Taliban Pressing for Prisoner Swap With U.S.

The group wants to trade an American engineer abducted two years ago for an Afghan drug lord imprisoned in the U.S.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
A billboard depicting late Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and late Afghan leader of the Haqqani network Jalaluddin Haqqani is seen along a road in Kabul.
A billboard depicting late Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and late Afghan leader of the Haqqani network Jalaluddin Haqqani is seen along a road in Kabul.
A billboard depicting late Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar (left) and late Afghan leader of the Haqqani network Jalaluddin Haqqani is seen along a road in Kabul on Sept. 9, 2021. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

Leaders of the Taliban are pressing Washington to free an Afghan drug lord serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison in exchange for the release of an American engineer, Mark Frerichs, held in Afghanistan for two years now, Afghan and American security, legal, and diplomatic sources said.

The group is also threatening to block the evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans who hold U.S. citizenship or are eligible for resettlement in the United States until the drug lord, Bashir Noorzai, can go home to Kandahar, according to Steve Brooking, a former official with the British government and United Nations in Afghanistan.

Noorzai helped fund and arm the Taliban’s insurgency with proceeds from heroin trafficking. He was arrested in New York on drug trafficking charges in 2005 and has been serving two concurrent life sentences since 2009.

Leaders of the Taliban are pressing Washington to free an Afghan drug lord serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison in exchange for the release of an American engineer, Mark Frerichs, held in Afghanistan for two years now, Afghan and American security, legal, and diplomatic sources said.

The group is also threatening to block the evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans who hold U.S. citizenship or are eligible for resettlement in the United States until the drug lord, Bashir Noorzai, can go home to Kandahar, according to Steve Brooking, a former official with the British government and United Nations in Afghanistan.

Noorzai helped fund and arm the Taliban’s insurgency with proceeds from heroin trafficking. He was arrested in New York on drug trafficking charges in 2005 and has been serving two concurrent life sentences since 2009.

The U.S. State Department has said 62,000 Afghans eligible for resettlement in the United States remain in Afghanistan since the government collapsed the Taliban regained power. That includes 33,000 interpreters and others who worked for U.S. interests as well as their families.

Frerichs, a civil engineer and U.S. Navy veteran, was kidnapped in January 2020 while working on development projects in Afghanistan.

His sister, Charlene Cakora, has echoed the Taliban’s call for a prisoner swap and called on U.S. President Joe Biden to make it happen.

Brooking, who worked most recently as a special advisor for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, likened the Taliban demands to “blackmail.”

“The Taliban have basically said [to the United States] that unless you do what we want, we will continue to hold Frerichs and we will also hold the thousands of people who are eligible for resettlement in the United States,” Brooking said.

A State Department official disputed the account, calling it “inaccurate,” but refused to provide details.

“The safe and immediate release of American and Navy veteran Mark Frerichs is imperative. We have made that clear to the Taliban. As the Taliban seek legitimacy, they cannot continue to hold an American hostage,” the official said.

The sources said Noorzai could only be released on Biden’s say-so. A presidential pardon, however, would contravene the no-concessions policy aimed at deterring kidnap-for-ransom, which has been a lucrative source of funding for terrorists worldwide.

Releasing a convicted Afghan narco-lord would also risk reigniting criticism of Biden’s decision to uphold a deal done by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, ending two decades of military engagement.

The rushed withdrawal led to the Afghan government’s sudden collapse and left many thousands of people eligible to live in the United States and elsewhere trapped behind closed borders. Former President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan and now resides in the United Arab Emirates.

Since the Taliban seized Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, Afghanistan’s slide toward profound poverty and hunger has accelerated alarmingly. No country has recognized the Taliban’s legitimacy. Many of the Taliban’s leaders are blacklisted as terrorists by the United States and the U.N. Security Council; their return to power triggered legal bans on the development aid and cash support that propped up the country for 20 years.

Hostage-taking is a well-worn tactic of the Taliban and appears to be gaining currency once more as the former insurgents become increasingly desperate for diplomatic and financial support to keep their troubled regime afloat.

The British government recently confirmed the disappearance of Grant Bailey, a charity worker who returned to Afghanistan in September.

Like Frerichs, Bailey is believed to be a hostage of the Haqqani network, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s deputy leader, and Afghanistan’s de facto interior minister. He is blacklisted as a terrorist by the United States and the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Frerichs, now 59, is alive. Hopes have largely faded for two other Americans: writer Paul Overby, who disappeared near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in May 2014, and aid worker Cydney Mizell, abducted in Kandahar in January 2008. The State Department continues to press for information on their whereabouts.

Noorzai was a significant funder of the Taliban. The group relied on proceeds from drugs and other criminal activities throughout its 20-year war against the Western-backed government.

He was convicted in 2008 and sent to life imprisonment for each of the two charges: conspiring to import and to distribute heroin in the United States. A 2013 appeal was refused. A motion for compassionate release was denied last August.

Noorzai’s lawyer, Alan Seidler, said his client was lured to the United States by federal agents who promised he would not be detained as they sought information on drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan, where most of the world’s illicit heroin is sourced.

He suggested political pressure was being exerted to ensure Noorzai’s fate remained in the president’s hands. “Technically speaking, it is up to the judge, but he is a creature of the system, and someone has told him to hold off,” Seidler told Foreign Policy.

“I’ve always felt that he [Noorzai] is a political prisoner,” Seidler said.

Noorzai’s links to the Taliban—his friendship with founder Mullah Omar and shared tribal affiliations with the current leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, and other senior figures—are well documented.

His father, Mohammed Issa Noorzai, was a wealthy heroin smuggler who ran a string of laboratories, according to journalist Gretchen Peters, in her book Seeds of Terror: How Drugs, Thugs, and Crime Are Reshaping the Afghan War. Peters is the executive director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime.

Noorzai’s support was crucial to the rise of the Taliban in 1996 and to the group’s reemergence after the U.S. invasion that followed the 9/11 attacks. In Seeds of Terror, Peters describes him as Mullah Omar’s “original sponsor as well as a key decision-maker and leading member of the [Taliban’s] ruling council.”

According to court documents, Noorzai was a major producer, refiner, and smuggler of heroin. The Taliban allowed him “to continue his drug cultivation and trafficking activities with impunity in exchange for Noorzai’s financial support,” U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin said in his decision to deny Noorzai’s appeal in July 2013.

He is leader of the Noorzai tribe of Kandahar province, which is about 1 million strong and part of the Durrani tribe to which many of the Taliban’s leaders belong. Securing Noorzai’s release would “repay a debt of honor” to one of their principal historic supporters, Brooking said.

Noorzai’s return to Afghanistan would also bring tribal cohesion at a time when the Taliban risk splintering into factions battling for the spoils of their victory, Afghan sources said.

The prisoner swap was raised with the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West, in a meeting with Taliban leaders in the Qatari capital, Doha, in November, according to sources with knowledge of the talks.

Noorzai’s release was also raised with West’s predecessor, Zalmay Khalilzad, during the Trump-Taliban withdrawal talks, according to American and Afghan sources. A former senior Afghan security official said Khalilzad did not wish to “complicate” the negotiations by including Frerichs’s freedom in the conditions for an agreement.

Cakora, Frerichs’s sister, has questioned why Trump did not make his release a condition of the deal with the Taliban. Frerichs was kidnapped on Jan. 31, 2020; Trump sealed the deal with the Taliban just weeks later, on Feb. 29.

As part of the deal, the Afghan government, which was sidelined from the talks, was forced to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Many were drug traffickers and commanders who tipped the financing and military balance in the insurgents’ favor.

Kidnapping for ransom has long been a successful Haqqani tactic. In 2014, the Haqqani network exchanged U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was held for five years after leaving his base in Paktika province in June 2009, for five senior Taliban operatives held in Guantánamo Bay.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at the time that the deal was done “with no consultation, totally not following the law.”

In the midst of his Taliban outreach, in November 2019, Trump agreed to swap two academics, an American and an Australian held for three years by the Haqqani network and 10 Afghan soldiers, for three senior Taliban members, including Sirajuddin Haqqani’s brother Anas Haqqani, an important fundraiser for the group.

An American woman and her Canadian husband were captured and held for five years by the Haqqani network until being freed in a shootout with Pakistani soldiers in 2017.

The issue of a prisoner swap, Frerichs for Noorzai, has divided the State and Justice departments, with Justice officials concerned that such a move would undermine and politicize the law, sources close to the issue said.

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment. Taliban spokespeople did not answer questions.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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