The Cable

State Department begins Benghazi review

The State Department's Accountability Review Board (ARB), meant to review the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, met for the first time at the State Department Thursday.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed the names of the five board members in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) on Oct. 2. In addition to former Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, who will lead the board, the other members will be former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen (ret.), Catherine Bertini, Hugh Turner, and Richard Shinnick.

At Thursday's briefing, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the team was in the building and getting down to business.

"The ARB has its first meeting -- or is having its first meeting today. They are all here in the building meeting with some of our folks, beginning to get some of the documents that they will need to study, etc.," she said.

The ARB won't be a full-time job for the board members, and the details of exactly how they will go about getting to the bottom of the Benghazi attack haven't been worked out. They won't hold public hearings, but they will have access to State Department officials and relevant documents, Nuland said.

"I think one of the things that they are talking about among themselves today is how the work schedule will go," Nuland said. "They'll obviously have a lot of papers to read through. Then they'll have to come back together periodically to compare notes about where they are. How they choose to do that, whether it's always on site or whether it's a mix of things, I think we'll have to see going forward."

The ARB is charged with determining the extent to which the incident was security-related, whether the security systems and procedures at that mission were adequate and were properly implemented, the impact of intelligence and information availability, and any other facts and circumstances that might be relevant to the appropriate security management of the United States missions abroad.

Nuland also said there have been no Americans at the site in Benghazi, but as Foreign Policy's E-Ring reported today, Pentagon Spokesman George Little revealed that U.S. military personnel had assisted the FBI in getting to the site today and then assisted getting them out.

"At the request of the FBI, the department provided logistic and security support to the investigation team in order to conduct work onsite in Benghazi.  DOD personnel completed that support earlier today and have departed Benghazi, along with the investigation team," Little said.

Asked why it took so long, Little referred reporters to the State Department.

"The U.S. military has been willing to consider requests at various points," he said. "This is really, I think, a question I think best directed to the State Department, FBI.  I know that both the State Department and FBI have been anxious to move this process along, to move the investigation forward, and we stand ready to support them in whatever way possible."

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.