WASHINGTON – Critics of the U.S. government’s nearly five-year effort to seek the release of the only American soldier held captive in Afghanistan claim the work suffers from disorganization and poor communication among numerous federal agencies involved, leaving his captors unclear which U.S. officials have the authority to make a deal.
The shrinking U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan has refocused attention on efforts to bring home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009.
About two dozen officials at the State and Defense departments, the military’s U.S. Central Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Special Operations Command, the CIA and FBI are working the case; most of them doing it alongside their other duties, a defense official said.
Bergdahl’s captors are eager to release him, according to a defense official and a military officer, who both spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
“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 said.
The military officer said the effort was marred by distrust on both sides. Those holding Bergdahl have indicated what they would be willing to do to prove to the U.S. government that they want to deal, but the U.S. has not formally responded to that outreach, the military officer said.
The White House and U.S. military officials deny that the effort is disjointed, claim Bergdahl’s release remains a top priority and that the government is using diplomatic, military, intelligence and all other means to free him.
Bergdahl, 28, was last seen in a “proof of life” video released in December. He is thought to be held by members of the Haqqani network, which operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war. The Haqqani network, which the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012, claims allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, yet operates with some degree of autonomy.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., wrote earlier this year to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, saying it was critical that efforts to free Bergdahl are not overcome by bureaucracy.
“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,” wrote Hunter, a Marine veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Days later, Hagel appointed Michael Lumpkin, assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, as the point person for the Bergdahl case at the Pentagon. Hunter viewed that as a good step but noted that Lumpkin only has jurisdiction over the Pentagon work, not that of the other agencies.
A month after Lumpkin’s appointment, Hunter wrote President Barack Obama, asking him to make the Defense Department the lead on all efforts to get Bergdahl back “with the specific aim of achieving a faster resolution than can be provided by the Department of State.” He asked Obama to name one coordinator to oversee the entire Bergdahl effort.
The State Department declined to comment on Hunter’s letters and referred questions to the White House.
“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,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
The Pentagon is exploring several avenues to get Bergdahl released, including one that seeks to negotiate with the Haqqani network, according to an individual familiar with the government’s efforts. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some government officials also are looking into ways to seek the simultaneous release of Bergdahl and four civilians, including a woman who was pregnant when she went missing, believed held by militants.