WASHINGTON -- In an effort to free American captive Bowe Bergdahl before the bulk of U.S. forces leave Afghanistan this year, the Obama administration has decided to try to resume talks with the Taliban and sweeten an offer to trade Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the Army sergeant, current and former officials said.
Five members of the Afghan Taliban who have been held at Guantanamo for years would be released to protective custody in Qatar in exchange for the release of Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and is thought to be held in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, an allied insurgent group. The Idaho native was based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage when he went missing.
To refresh the American offer, which has been on the table for more than two years, senior officials from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies decided within the past month to allow the simultaneous release of all five men. Taliban representatives had objected to the previous plan to release the prisoners by ones or twos as a test of Taliban and Qatari intermediaries' ability to make sure the men did not return to militancy.
Two people familiar with the decision stressed that it was the Taliban that broke off negotiations nearly two years ago and that the U.S. door to talks has been open since. The renewed offer has not been formally made, and no State Department or other officials have immediate plans to travel to Doha, Qatar, where any contact facilitated by the Qatari government would take place.
The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Friday that U.S. officials are eager to get the soldier back.
"He's been gone too long," Kirby told reporters during a briefing. "We want him back. We've never stopped trying to bring that about. He's never far from anyone's mind here."
Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline parts of a strategy they described as a last-ditch effort to engage the Taliban.
The mid-January decision by officials at the level of deputy secretary would confine any new talks to the prisoner issue. Negotiations would not attempt wider engagement with the Taliban on a host of issues related to the future of Afghanistan. U.S. officials had once hoped to use the prisoner exchange as a means to build confidence for those larger discussions, which would also have involved the Afghan government. Now, the United States is primarily focused on getting Bergdahl home.
Officials at the Pentagon said last month that they had obtained a new video of Bergdahl, the first evidence U.S. officials have seen in nearly three years that the soldier remains alive. They had long been seeking evidence that Bergdahl was still living, because of reports that he had attempted to escape once and because of concerns about his health, a U.S. official said. The United States intercepted the video before its makers intended to release or broadcast it, the official said.
Bergdahl, an army infantryman assigned to a unit from Alaska, was taken captive after walking off his base in the eastern province of Paktika, a decision that confounded his comrades and commanders in Afghanistan. The U.S. military launched a massive manhunt, fearing it would be nearly impossible to find him if his captors smuggled him into Pakistan. The Taliban soon took credit for capturing him and offered to release him in exchange for $1 million and 21 Afghan prisoners.
The Taliban broke off talks before they ever really began in 2012, and an effort to resurrect negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government last year ended in an embarrassing shambles. A political office promised to the Taliban was readied in Doha but closed two days after it opened in June amid a row over the raising of a flag the Taliban used when it ruled Afghanistan prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion.
Taliban representatives remain in Doha, and the office is a de facto political headquarters.
Separately, the Pentagon has examined the feasibility of trying to negotiate Bergdahl's release directly with the Haqqani network, which is part of the broader Taliban insurgency but operates separately. The network is widely believed to be holding the solider in Pakistan, two others familiar with that exploratory effort said.
Preliminary studies have looked at whether the Haqqanis would engage in talks to trade Bergdahl for Haqqani prisoners captured by U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and held at a prison adjacent to Bagram air base, one current and one former U.S. official said.
The United States is holding a "handful" of Haqqani prisoners in Afghanistan, one official said. The exact number has not been disclosed.
At one point in 2012, U.S. officials tried to feel out the Haqqanis through a senior member of the network held at Bagram, but there was no response, one official said. Another person familiar with the effort said similar exploratory planning was done to test whether the Haqqanis might be paid off or otherwise enticed to let Bergdahl escape.
There is no "actionable" intelligence on Bergdahl's exact location, one official said, and a U.S. military rescue mission has long been effectively ruled out.
The United States has even less traction with the Haqqanis, branded a terrorist group in 2012, than with the main Taliban organization. A State Department official met once with Haqqani representatives more than three years ago, but there has been no further contact, two officials said.
In an apparent attempt to draw Haqqani support for the separate Guantanamo-related bargain, one of the five prisoners who would be released was a relatively low-level member of the Haqqani network, one official said.
The decision to try to resume talks comes amid U.S. frustration with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign a security pact that would allow some forces to stay in the country next year. Without it, all U.S. troops will depart this year, and the already declining U.S. leverage with the Taliban would be reduced.
Karzai has been leery and at times bitterly opposed to direct U.S.-Taliban negotiations, which he sees as an effort to undermine him and make a separate peace. The official U.S. position is still that it seeks "Afghan-led" reconciliation between the government and the Taliban insurgency.
After opposing direct engagement with the Taliban for years, the United States shifted course in President Barack Obama's first term. The effort led only to several secretive meetings in Germany and the Middle East.but no full-on negotiations and no real accomplishments.
The man who would head renewed negotiations if they happened, James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been publicly skeptical that the Taliban are ready to talk again.
Adam Goldman and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.
By Anne Gearan and Ernesto Londono
The Washington Post