American POW's fate could hang in balance as US, Afghanistan struggle to strike security pact

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Efforts to search for America's only living POW currently held by the Taliban could be seriously set back if the U.S. and Afghanistan governments cannot agree on a vital security pact.

The Obama administration has set a new deadline of Jan. 28 for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the agreement, which would provide U.S. troops with protections they need in order to stay after 2014.

But few think the unpredictable Afghan president will sign before he leaves office in April. And military experts say that without an agreement, all U.S. troops will likely be pulled from the country at the end of this year.

For Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban in 2009 and traded to a Pakistani faction known as the Haqqani group, failure to sign the security agreement could be a death sentence, officials say -- as it would make it increasingly difficult to track him and secure his safe release.

A new video intercepted by the U.S. government marks the first time Bergdahl has been seen in three years. The proof of life shows a prisoner who is in deteriorating health, which has U.S. Defense officials worried. It makes reference to Dec. 14, 2013 and Nelson Mandela's death, which has led U.S. intelligence analysts to conclude that the video was made recently.

Bergdahl's parents pleaded in a written statement to his captors to release their only son and gave words of encouragement to Bergdahl himself.

"As we have done so many times over the past  4 and a half years, we request his captors to release him safely so that our only son can be reunited with his mother and father," Bowe's parents wrote from their home in Idaho. "BOWE - If you see this, continue to remain strong through patience. Your endurance will carry you to the finish line. Breathe!""

On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby stressed that the department continues to pursue his release.

"I can tell you, across the spectrum, diplomatically, militarily, even from an intelligence perspective, we've never lost focus on Bowe Bergdahl and on trying to get him home," he said.

But the security agreement talks loom over their efforts.

Among the revelations in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' new book, "Duty," is just how difficult it's been to secure status of forces (SOFA) and bilateral security agreements at the end of America's contentious wars. Gates recalled how he was told by his commanders -- in this case, Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the surge forces in Iraq -- that Iran was in fact paying Iraqi officials not to consent to the agreement which would allow U.S. forces to stay after the Iraq war ended.

"Petraeus told me an Iranian brigadier general had been arrested in Iraq for bribing legislators with $250,000 each to vote against the SOFA," Gates wrote in his memoir. "Later in the fall, we learned that the head of the Iranian Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani, had told President Talabani that Iraq should not sign any agreement with Bush."

Similar meddling by those who do not want the U.S. to keep its influence in the region after 2014 can be assumed to be occurring in Afghanistan.