ISLAMABAD – Afghanistan’s Taliban said Sunday they had suspended “mediation” with the United States to exchange captive Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, halting – at least temporarily – what was considered the best chance yet of securing the 27-year-old soldier’s freedom since his capture in 2009.
In a terse Pashto language statement emailed to The Associated Press, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid blamed the “current complex political situation in the country” for the suspension.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the talks said the cause of the suspension was not the result of any issue between the United States and Taliban. He declined to elaborate and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban attacked several Afghan army outposts in eastern Kunar province near Pakistan on Sunday early morning killing 21 Afghan soldiers, wounding two and capturing six more, reports CBS News’ Ahmad Mukhtar.
Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said reinforcements have been dispatched and an operation is underway in the area to free the captive soldiers.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack and used the occasion to call into question Pakistan`s real intention in fighting terrorism, Mukhtar reports. Karzai was supposed to leave the country on Sunday for two days official trip to Sri Lanka, but postponed his trip due to the attack.
Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, was last seen in a video released in December, footage seen as “proof of life” demanded by the U.S. Bergdahl is believed to be held in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mujahid said the indirect talks with the U.S. had been mediated by Qatar, where the Taliban established a political office last June. The video of Bergdahl was part of the negotiations which were to lead to the eventual transfer of the five Taliban leaders held since 2002 in Guantanamo Bay.
“The leadership of the Islamic Emirate has decided to suspend the process for some time due to the current complex political situation in the country,” the statement read. “The process will remain suspended without the exchange of the prisoners until our decision to resume.”
Mujahed did not elaborate on what “political situation” in Afghanistan led to the suspension of talks or say when they might resume. Afghanistan is in the middle of a presidential campaign ahead of an April 5 election. Two-term President Hamid Karzai cannot run again for office under the Afghan constitution.
The U.S. State Department has refused to acknowledge the negotiations, but the U.S. official previously told the AP that indirect talks were underway.
In response to the Taliban statement Sunday, U.S. Embassy spokesman in Afghanistan Robert Hilton said: “Sgt. Bergdahl has been gone far too long, however we can’t discuss the efforts we’re taking to obtain his return.”
Efforts at a swap are also seen as a concession to Karzai. Washington would like to see him back away from his refusal to sign a security pact that is necessary for the U.S. to leave a residual force behind in Afghanistan. Karzai says he wants Washington to push reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban forward, without offering specifics.
The five Taliban detainees at the heart of the proposal are the most senior Afghans still held at the prison at the U.S. base in Cuba. Each has been held since 2002.
- Mohammad Fazl, whom Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for presiding over the mass killing of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001 as the Taliban sought to consolidate their control over the country.
- Abdul Haq Wasiq, who served as the Taliban deputy minister of intelligence and was in direct contact with supreme leader Mullah Omar as well as other senior Taliban figures, according to military documents. Under Wasiq, there were widespread accounts of killings, torture and mistreatment.
- Mullah Norullah Nori, who was a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought U.S. forces in late 2001. He previously served as a Taliban governor in two northern provinces, where he has been accused of ordering the massacre of thousands of Shiites.
- Khairullah Khairkhwa, who served in various Taliban positions including interior minister and as a military commander and had direct ties to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, according to U.S. military documents. His U.S. lawyers have argued that his affiliation with the Taliban was a matter of circumstance, rather than ideology, and that he had backed away from them by the time of his capture. His lawyers also have argued that he was merely a civil servant and had no military role, though a judge said there was enough evidence to justify holding him at Guantanamo. His lawyers have appealed.
- Mohammed Nabi, who served as chief of security for the Taliban in Qalat, Afghanistan, and later worked as a radio operator for the Taliban’s communications office in Kabul and as an office manager in the border department, according to U.S. military documents. In the spring of 2002, he told interrogators that he received about $500 from a CIA operative as part of the unsuccessful effort to track down Mullah Omar. When that didn’t pan out, he says he ended up helping the agency locate al-Qaida members.