Bureaucratic mess complicates prisoner exchange deal with Taliban
According to the Associated Press, two US military officials claim the Taliban is willing to return US Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, whom it has held since 2009. However, the militant group does not know which part of the US government or military to reach out to, since it is “unclear which U.S. government officials have the authority to make a deal.”
Both officials were unnamed, but one stated that there are roughly two dozen US government employees from numerous departments working on Bergdahls’ case – ranging from the military’s Central Command and Joint Chiefs of Staff to the CIA, FBI, and others – and the lack of centralized leadership on the issue is stalling the American sergeant’s release.
"Elements in all echelons — from the top of the Taliban down to the folks holding Bergdahl — are reaching out to make a deal," the defense official told the AP.
A military officer, meanwhile, said that US leadership has yet to respond to the Taliban, which has reportedly detailed what it’s willing to do in order to jumpstart negotiations.
These details are just the latest in a situation that’s undergone multiple twists and turns since Bergdahl’s capture. With the US presence in Afghanistan on the decline, the US indicated in mid-February that it wanted to restart talks over the sergeant’s release. As RT reported then, the US was considering freeing five Taliban prisoners currently held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Berghdal’s freedom.
Just a few days later, the Taliban suspended talks with the US, pointing towards the "current complex political situation” in Afghanistan.
The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture are also contested, with the US claiming he left a military base with three Afghans before being captured. For its part, the Taliban said it kidnapped Bergdahl after he drunkenly walked out of a garrison.
Earlier this year, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) penned a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, urging him to appoint one individual to oversee Bergdahl’s case.
"Given the significance and necessity for centralized command and control, which I have been informed is little to nonexistent, I urge you to seriously consider the idea of directing an individual to organize, manage and coordinate activity that involves multiple elements of the federal government working toward Bergdahl's release," he wrote.
Hagel did appoint someone to oversee the case at the Pentagon – an assistant defense secretary named Michael Lumpkin – but critics have complained that Lumpkin does not have the authority to manage the other agencies involved. As a result, Hunter wrote another letter, this time to President Obama, seeking the appointment of one person to spearhead all attempts to free Bergdahl.
Despite the accusations, the State Department dismissed the idea that a slow-footed bureaucracy was to blame for the situation.
"The reason Sgt. Bergdahl remains a captive is because he is being held by a terrorist organization, not because of a lack of effort or coordination by the U.S. government," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said to the AP.
Even if negotiations between the Taliban and US begin anew, other obstacles have the potential to get in the way, including opposition to swapping Bergdahl for Taliban prisoners.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that when the Obama administration initially proposed the swap, it wanted to release the Taliban prisoners first as a confidence-building measure.
"I said that was insane ... to do that," he told the AP. "Then it was the swap for Bergdahl. I said, 'OK, fine. How are you going to do that?' They never explained anything to anybody about how it would be done. ... How can you get him back if you are totally disorganized?"