U.S. in Talks to Free Soldier, Family Says ; Negotiations with Taliban on Prisoner Exchange Have Reportedly Stalled

By Elisabeth Bumiller; Matthew Rosenberg | International Herald Tribune, May 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

U.S. in Talks to Free Soldier, Family Says ; Negotiations with Taliban on Prisoner Exchange Have Reportedly Stalled


Elisabeth Bumiller; Matthew Rosenberg, International Herald Tribune


The negotiations, currently stalled, involved a trade of five Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is believed to be held in Pakistan.

The parents of the only U.S. soldier held captive by Afghan insurgents have broken a yearlong silence about the status of their son, abruptly making public that he is a focus of secret negotiations between the Obama administration and the Taliban over a proposed prisoner exchange.

The negotiations, currently stalled, involved a trade of five Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of the U.S. Army, who is believed to be held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of northwest Pakistan, on the Afghan border.

Sergeant Bergdahl was captured in Paktika Province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. His family has not heard from him in a year, since they saw him in a Taliban video, although they and the Pentagon believe that he is alive and well.

The family's decision to end its silence could free the Obama administration to discuss the case publicly and reframe the debate in Washington about releasing the Taliban prisoners, which is seen as a crucial confidence-building measure in efforts to strike a political settlement with the Taliban.

U.S. officials believe that a peace deal would help ensure Afghanistan's stability after 2014, when most U.S. and NATO forces will have left the country. In the absence of a prisoner exchange agreement, those talks are "moribund," one Western official said.

Until now, the administration has said publicly only that the negotiations included talks about releasing the five prisoners from Guantanamo to the custody of the government of Qatar -- which some Democrats and Republicans in Congress have opposed -- and not that the five might be exchanged for Sergeant Bergdahl.

Sergeant Bergdahl's father, Robert Bergdahl, said in interviews with The New York Times near the family's home in Hailey on Tuesday and Wednesday that he was frustrated by the lack of progress on the talks, which he believes are stalled because the Obama administration is reacting to pressure from Congress in an election year not to negotiate with terrorists.

"We don't have faith in the U.S. government being able to reconcile this," Robert Bergdahl said.

Although Sergeant Bergdahl's captivity has long been publicly known, the family had kept the prisoner exchange negotiations secret at the urging of the Obama administration and out of fear that their son might be harmed. But the Taliban suspended talks in March in large part because of their frustration with what they see as Washington's dragging its feet over the exchange.

U.S. officials counter that the Taliban have not agreed to a major U.S. demand: a travel ban intended to keep the transferred detainees from leaving Qatar and returning to the battlefields of Afghanistan or insurgent havens in Pakistan.

Robert Bergdahl, who said he wanted to bring attention to his son's plight and pressure the government to revive the negotiations, decided to go public after a prisoner-of-war group asked him to speak in Washington at the end of May.

"The rhetoric is that 'We don't negotiate with terrorists,"' he said in the interview, describing political talk in Washington. "And therefore, what do we do? Well, you push it hard with everything you have."

The talks encompass not only the prisoner exchange but also broader issues aimed at bringing the war to an end. …

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