Mark Frerichs traded for Taliban warlord Bashir Noorzai in Kabul

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bashir Noorzai had been detained at Guantánamo Bay. He was serving his life sentence in a federal penitentiary. The article has been corrected.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Marc FrerichsAn American contractor held captive by the Taliban since his abduction in Kabul in 2020, has been released in exchange for an Afghan imprisoned for drug trafficking in the United States, American and Afghan officials said on Monday.

Frerichs’ family welcomed his release, saying they were “grateful and delighted” to learn that he had been freed after more than two and a half years in militant captivity.

“Our family prayed for this every day,” Charlene Cakora, Frerichs’ sister, said in the statement from the Camden Advisory Group, which had advocated for his release. “We never gave up hope that he would survive and return home safely.”

President Biden applauded the release of Frerichs, who US officials said was in US custody in Doha, Qatar. “Successing the negotiations that led to Mark’s release required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” the president said in a statement.

US officials said Frerichs’ release ended months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Taliban, the insurgent group that has ruled Afghanistan since August 2021 when the United States withdrew from the country.

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To secure his freedom, an official said, the US government released detainee Bashir Noorzai (also known as Haji Bashir Noorzai), a Taliban-linked warlord who was sentenced to life in federal prison for drug trafficking after being lured to the United States and arrested in 2005.

In Kabul, acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi welcomed Noorzai’s release. “This will open a new chapter in bilateral relations between the United States and Afghanistan,” he said at a press conference broadcast by local television stations.

“We persisted in our efforts to free [Noorzai], and now he is with us in his own country,” Muttaqi continued. He added that the two men were exchanged at Kabul International Airport.

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Senior U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, said Frerichs was in “stable health” and was being offered U.S. support. They declined to provide details of where Frerichs was held during his long captivity.

Frerichs’ release illustrates the delicate path the Biden administration must take in its relationship with the new Afghan leadership, whom the United States fought for two decades before taking over after the collapse of the US-backed government. United.

The United States, like other countries, has not officially recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, but US officials have spoken to them regularly as they seek to provide aid to Afghans in the need and defend the rights of women and girls as the group imposes new restrictions on them.

The Frerichs deal comes weeks after the United States carried out a drone strike in downtown Kabul that killed the main al-Qaeda militanta development that highlighted the Taliban’s continued ties to terrorist organizations and posed a major setback to the potential normalization of US ties with the new Afghan leadership.

A U.S. official said the Biden administration told Taliban leaders after that strike that “we would hold them directly accountable if Mark were to suffer any harm, and that the best way to start rebuilding trust with the United States with the world was to release him immediately.

“If the Taliban are as interested as they say in normal relations with the international community, then this practice must resolutely end,” another official said, referring to the hostage-taking.

Officials said there was a “narrow window of opportunity” after Biden’s initial decision this summer to potentially grant Noorzai clemency. They pitted the sentencing of Noorzai, who allegedly distributed heroin in the United States since the 1990s, to the fact that Frerichs had not been tried for any crime.

The exchange is not the first the United States has undertaken in Afghanistan. In 2014, the Obama administration approved the exchange of five senior Afghan officials held in Guantánamo Bay prison for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, then a Taliban hostage. Other Americans kidnapped in Afghanistan escaped or were released.

Officials declined to say whether other US citizens are currently being held by the Taliban. Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists said an American filmmaker and an Afghan producer had been taken into Taliban custody. It was not immediately clear if they were still being held.

Frerichs’ release comes as the Biden administration tries to secure the release of two Americans it says are being wrongfully detained by Russia, potentially via another prisoner exchange.

In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said officials had made a “substantial offer” to Moscow to secure the release of basketball star Brittney Griner and businessman Paul Whelan. The offer was supposed to include the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is imprisoned in the United States. On Monday, the Russian government accused Washington of suspending talks to secure their release.

Laurel Miller, who served as a senior Afghanistan official in the Obama and Trump administrations, said while Frerichs’ release was a positive development, it would not necessarily lead to progress on issues other than the United States. cited as barriers to more comprehensive global support. of the Taliban government, such as allowing all girls to go back to school.

“It’s very hard to see that this resolves any issues in US-Taliban relations other than the specific issue of Frerichs being wrongfully held hostage,” she said. “It was a transactional exchange.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), whose office has described Frerichs as an “Illinoisan,” said she has been advocating for his release from the Trump administration. In a phone interview, she said she urged the Biden administration to release Noorzai, arguing that the Afghan prisoner is elderly and in poor health.

“He is being kept alive at taxpayer expense; we provide his health care,” Duckworth told U.S. officials. “And I’d rather Mark come home.”

George reported from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Ryan reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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