In an effort to liberate American captive Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey 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 its offer, current and former officials said.
Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and is thought to be held in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, an allied insurgent group.
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 release of all five men. Taliban representatives had objected to the previous plan to free 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.
Hes been gone too long, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters during a briefing. We want him back. Weve never stopped trying to bring that about. Hes never far from anyones 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.
Bergdahl's family expressed optimism in a brief news release Tuesday morning.
Todays news indicates there are renewed efforts to use diplomacy to recover our familys son, grandson and brother, Bowe Bergdahl," the release states. "We welcome this development and we applaud the unity of purpose and resolve at the White House and the other U.S. Government agencies involved. We thank all involved for this renewed effort and we hope everyone takes this opportunity seriously. We are cautiously optimistic these discussions will lead to the safe return of our son after more than four and a half years in captivity.
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.
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 Pentagon also has examined the feasibility of trying to negotiate Bergdahls 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 Bergdahls exact location, one official said, and a U.S. military rescue mission has long been effectively ruled out.