As the Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar, this week and prepared for peace talks with the United States and the government of Afghanistan, a spokesman let it be known that one of the top items on the insurgent group’s agenda is a plan for a prisoner exchange.
A top negotiating point for the Taliban is that they have been holding US Army Spc. Bowe Bergdahl. The US military has been trying to rescue Bergdahl since June 2009, when he disappeared in eastern Afghanistan.
Bergdahl “is as far as I know in good condition,” Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail said in an interview with the Associated Press from the group’s newly opened offices in Doha.
The Taliban are proposing that they swap Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners that the United States is holding at the terrorism detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba – a proposal that the Taliban have been making for more than a year.
In May 2012, Bergdahl's parents shared news that the US government was in talks with the Taliban to trade their son for Guantánamo detainees affiliated with the group.
Bergdahl, from Halley, Idaho, was last seen in Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan. In a video released shortly after his capture, Bergdahl said he was captured when he lagged behind on a patrol. Some US defense officials said it was also possible he left the base at night with Afghan soldiers, possibly after they had been drinking.
In the video, Bergdahl said he has a girlfriend back home whom he hopes to marry. “I am scared – scared I won’t be able to come home,” he said in the video. “It is very unnerving to be a prisoner.”
Senior Pentagon officials believe that a particularly violent branch of the Taliban, called the Haqqani network, is holding Bergdahl.
Even as the US begins peace talks with the Taliban, the Haqqani network may prove irreconcilable, Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of US troops in Afghanistan, said Tuesday.
When news broke last year of the proposed prisoner swap, senior Pentagon officials refused to comment but did stress that the Pentagon had long been trying to rescue Bergdahl.
“I can assure you that we are doing everything in our power, using our intelligence resource across the government, to try to find, locate him,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last May.
Dempsey added that he is in touch with Bergdahl’s parents. They have visited his office, and he has corresponded with them several times, he told reporters at the time.
He also said a poster of Bergdahl hangs in the US Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., which has responsibility for running the war in Afghanistan.
Prisoner exchanges must be the top item on the agenda in any talks, the Taliban have demanded. “FIrst has to be the release of the detainees,” Mr. Suhail said. “Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward.”
In the meantime, the Taliban, which held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for their offices Tuesday, said they would not stop fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on a large US base in Afghanistan that same day that killed four US troops.