Personnel Recovery 

Will the U.S. negotiate Bowe Bergdahl's release?

Individuals claiming to represent the "Afghan Taliban" have made two public offers to swap Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army private from Hailey who has been held captive in Afghanistan since June 30, 2009, for militants held by the United States. But U.S. military officials will not say if the offers are real or if they are pursuing a trade.

The idea of a prisoner swap was briefly debated after Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick endorsed the idea on Nate Shelman's local AM talk radio show, which airs on 670 KBOI.

"What the family is hoping for and what I'm hoping for is some kind of prisoner exchange that, down the road, might release him," Minnick told Shelman.

Minnick, who declined through a spokesman to further discuss his comments with Boise Weekly, clarified his position to the Idaho Statesman, saying that he'd like to see discussion of an exchange remain part of the military's overall efforts to locate and free Bergdahl.

"My first choice is that we can free him militarily without him getting injured. I don't simply want to abandon him to his own devices in a hostile land where his options are limited. Would I talk to them? You bet," Minnick told the Statesman.

Discussion of prisoner trades is rare in the United States, and foreign policy experts say it's unlikely in Bergdahl's case.

"The fact that the guy is a soldier makes it extremely unlikely that there's going to be some kind of exchange," Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has written extensively about international relations and the Islamic world, told BW by phone from London.

Simon weighed in on the idea of prisoner swaps in a November 2009 op-ed for The New York Times, writing that in the case of an Israeli soldier being held by Hamas, the benefits to Israel of facilitating an exchange far outweigh the costs of "rewarding terror."

Simon also pointed out in the Times, that while U.S. foreign policy allows for negotiations with terrorists, but not concessions, when it comes down to it, the United States has not been above concessions either: The United States provided weapons to Iran in attempts to free hostages in Tehran in the mid-1980s.

Another military and foreign relations expert whom BW contacted declined comment and even encouraged BW not to pursue the story, suggesting that the mere discussion of a prisoner exchange fuels Taliban propaganda. The U.S. military also calls the three videos that have been released depicting Bergdahl a form of propaganda.

"The insurgents who hold Bowe are obviously using him as a means to ultimately cause pain to his family and friends. It continues to reflect the cruel tactics designed to deceive the Afghan people and the international community of their true intentions," stated U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of communication for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Several military spokespeople in Boise, Washington, D.C., and Kabul declined to comment on the apparent offers for a prisoner exchange. BW could not confirm that the offers are even from viable groups or those holding Bergdahl.

A Feb. 5 article at PakTribune.com, an English language Pakistani news portal, cited an anonymous "Afghan Taliban" commander and a spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui--convicted in February in U.S. Federal Court of attempted murder and assault for grabbing a rifle and firing it at Americans who were attempting to interview her in an Afghan police station--and other unnamed militants held by the United States. And a recent video of Bergdahl, released by a group calling itself the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, also names Mujahid in demanding the release of a "limited number of prisoners" for Bergdahl.

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo visited Afghanistan in January and asked top U.S. officials as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of staff of the Pakistani army about Bergdahl.

"The general reaction I had to that is that Bowe Bergdahl is definitely not forgotten," Crapo told BW.

Though he offered no specifics, Crapo said all the officials he asked had similar information about the recovery operations for Bergdahl, indicating a united effort to locate him.

While more than 15,500 people have signed on to a Facebook page supporting Bergdahl and the town of Hailey has kept his name in the spotlight, adorning city streets with yellow ribbons, Simon said that the U.S. government does not face the same kind of public pressure to negotiate for Bergdahl's release that the Israeli government faces for its missing soldier, Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive since July 2006. Israel, which has completed at least seven prisoner exchanges since 1983, according to Simon, has even considered trading thousands of Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, though no deal has yet been reached.

"Even where there's an expressed willingness to make a deal, the particulars of the deal really matter," Simon said.

Israel is a much more compact society with a conscripted army, whereas most Americans do not even personally know a soldier, he said.

But many people in Hailey know Bergdahl or his family. Cory Ruch met Bergdahl in 2002 or 2003 when they took a fencing class together in Ketchum. Later they worked at the same Hailey coffee shop, Zaney's River Street Coffee House, which became a hub for international media when news of Bergdahl's capture broke last year.

Ruch gets at least one question a day at the coffee shop about Bergdahl and tells people he only knows what he sees online.

"I know he's too tough to let anything happen to him," Ruch said "He is going to make it back safely."

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