Words by Wes O'Donnell.
In 2009, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was serving at a base in the Paktika province near the Pakistan border when he was taken prisoner by the Haqqani network an allied insurgent group of the Taliban. He is the only known American soldier in captivity at the hands of the Taliban. At the time he was only 23 years old. Now, four years later, talks of exchange and release that originally began over two years ago, are going to resume in efforts to bring the soldier home.
It is not clear exactly how the soldier was taken captive, several versions of stories exist. In an initial video released by the Taliban, Bergdahl himself claims to have been taken when he was during a patrol exercise in which he was lagging behind. Other accounts by U.S. officials claim a soldier was seen leaving base on foot with three Afghans and vanished while the Taliban said the soldier was intoxicated and stumbled out of his garrison where he was then taken by the insurgents. It was shortly discovered who had captured the soldier when the Taliban took credit and offered his release in exchange for one million dollars and the release of 21 Afghan prisoners. An intercepted video, the first in almost three years, confirmed Bergdahl is still alive, however, he does appear to be in poorer health than previous video indicated.
Previous talks of an exchange and release were started over two years ago in which the U.S. was willing to release the prisoners one or two at a time in order to make sure the Taliban and Qatar intermediaries held to their end of the bargain in insuring those released did not resort to militant ways. They viewed this plan as unacceptable and would not agree to the terms. It has been said by two U.S. officials familiar with the negotiations that it was the Taliban who had cutoff talks of negotiation and not the U.S. who have been willing to continue discussions.
A new plan has been devised by the U.S. to make the deal more enticing. The U.S. is willing to simultaneously release five members of the Afghan Taliban held at Guantanamo for several years in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl’s release. As of yet, no formal offer has been made or plans for officials to travel to Qatar where negotiations would take place. It has been decided that any negotiations with the Taliban would be limited only to the discussion of prisoner release and not widen in topic. It was initially hoped that the prisoner exchanged could be used as a gesture of good faith to build confidence which could have facilitated other negotiations regarding the Afghan government, but is now focused solely on bringing the prisoner home safely.
In the past four years the U.S. has made many attempts, through action and negotiations, to bring Bergdahl home. When he originally went missing a massive military manhunt was organized, however, because of the location it was feared he would have been taken into Pakistan making him extremely difficult if not impossible to find. Talks in 2012 were abruptly broken off by the Taliban and in 2013 in attempts to open up negotiations again on the matter ended in failure. Another consideration by the Pentagon is direct negotiations with the Haqqani network, believed to be holding Bergdahl in Pakistan, regarding the prisoner’s release. Examination has been made into the idea of trading Haqqani prisoners captured by U.S. forces for his release. A senior Haqqani member held at Bagram airbase was evaluated to see if the networks members might be open to trade but received no response. Testing was also done to see if members of the Haqqani network could be bribed in order to facilitate Bergdahl’s escape. With the intention of gaining support from the Haqqani network in going along with the new plan, one of the prisoners on the list of those to be released is a low-level member of their network. Due to the fact that no intelligence evidence as to where Bergdahl is being held has been discovered, a military rescue mission does not seem to be an option.
The U.S. is wanting to free the American soldier before their possible total withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Official’s frustration levels are already high at the refusal of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a security pact allowing U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014. If the U.S. is forced to withdraw before negotiations of release are agreed to, leverage with the Taliban could be negatively impacted.
No one in the United States government, even at the level of Secretary of State, can seem to agree on whether or not the Taliban are a terrorist organization or not. Is this a change in US foreign policy? Does the US now negotiate with terrorists or does the Taliban get the same privileges as a nation state?