- The Washington Times
Thursday, May 22, 2014

It will be five years next month that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl fell into the hands of the most ruthless terrorists fighting U.S. and local troops in Afghanistan.

If the Pentagon and State Department are any closer to freeing him, or know more about his location, they are not saying.

This is known: Sgt. Bergdahl is America’s last prisoner of war. He is in the hands of the Haqqani network, terrorism’s mafia family tied to the Taliban and al Qaeda. It is responsible for some of the most horrible attacks on civilians in Kabul.

Sgt. Bergdahl is thought to be in relatively good, but not robust, health, based on sporadic videos and on contacts the U.S. has established with informants and with liaisons to the Taliban. The U.S. believes it knows his general, but not precise, location in Pakistan, where Haqqani fighters enjoy immunity compliments of Islamabad’s intelligence service.

“There’s good information on the type of care he’s receiving and also his treatment,” said a U.S. official familiar with the effort to free him. “That’s pretty well understood. There is reason to believe he is in good health. That has been confirmed several times.”

This fact, the official said, shows the Taliban-Haqqani axis’s ultimate goal is use Sgt. Bergdahl to win release of their fighters.

“They do want to deal for Bergdahl,” the official said.

Unclear are the exact behind-the-scenes efforts to free him. Media reports say the State Department has discussed a prisoner swap for Taliban held at Guantanamo Bay.

But the official said an exchange is now “off the table” and other unspecified avenues are being explored.

The official said Joint Special Operations Command, home to SEAL Team Six and Delta Force, has plans for a rescue, but not the crown jewel intelligence: his precise location.

While State at some point pursued a prisoner exchange, such a move is distasteful to U.S. commanders. They sat in horror earlier this year as anti-U.S. Afghan President Hamid Karzai released 65 Taliban prisoners. Among them: makers of deadly improvised explosive devices.

Also unclear is how Sgt. Bergdahl, a home-schooled resident of Hailey, Idaho, was captured.

His unit, the 4th Combat Brigade Team, 25th Infantry Division, was doing its war tour in restive Paktika Province, on the Pakistan border, when he disappeared on June 30, 2009 from his forward operating base.

Within a month, he showed up on the first Haqqani-produced video, sitting on the floor, a white background, dressed in local garb.

“I was lagging behind a patrol and was captured,” he said.

Questioned by someone off-camera, in English, he agreed with assertions that Americans deliberately kill civilians and torture prisoners, and that the U.S. invaded a “very independent state.”

Rolling Stone magazine reported in 2012 on emails in which Sgt. Bergdahl had become increasingly disenchanted with the war after only two months in country. The article portrayed his unit as a bunch of bunglers, ill-prepared and ill-led for a crucial time when the entire U.S. ground strategy was changing.

The story quoted fellow soldiers as saying that on the morning of June 30, after guard duty, he collected some survival gear and walked off the base, toward Pakistan.

“The basic belief is, he walked off,” the official told The Washington Times.

The most recent video surfaced in January a month after it was made and three years after the last one. The soldier appears haggard, his face reddened in places.

His parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, released a statement with a plea to “please release him safely so that our only son can be reunited with his mother and father. Bowe, if you see this, continue to remain strong with patience. Your endurance will carry you to the finish line. Breathe.”

A year ago, his parents received a letter from their son via the International Red Cross.

“He was scripted and redacted but he was no doubt alive and his faculties fully functioning as of two months ago,” a family friend told local TV station KBOI.

“They are being very careful with him. He is still highly valued at high levels,” the family friend said.

The parents have stayed mostly low profile. But in 2012, they granted an interview to Rolling Stone. For the first time, Bob Bergdahl made a video urging his son’s release. “I can remain silent no longer,” he said.

As often happens in such cases of undue hardship for individual military personnel, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who served as a Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, stepped in.

He wrote Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the administration seemed to be pursuing conflicting agendas to win the sergeant’s release. It needed a free-Bergdahl czar.

Mr. Hunter said in a Feb. 18 letter to Mr. Hagel that, “While I am aware that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is in direct control of the Bergdahl situation, I am concerned by the lack of cohesiveness and interagency coordination overall. Since CENTCOM is not designed to effectively implement and manage an ‘all government approach,’ I believe it would be extraordinarily beneficial to establish centralized control of the Bergdahl operation that is fully capable of linking broader government activity.”

Mr. Hagel then appointed Michael Lumpkin, a former Navy SEAL and acting undersecretary of defense for policy, to lead the military’s effort and coordinate with State and other agencies.

Mr. Lumpkin, who served in Afghanistan as a SEAL, wears two hats that make him especially qualified. Last December, he became the Pentagon’s top civilian for special operations, meaning he has unique access to how commandoes might free Sgt. Bergdahl. And with the senior title of undersecretary, he can stand toe-to-toe with other senior administration officials.

The ongoing exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan creates the impression the Army is leaving Sgt. Bergdahl behind. But if the two governments can finally ink a new agreement, the military will maintain a fairly robust air and ground presence in-country, including teams who specialize in hostage rescue.

“Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been gone far too long, and we continue to call for and work toward his safe and immediate release,” said Navy Cmdr. William Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman. “We cannot discuss all the details of our efforts, but there should be no doubt that on a daily basis - using our military, intelligence and diplomatic tools - we try to see Sgt. Bergdahl returned home safely.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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