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Bowe Bergdahl: Remembering the Forgotten Man

Why is the captured U.S. soldier not part of the strategic release program in Afghanistan?

Update (May 9, 2012):  Confirming earlier speculation, the parents of Bowe Bergdahl today announced that he is a focus of now-stalled negotiations between the United States and the Taliban over a proposed exchange of Guantanamo Bay prisoners.  The New York Times reports that they are frustrated over what they see as the Obama administration’s lack of political will to go forward with the exchange.  The newspaper also quotes Pentagon officials as saying that they are working to gain the soldier’s release.  But all of this underscores the question of why Bergdahl was not a focus of the clandestine “strategic release” program in Afghanistan.

Bowe Bergdahl: Remembering the Forgotten Man
Bergdahl in a Taliban video

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the U.S. military has for several years been secretly releasing senior Taliban prisoners from a detention facility in Afghanistan in an effort to buy peace and influence in unstable areas.  According to The Telegraph (London), the “strategic release” program began two years ago and has involved “fewer than 20” persons, who as a condition of their release must renounce violence.

The news follows reports earlier this year that among the concessions that the White House is prepared to make as the political endgame approaches in Afghanistan is the transfer of high-level Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay to Qatari house arrest. Although the move is currently in abeyance following the breakdown in negotiations with the Taliban two months ago, the Obama administration justified it as an important “confidence building” measure that would establish its bona fides with Afghan insurgents.  At the time, there was some speculation that the gesture would be tied to the release of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who is about to begin his fourth year of captivity at the hands of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.

U.S. officials acknowledge that the releases in Afghanistan are risky and critics are raising questions about their merits.  But it is troubling that they have gone forward at all without any apparent effort to demand Bergdahl’s freedom as reciprocation.  As the U.S. military furnishes more details in the days ahead, it should also provide assurances that it is not leaving one of its own behind.

(As a sidenote, it is dismaying that the media — here, here and here — is more focused these days on Bo, the White House dog, than on Bowe the soldier.)

This commentary was originally posted on Chanakya’s Notebook.  I invite you to follow me on Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.