarray.

"Then it was the swap for Bergdahl. I said, 'OK, fine. How are you going to do that?' They never explained anything to anybody about how it would be done. ... How can you get him back if you are totally disorganised?"
Read more on:    cia  |  taliban  |  fbi  |  pentagon  |  chuck hagel  |  barack obama  |  bowe bergdahl  |  john mccain  |  us  |  afghanistan

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