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Taliban offer to free Idaho soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for 5 in Guantanamo

By Kathy Gannon

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, June 20 2013 10:00 a.m. MDT

This file image provided by IntelCenter on Wednesday Dec. 8, 2010 shows a frame grab from a video released by the Taliban containing footage of a man believed to be Bowe Bergdahl, left.

IntelCenter, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan Taliban are ready to free a U.S. soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for five of their senior operatives imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, a senior spokesman for the group said Thursday.

The offer to exchange U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the Afghan detainees came as an Afghan government spokesman said President Hamid Karzai is now willing to join planned peace talks with the Taliban — provided that the Taliban flag and nameplate are removed from the militant group's newly opened political office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar. Karzai also wants a formal U.S. statement supporting the Afghan government.

Bergdahl, 27, of Hailey, Idaho, is the only known American soldier held captive from the Afghan war. He disappeared from his base in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and is believed held in Pakistan.

In an exclusive telephone interview with The Associated Press from his Doha office, Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail said on Thursday that Bergdahl "is, as far as I know, in good condition."

Col. Tim Marsano with the Idaho National Guard said Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, plan to speak at an event honoring the soldier in Hailey on Saturday.

"They're aware that the possibility of a transfer or exchange is on the table and they're encouraged by it," Marsano said.

Bergdahl's parents earlier this month received a letter from their son through the International Committee of the Red Cross. They did not release details of the letter but renewed their plea for his release. The soldier's captivity has been marked by only sporadic releases of videos and information about his whereabouts.

The prisoner exchange is the first item on the Taliban's agenda before even opening peace talks, said Suhail, a top Taliban figure who served as first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad before the Taliban government's ouster in 2001.

"First has to be the release of detainees," Suhail said when asked about Bergdahl. "Yes. It would be an exchange. Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward."

The reconciliation process with the Taliban — seen by most as the only way to end the nearly 12-year war — has been a long and bumpy one. It began nearly two years ago when the U.S. opened secret talks that were later scuttled by Karzai when he learned of them.

It was then that the U.S. and Taliban discussed prisoner exchanges and for a brief time it appeared that the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners would be released and sent to Doha to help further the peace process. But Karzai stepped in again and demanded they be returned to Afghanistan over Taliban objections.

Since then, the U.S. has been trying to jumpstart peace talks and the Taliban have made several offers — including sharing power in Kabul. The Taliban have also attended several international conferences and held meetings with representatives of about 30 countries.

The idea of freeing some of the Taliban's most senior operatives has been controversial over fears they would simply return to the battlefield. Afghan and U.S. officials have said the Taliban being considered for any exchange deal are:

— Mohammad Fazl , a former Taliban chief of army staff and the deputy minister of defense.

— Abdul Haq Wasiq, former Taliban deputy minister of intelligence, who was in direct contact with supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar during the Taliban rule, according to military documents.

— Mullah Norullah Nuri , who has been described as one of the most significant former Taliban officials held at Guantanamo. He was a senior Taliban commander in Mazar-e-Sharif and previously was a Taliban governor in two provinces in northern Afghanistan,

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