Taliban Offers to Free U.S. Soldier

By Kathy Gannon & Kay Johnson

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The Afghan Taliban are ready to free a U.S. soldier held captive since 2009 in exchange for five of their senior operatives imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay as a conciliatory gesture, a senior spokesman for the group said Thursday.

The offer to exchange U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the Afghan detainees came as an Afghan government spokesman said President Hamid Karzai is now willing to join planned peace talks with the Taliban - provided that the Taliban flag and nameplate are removed from the militant group's newly opened political office in Doha, the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar. Karzai also wants a formal letter from the United States supporting the Afghan government.

Bergdahl, 27, of Hailey, Idaho, is the only known American soldier held captive from the Afghan war. He disappeared from his base in southeastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and is believed held in Pakistan.

In an exclusive telephone interview with The Associated Press from his Doha office, Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail said on Thursday that Bergdahl "is, as far as I know, in good condition."

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Col. Tim Marsano with the Idaho National Guard said he has been in touch with Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, of Hailey several times this week. The family isn't giving interviews, but Marsano said Bergdahl's parents do plan to speak at an event honoring the soldier in Hailey on Saturday.

"They're aware that the possibility of a transfer or exchange is on the table and they're encouraged by it," Marsano said.

Suhail did not elaborate on Bergdahl's current whereabouts. Among the five prisoners the Taliban have consistently requested are Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, a former top Taliban military commander, both of whom have been held for more than a decade.

Bergdahl's parents earlier this month received a letter from their son through the International Committee of the Red Cross. They did not release details of the letter but renewed their plea for his release. The soldier's captivity has been marked by only sporadic releases of videos and information about his whereabouts.

The prisoner exchange is the first item on the Taliban's agenda before even opening peace talks, said Suhail, who is a top Taliban figure and served as first secretary at the Afghan Embassy in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad before the Taliban government's ouster in 2001.

"First has to be the release of detainees," Suhail said when asked about Bergdahl. "Yes. It would be an exchange. Then step by step, we want to build bridges of confidence to go forward."

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was expected in Doha ahead of Saturday's conference on the Syrian civil war. He was not expected to meet with the Taliban although other U.S. officials might in coming days.

On Wednesday in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. had "never confirmed" any specific meeting schedule with Taliban representatives in Doha.

The reconciliation process with the Taliban has been a long and bumpy one that began nearly two years ago when the U.S. opened secret talks that were later scuttled by Karzai when he learned of them.

It was then that the U.S. and Taliban discussed prisoner exchanges and for a brief time it appeared that the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners would be released and sent to Doha to help further the peace process. But Karzai stepped in again and demanded they be returned to Afghanistan over Taliban objections.

Since then, the U.S. has been trying to jumpstart peace talks and the Taliban have made small gestures including an offer to share power. The Taliban have also attended several international conferences and held meetings with representatives of about 30 countries.

If the Taliban hold talks with American delegates in the next few days, they will be the first U.S.-Taliban talks in nearly 1 1/2 years.

Prospective peace talks were again thrown into question Wednesday when Karzai became infuriated by the Taliban's move to cast their new office in Doha as a rival embassy.

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© 2013 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

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