The Cable

Afghan official: Talks to free American held by Taliban going nowhere

The negotiations between the United States and the Taliban for the release of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl are indefinitely stalled following the Afghan government's demand to be included in them, a senior Afghan government official said Thursday.

The Cable first reported in March that U.S. officials were deep into negotiations with Taliban leaders on a deal that would include a swap of five Taliban officials currently imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for an unnamed Westerner held by the Taliban. The Westerner was later publicly identified as Private Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. service member known to be a prisoner of the Taliban.

The deal as envisioned would also include the Afghan Taliban setting up a representative office in Qatar, under the supervision of the Qatari government, and the released Taliban officials would be held under a form of house arrest in Qatar, an arrangement that made U.S. lawmakers queasy.

But the revelations widened a rift between the U.S. government and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, because the Karzai government is demanding to be part of the discussions. That's a non-starter for the Taliban, who will deal with the United States but not with the Karzai government, according to H.E. Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister, who told reporters in Washington today the process is stalled.

"We were not opposed to [the deal]," he said. "What we criticized was the fact that we felt that if you are really true to the motto of an Afghan-led peace process, we should be involved. We were told that this was because the Taliban are not ready to have the Afghan government on the other side of the table. Frankly, this is not enough."

Ludin said the talks could lead to a more comprehensive peace process and did include "verifiable" leaders of the Taliban, but without Afghan government involvement, they shouldn't go forward.

"If there's a discussion about the office for the Taliban somewhere, we should do it, and any other country including Pakistan should take a back seat and support it," he said.

Following the Karzai government's demand to be included, the Taliban cut off the talks and "since then there's been no contact," Ludin said. "They're still there in Doha, but the office hasn't been set up."

The Karzai government is waiting for the Qatari government to send representatives to Kabul before it will support moving forward, he said, and there's no schedule for any visit of that kind any time soon.

Back in August, there were some reports that the Obama administration tried to kickstart the negotiations by sweetening the deal for the Taliban, proposing to release the Guantánamo prisoners first and then accept the release of Bergdahl afterwards.  Last month, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called securing the release of Bergdahl "our most pressing concern at this moment."

But as far as the State Department is concerned, it's up to the Taliban to make the next move.

"I think we have been saying for a number of weeks that we support an Afghan-led process, that we've created this Afghan-Pakistan-U.S. group to facilitate Afghan-led reconciliation," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. "But the Taliban have not been interested in coming to the table for some time. So the door is open there; they have to make a choice."

UPDATE: In response to a question from Foreign Policy's E-Ring, Pentagon Spokesman George Little pledged today that the Pentagon was working hard to secure Bergdahl's release. But Little didn't say how that would be accomplished. Here are his comments:

Let me say that we remember every day Bowe Bergdahl and we are taking steps on a regular basis to try to determine precisely where he is and to secure his freedom. We are deeply concerned about the fact that he has been held for so long. And our hearts go out to his family. The effort to secure him is ongoing and we will do everything possible to keep him at the top of our priority list. With respect to reconciliation discussions and so forth, as I've said before that's an Afghan-led process. And I'm not from this podium in any way, shape, or form link the two."

We are strongly dedicated to getting Bowe Bergdahl home to his family in Idaho. We want to see that as quickly as possible. Now, how that happens can be in a number of ways, and I'm not going to speculate on precisely how he can be freed and how he might come home. But I can assure you, Kevin, we take his plight very seriously. And we never forget those who remain in the custody of those who should not be holding our soldiers.

National Security

Romney national security transition team takes shape

The top echelon of Mitt Romney‘s national security transition team is largely in place and it includes both hawkish and centrist GOP foreign-policy professionals, The Cable has learned.

The news comes as debate continues inside the Romney campaign over how much to focus on foreign vs. domestic policy in the home stretch. Politico reported last week that chief strategist Stuart Stevens was leading the camp pushing for a more singular focus on the economy.

But with the final presidential debate set to focus on foreign policy and events in the Middle East continuing to raise questions about President Barack Obama's leadership, those advocating for more foreign policy campaigning have won a victory: Romney will give what the campaign is billing as a major speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday, Oct. 8.

Behind the scenes, planning for a national security team that looks suddenly more realistic after Wednesday night's debate is moving along at a steady pace.

The Romney campaign doesn't talk publicly about its broader transition-planning effort -- "Project Readiness," led by former HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt -- but the effort is moving along steadily.

The GOP foreign-policy world was caught off guard when Leavitt chose former World Bank President Bob Zoellick to lead the national security transition planning, setting off speculation that Romney's national security team after the election would be far more moderate than the top advisors informing his foreign-policy speeches and agenda items during the campaign.

But The Cable has learned from multiple sources close to the campaign that campaign senior advisor for defense and foreign policy Rich Williamson has been named the head of the transition team for the National Security Council, giving him a prominent role should Romney win. Two other officials who are leading the national security transition effort are former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman and former New Jersey governor and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission Tom Kean.

Some inside the campaign believe Williamson's new role as head of the NSC transition team could place him in line to be national security advisor in a Romney administration. A former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs who served as George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan, Williamson has been one of Romney's most visible national security surrogates throughout the campaign. Said to be close to the governor personally, he has also been the voice of some of the campaign's harshest criticisms of Obama's handling of foreign policy. Williamson has railed against Obama for his handling of Libya, the greater Middle East, Israel, Iran, Russia, human rights, and several other topics.

Transition team leaders don't necessarily end up leading the agencies for which they are in charge of planning. In 2008, the Obama campaign's State Department transition team was led by Tom Donilon and Wendy Sherman. Obama chose Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state, Donilon became deputy national security advisor, and Sherman returned to the private sector, only later being appointed to be under secretary of State for political affairs.

The Obama campaign's Pentagon transition team was led by Michèle Flournoy and former Deputy Defense Secretary John White, but Obama chose to stick with Robert Gates as defense secretary and Flournoy became the under secretary of defense for policy.

Edelman, a leading representative of the neoconservative wing of the Republican foreign-policy establishment, was under secretary of defense for policy under Donald Rumsfeld and now sits on the board of directors of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative-leaning foreign-policy organization in Washington. Edelman has been quietly active in the campaign for some time.

Kean, like Zoellick, is seen as a moderate, and has not been a visible part of the Romney effort thus far. Zoellick, meanwhile has been meeting all over Washington with foreign-policy hands of all stripes and from both parties. Last month he was spotted in downtown DC eateries on separate occasions lunching with Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and Obama's former top Asia aide, Jeffrey Bader.

Sources inside the campaign report that the foreign-policy process still centers around young lawyer Alex Wong, the campaign's foreign-policy coordinator, and his boss Lanhee Chen, the campaign's policy director. Former Iraq war spokesman Dan Senor, another board member of FPI, has taken the lead on Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan's foreign-policy preparations, which perhaps explains Ryan's increasingly combative rhetoric when talking about Obama's handling of the Middle East crises.

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