After two arduous years, American engineer and US Navy veteran Mark Randall Frerichs was finally released by the Taliban after President Joe Biden agreed to a prisoner swap deal.
The Biden administration has been working on releasing Frerichs for months after the Illinois native was captured by the rebels while doing contract work in a high conflict zone. In January, the US called out the Taliban for keeping Frerichs for years. They said that he has been helping locals for years. At the time, the US was unwilling to negotiate any terms.
“Threatening the safety of Americans or any innocent civilians is always unacceptable, and hostage-taking is an act of particular cruelty and cowardice. The Taliban must immediately release Mark before expecting any consideration of its aspirations for legitimacy. This is not negotiable,” said Biden in a press release.
After months of coordination with the Taliban, Frerichs was finally freed and brought home. However, it did not mean the negotiations went as smoothly. A senior administration official told CNN that releasing Haji Bashir Noorzai, a prominent Taliban leader, was crucial to the negotiations.
Frerichs’ family also praised the Biden administration for acting on his release, something the Trump administration could not accomplish. Mark’s sister Charlene Cakora said, “some folks were arguing against the deal that brought Mark home, but President Biden did what was right. He saved the life of an innocent American veteran.”
“I am so happy to hear that my brother is safe and on his way home to us. Our family has prayed for this each day of the more than 31 months he has been a hostage,” Cakora said. “We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also confirmed his release.
“Mark’s soon going to be reunited with his family,” said Blinken before a Freedom of Expression Roundtable at the UN in New York. “The President had an opportunity to speak to them a few hours ago.”
“I want the families of Americans who are being arbitrarily detained or held hostage anywhere in the world to know that our commitment to them to bringing their loved ones home is resolute and we will relentlessly continue to focus on doing just that,” Blinken added.
Did Biden Really Exchange Frerichs with Afghan ‘Pablo Escobar’?
According to the official, the US did not see a fair trade between Frerichs and Noorzai. Noorzai had a 17-year sentence in the US, while Frerichs did not face any court ruling in Afghanistan (ultimately kidnapped). Despite claims, Noorzai was also not held at Guantanamo Bay. But, eventually, the assessment showed a manageable risk if they exchanged Noorzai for Frerichs’ freedom.
“We consulted with experts across the US government, who assessed that Noorzai’s (release) to Afghanistan would not materially change any risk to Americans emanating from the country or the nature of the drug trade there,” the official said.
“As we also said publicly at the time, we told the Taliban immediately after the strike, that we would hold them directly responsible if any harm were to come to Mark, and that the best way they might begin to rebuild trust with the United States, with the world, was to immediately release Mark,” the official said.
Though many rejoice Frerichs is returning home again, others are concerned about the possible impact of letting Noorzai free.
Noorzai was one of the earliest financiers of the Taliban in the 1990s. He’s not only a figurehead but one of the considered founders of the terrorist organization. He knows the ins and outs of the Taliban’s stronghold, and his return could reignite the Taliban’s motivation to fight back.
“You can’t imagine the importance of this man within the Taliban,” former Afghan security official Ahmad Shuja Jamal told The Daily Beast.
Former Afghan spy chief Rahmatullah Nabil also told The Daily Beast that Noorzai’s “tribe” is where most of the Taliban’s leadership came from. He’s like the godfather of the organization. Money. Influence. Power.
“In the past, he was an intermediary between Taliban leaders and the Americans in 2001. I suspect even now his release is conditional to a deal with the Americans,” Nabil said. “He is someone who can influence the Taliban to bring about desired changes, those that the international community wants to see. He could be the US’s man inside the Taliban.”
However, Noorzai is currently showing a diplomatic approach after his release. Speaking at his welcome home event in Kabul, he expressed his hope to develop peaceful relations between the US and Afghanistan.
“I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America, because an American was released and I am also free now,” he said.
As for the possibility of Noorzai returning to his old ways, Nabil says it depends on his deal with the US government.
“He may not return to narco-trade openly if he has struck a deal with the American to be the go-between with the Taliban, perhaps even their de facto ruler. I believe then he might seek to consolidate his power politically, perhaps even assume the role of the de facto leader of the Taliban.”