US Contractor Freed by Taliban in Swap for Drug Trafficker

An American contractor held hostage in Afghanistan for greater than two years has been launched in trade for a convicted Taliban drug lord jailed in the US, the White Home mentioned Monday, asserting a uncommon success in U.S.-Taliban talks for the reason that militant group took energy somewhat greater than a 12 months in the past

Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran who had spent greater than a decade in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor, was kidnapped in January 2020 and is believed to have been held since then by the Taliban-linked Haqqani community. He was traded for Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban affiliate convicted in a heroin trafficking conspiracy who had spent 17 years behind bars earlier than his launch Monday.

The trade is among the most vital prisoner swaps to happen below the Biden administration, coming 5 months after a cope with Russia that introduced dwelling Marine veteran Trevor Reed. Though his case has acquired much less public consideration than these of another People held overseas, together with WNBA star Brittney Griner and company safety government Paul Whelan — who’re each held in Russia and whose family met with President Joe Biden on Friday — U.S. officers mentioned the deal for Frerichs was the results of months of quiet negotiations.

These discussions gained new momentum in June when Biden agreed to grant Noorzai reduction from his life sentence, setting the stage for what one administration official described as a “very slim window of alternative this month” to finish the deal.

Biden mentioned in a press release launched by the White Home, “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a profitable decision required tough selections, which I didn’t take frivolously.”

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Frerichs, 60, had been engaged on civil engineering tasks on the time of his January 31, 2020 abduction in Kabul. He’s believed to have been lured into a gathering to debate a brand new venture after which transported to Khost, a stronghold of the Taliban-linked Haqqani community close to the Pakistan border.

He was final seen in a video posted final spring by The New Yorker wherein he appeared in conventional Afghan clothes and pleaded for his launch. He was accompanied Monday by the administration’s particular presidential envoy for hostage affairs and was in steady well being, a U.S. official mentioned. His final vacation spot was not instantly clear, although a Qatari Overseas Ministry official mentioned Frerichs would quickly head from Doha to the U.S.

A sister of Frerichs, who’s from Lombard, Illinois, thanked U.S. officers who helped safe her brother’s launch.

“I’m so joyful to listen to that my brother is secure and on his approach dwelling to us. Our household has prayed for this every day of the greater than 31 months he has been a hostage. We by no means gave up hope that he would survive and are available dwelling safely to us,” mentioned a press release from the sister, Charlene Cakora.

Noorzai, on the time of his 2005 arrest, hardly appeared a really perfect recipient for presidential clemency. He’d been designated on an inventory reserved for a number of the world’s most prolific drug traffickers, and was prosecuted in Manhattan’s federal court docket on fees that accused him of proudly owning opium fields in Kandahar province and counting on a community of distributors who bought the heroin in New York.

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When he was sentenced to life imprisonment, the then-top federal prosecutor in Manhattan mentioned Noorzai’s “worldwide narcotics community supported a Taliban regime that made Afghanistan a breeding floor for worldwide terrorism.”

Monday’s deal underscored the 2 sides to the Taliban’s strategy to unlawful medication. In April, they introduced a ban on harvesting the poppies that produce opium for making heroin — an order that additionally outlawed the manufacture and transportation of narcotics. Nonetheless, in the course of the years-long Taliban insurgency, they reportedly made hundreds of thousands of {dollars} taxing farmers and middlemen who moved their medication outdoors Afghanistan.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on situation of anonymity below floor guidelines set by the administration mentioned the U.S. authorities now decided that Noorzai’s launch would “not materially change any threat to People or basically alter the contours of the drug commerce there.” Officers additionally took under consideration that Noorzai had spent 17 years in jail. They mentioned it turned clear from negotiations that releasing him could be essential to get Frerichs dwelling.

At a press convention Monday, Noorzai expressed gratitude at seeing his “mujahedeen brothers” — a reference to the Taliban — in Kabul.

“I pray for extra success of the Taliban,” he added. “I hope this trade can result in peace between Afghanistan and America, as a result of an American was launched and I’m additionally free now.”

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Even earlier than their takeover of Afghanistan in August final 12 months, the Taliban had demanded the U.S. launch Noorzai in trade for Frerichs. However there had been little public indication of Washington continuing alongside these strains.

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Eric Lebson, a former U.S. authorities nationwide safety official who had been advising Frerichs’ household, mentioned in a press release that “every little thing about this case has been an uphill combat.” He criticized the Trump administration for having given away “our leverage to get Mark dwelling shortly by signing a peace accord with the Taliban with out ever having requested them to return Mark first.”

“Mark’s household then needed to navigate two administrations, the place many individuals seen Mark’s secure return as an obstacle to their plans for Afghanistan,” the assertion mentioned.

The collapse of the Western-backed Afghan authorities and takeover by the Taliban in August 2021 raised further concern that progress in negotiations may very well be undone or that Frerichs may very well be forgotten. However his identify was invoked final month when Biden was mentioned by his advisers to have pressed officers to contemplate any threat posed to Frerichs by the drone strike in Afghanistan that killed al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri.

The Taliban-appointed international minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, hailed the trade Monday as the beginning of a “new period” in U.S.-Taliban relations and the opening of a “new door for talks.”

U.S. officers had been extra circumspect. Although it doesn’t acknowledge the Taliban authorities, the U.S. does have pursuits at stake in Afghanistan and can proceed to have interaction with the Taliban in addressing the starvation and humanitarian disaster gripping the nation, administration officers mentioned Monday.

However officers say they continue to be involved about whether or not the Taliban are dedicated to preventing terrorism and by the exclusion of ladies from excessive faculties there, a problem that drew a United Nations reprimand on Sunday.