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.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.