The parents of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American captured by the Taliban nearly three years ago, have made an emotional appeal for the Obama administration to make a deal with the insurgents to release him in exchange for Afghan prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Everybody is frustrated with how slowly the process has evolved,” Bob Bergdahl said in a newspaper interview in the family’s home state of Idaho. “I’m pushing it hard. We started out by trying to encourage the Taliban to take care of our son. . . . Now, we’re worried that the government isn’t concerned enough to put him on the [negotiating] table.”
Hours after the appeal was published in Wednesday’s Idaho Mountain Express, the administration broke its own silence on Sgt. Bergdahl, detailing what it said were nonstop efforts to locate and free him, through negotiations or other means. “I wouldn’t rule anything in or out,” said Col. Dave Lapan, director of the Defense Department press office.
Late last year, State Department negotiators put together a tentative deal in which five Taliban prisoners would be transferred from Cuba to house arrest in Qatar, where their families could join them. Bergdahl was to be released after the first two insurgents arrived.
But the deal fell apart, and U.S-Taliban peace talks have been stalled since January.
The Washington Post had withheld information on the Bergdahl aspect of the negotiations since last year at the request of White House officials, who said publicizing them could endanger his life. Those Taliban members opposed to negotiations, they said, might kill him to stop the talks.
Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, are scheduled as featured speakers at the annual Rolling Thunder Memorial Day demonstration on behalf of missing and imprisoned U.S. service members this month in Washington. Administration officials, who anticipated the family might choose that moment to speak out, appeared surprised at the Idaho interview.
“We had concerns about the security situation,” said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. “But this is now a different scenario. If they want to talk about it,” the official said of the parents, “we can’t ask for it to be withheld.”
A senior U.S. military official said that the threat to Bergdahl’s life remains. “I think it would be safe to assume that if he’s being kept against his will, there’s got to be a pointy end to that stick,” said the official, whose remarks were arranged by the Pentagon on the condition the official not be named. “We’re not talking about real nice guys out there who are willing to let Sgt. Bergdahl walk.”
The military official described extensive monitoring of the Bergdahl case by the Defense and State departments and others, including weekly meetings, monthly video conferences with senior officials and regular contact with the family.
“We do believe him to be alive,” the official said. “We do believe him to be in fairly good health.”
Taliban officials participating in now-suspended peace talks provided proof in the fall that he was alive and convinced diplomats that his release could be arranged.
Lapan said the military is “doing everything we can to bring Sgt. Bergdahl back into U.S. hands” but that it is “perfectly understandable that parents whose son has been kept in captivity for several years now are frustrated.”
The only U.S. service member known to be held hostage in the Afghan war, Bergdahl, 26, is believed to have been captured initially by forces under the command of Moulvi Sangeen, a Taliban leader in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province. U.S. officials think he is being held in Pakistan by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.
Accounts of how he was captured in June 2009 have differed. In the first of several videos the Taliban have released, a frightened-looking Bergdahl responded to questions asking his name, hometown, age and religion and said he had been ambushed while “lagging behind a patrol.” The military has declined to comment on other reports suggesting he left his base without authorization.
The military official said there was no confirmation of news reports over the years saying that Bergdahl had switched sides and was supporting the Taliban or that he had recently tried to escape.
In at least three other videos over the years, Bergdahl has been seen bearded and shaven; in uniform, an Army sweatshirt and in traditional Central Asian garb; nervous and apparently at ease. But for the past year, he hasn’t been seen at all.
Last May, his father made a video in which he appealed to the Pakistani military for assistance and to the Taliban for his release.
Over the years, the Taliban has threatened to kill him unless various demands were met, including a $1 million ransom, the release of Afghan prisoners and of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist convicted in a U.S. court in 2010 of the attempted murder of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.
While the Bergdahls said they believe their son is alive, they expressed worry that he could be harmed by ongoing U.S. drone attacks against insurgents in Pakistan.
“Bowe’s been under the drone program the entire time,” Bob Bergdahl said “It scares . . . us.”