The Taliban Monday freed Mark Frerichs, the only American hostage remaining in Afghanistan, in exchange for a Taliban drug lord, Bashir Noorzai, who was serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told reporters in Kabul the prisoner swap between his government and a U.S. delegation took place at the Afghan capital’s airport.
Frerichs, the nearly 60-year-old American engineer and Navy veteran, was abducted in Kabul in early 2020 when the U.S. and NATO troops were battling the then-Taliban insurgency in support of the Western-backed Afghan government.
In a statement, President Joe Biden said that Frerichs was on his way home from Afghanistan after 31 months in captivity there. Biden said he had spoken and shared the “good news” with Frerichs’ family.
“His release is the culmination of years of tireless work by dedicated public servants across our government and other partner governments, and I want to thank them for all that effort.,” Biden said.
“Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly.,” the U.S. president stated.
Biden said that his administration continues to prioritize the safe return of all Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, and the U.S. will not stop until they are reunited with their families.
Noorzai, known as Haji Bashir, was arrested in New York in 2005 and subsequently charged with trafficking millions of dollars’ worth of heroin into the United States. The top Taliban associate reportedly helped fund and arm the insurgents with proceeds from heroin trafficking.
Muttaqi described the prisoner swap as an “unprecedented in the history of Afghanistan” and said it was the outcome of a long negotiation process between the Taliban and the U.S. He said until now prisoner swaps between the two former adversaries had taken place outside Afghanistan.
“This morning at 10 a.m. the American citizen was handed over to an American team at the Kabul airport and Haji Bashir was handed over to the Islamic Emirate,” Muttaqi said, using the official name for the Taliban government.
Noorzai’s lawyer had denied his client was a drug lord and argued the charges against him should be dismissed because U.S. officials duped him into believing he would not be arrested.
International forces completely withdrew from the country in August of last year after almost two decades of war with the Taliban, paving the way for the resurgent Islamist group to seize power.
Muttaqi said he also had a “positive” meeting with the U.S. officials at the Kabul airport on different issues before the guests left Afghanistan. He did not elaborate.
Muttaqi said Monday’s development had opened a “new chapter” in relations between Afghanistan and the United States, it would also help resolve bilateral problems between the two countries through negotiations.
Critics said it was too early to say whether the prisoner exchange would lead to any change in U.S. policy in terms of dealings with the Taliban, noting that the Islamist group had for long denied they were behind the abduction of Frerichs.
“Miraculously finding him for an exchange doesn't exactly amount to diplomacy, nor trust building with the world,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan official and political commentator.
The U.S. and the world at large have not yet recognized the Taliban government over human rights and terrorism-related concerns.
Noorzai, an influential tribal leader, owned opium fields in the southern province of Kandahar and he was a close ally of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder leader of the Taliban.
"In 2001, after the United States began military operations in Afghanistan, Noorzai at Omar’s request, provided the Taliban" with hundreds of his fighters to battle the then-anti-Taliban alliance of Afghan groups, according to the U.S. charge sheet against him.