Bowe Bergdahl, Captive American Soldier, Involved In Taliban Prisoner Swap Negotiation

BY Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The family of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier held prisoner by the Taliban since 2009, says it is frustrated that more than a year of covert diplomacy has been unable to free their son and is urging the Obama administration to push harder for his release.

Bob Bergdahl, speaking out about his son's case after a long silence, said he hopes U.S. negotiators will press ahead with efforts to set in motion a chain of events intended in part to lead to the release of his son, believed to be held in Pakistan since he went missing in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009.

The missing soldier's fate is tied up in U.S. efforts to broker a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, a high-level, high-risk diplomatic initiative which appeared to be on the cusp of a breakthrough before it ground to a halt in March when the Taliban suspended initial talks.

"We believe that Bowe's specific situation is not being addressed," Bergdahl said.

Bergdahl says he and his wife Jani are disappointed that their son, now 26, remains in danger after almost three years of Taliban captivity.

They appear even more frustrated that prospects for progress appear to have dimmed in Washington, where the idea of negotiating with the shadowy militant group exposed the White House to political attacks just months before elections.

For months, U.S. negotiators were seeking to arrange the transfer of five Taliban detainees now held at Guantanamo Bay military prison to the Gulf state of Qatar, one of a series of confidence-building measures designed to open the door to political talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government.

That move - a central part of the U.S. strategy for ending the long conflict in Afghanistan - was also supposed to lead to Bowe's release. The Taliban has consistently called for the United States to release those held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Western prisoners.

The transfer proposal, which would have required notification to Congress, fell apart in March when the Taliban rejected U.S. conditions designed to ensure transferred Taliban wouldn't slip away and reappear as military leaders.

While U.S. officials don't expect that effort to be taken up again in the months leading up to the November 6 presidential election, they are exploring alternatives steps they hope might rekindle the process.


From the start, the transfer plan drew fire from politicians on Capitol Hill who, according to U.S. law, would have had to closely examine the proposal. The criticism came not just from leading Republicans but also from some Democrats.

The Bergdahl family said it believes that opposition may have been too intense for a president who does not want to be seen as 'weak on terror.' "It doesn't seem like dialogue is even allowed" by Congress, Bergdahl said.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate, has also rejected the proposed transfer. "We do not negotiate with terrorists," he said in December.

This week, an American aid worker kidnapped in Pakistan by al Qaeda last year, pleaded with Obama in a video to save his life by meeting his captors' demands for release of prisoners. The White House said it would not negotiate with al Qaeda.

The White House took a different view with the Taliban. After a decade of NATO efforts was unable to bring about a decisive victory, U.S. officials began to back a scenario under which that group might return to power in some way.

Bergdahl, a longtime employee of UPS, says he does not advocate an attempt to rescue his son by force. Such attempts have ended in disaster, as in the case of Linda Norgrove, an aid worker who was kidnapped by militants and later killed during an attempted rescue in 2010 in eastern Afghanistan.

"That's too much risk, for too many people," Bergdahl said.

The Pentagon says it is working for the missing soldier's release. "Finding Bowe Bergdahl is a top priority, and we will not stop searching for ways to return him to his family and country," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.

"We fully understand the family's concerns, and they can be assured that we are doing everything possible to bring him home safely," Little said. "Leaving no one behind is a core tenet of the U.S. military, and it's true in this case."

Bergdahl, who has been tracking the war closely for years, in the meantime says he intends to take matters into his own hands - studying Pashto, the language spoken in southern Afghanistan, reaching out to regional experts and contacting the media-savvy Taliban through its website.

"I feel that I have to do my job as his father," he said. "I'm working toward a diplomatic and humanitarian solution."

(Reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Anthony Boadle)

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