Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran who spent more than a decade as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan, was kidnapped in January 2020 and has been held by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network ever since. He was exchanged for Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban operative convicted of heroin trafficking conspiracy and who had spent 17 years behind bars before his release Monday.
The exchange is one of the most significant prisoner exchanges under the Biden administration, five months after a deal with Russia that resulted in the release of Navy veteran Trevor Reed. Though his case has received less public attention than other Americans detained abroad, including WNBA star Brittney Griner and corporate security executive Paul Whelan — who are both detained in Russia and whose relatives met with President on Friday. Joe Biden — US officials said the deal for Frerich’s home marks the culmination of months of quiet negotiations.
Those discussions were given new impetus in June when Biden granted Noorzai a life sentence waiver, paving the way for what one government official described as a “very slim chance this month” of carrying out the deal.
Biden said in a statement from the White House: “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful conclusion required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly.”
Frerichs, 60, was working on civil engineering projects in Kabul at the time of his abduction on January 31, 2020. He is said to have been lured to a meeting to discuss a new project and then transported to Khost, a stronghold of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network near the Pakistani border.
He was last seen in a video posted by The New Yorker last spring, in which he appeared in traditional Afghan attire and pleaded for his release. He was accompanied by the government’s special presidential envoy to hostage-taking on Monday and was in stable health, a US official said. His ultimate destiny was not immediately clear.
A sister of Frerichs, who is from Lombard, Illinois, thanked U.S. officials who assisted in her brother’s release.
“I am so happy to hear that my brother is safe and on his way home to us. Our family has prayed for this every day of the more than 31 months he has been held hostage. We never gave up hope that he would survive and make it to our home safely,” the sister, Charlene Cakora, said in a statement.
Noorzai hardly seemed an ideal recipient of presidential clemency at the time of his arrest in 2005. He was assigned to a list reserved for some of the world’s most prolific drug traffickers, and was charged in federal court in New York with possessing opium fields in Kandahar province and relying on a network of distributors who sold products. heroin.
When sentenced to life in prison, the then top federal prosecutor in Manhattan said Noorzai’s “global narcotics network supported a Taliban regime that turned Afghanistan into a breeding ground for international terrorism.”
The deal underlined the two sides of the Taliban’s approach to illegal drugs. In April, they announced a ban on harvesting the poppies that produce opium for making heroin — an order that also banned the production and transportation of narcotics. However, during the Taliban’s years of insurgency, they are said to have made millions of dollars taxing farmers and middlemen who transported their drugs outside Afghanistan.
A senior government official who informed reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the government said the US government had now determined that Noorzai’s release “would not materially change any risk to the Americans or the contours of the drug trafficking there would fundamentally change.” Officials also took into account that Noorzai had spent 17 years in prison.
At a press conference Monday, Noorzai expressed gratitude for seeing his “mujahedeen brothers” — a reference to the Taliban — in Kabul.
“I pray for more success for the Taliban,” he added. “I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America, because an American has been released and I am now free.”
Even before their takeover of Afghanistan last August, the Taliban had demanded the American release of Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs. But there had been no public sign that Washington was moving in that direction.
Eric Lebson, a former US government national security official who advised Frerichs’ family, said in a statement that “everything about this case has been an uphill battle.” He criticized the Trump administration for “giving away our leverage to get Mark home quickly by signing a peace deal with the Taliban without ever asking them to return Mark first.”
“Mark’s family then had to navigate two governments, where many people viewed Mark’s safe return as an impediment to their plans for Afghanistan,” the statement said.
The collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government and its takeover by the Taliban in August 2021 raised additional concerns that any progress in negotiations could be undone or Frerichs forgotten. But last month, his name was invoked when Biden, who had previously called for Frerichs’ release, was told by his advisers that he had pressured officials to consider any risk to Frerichs from the drone strike in Afghanistan that killed Al. -Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Taliban-appointed Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Monday praised the exchange as the beginning of a “new era” in US-Taliban relations and the opening of a “new door for talks”.
US officials were more cautious. While it does not recognize the Taliban government, the US has interests at stake in Afghanistan and will continue to work with the Taliban in addressing the hunger and humanitarian crisis gripping the country, government officials said. Monday. But officials say they remain concerned about the Taliban’s commitment to fighting terrorism and excluding girls from high schools there, an issue that prompted a rebuke from the United Nations on Sunday.
Faiez reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.
This story has corrected a version earlier in the day citing Taliban claims that Noorzai was being held in Guantanamo Bay; the claim was refuted by US officials.