Before President Joe Biden finally approved the release of Bashar Noorzai in exchange for US hostage Mark Frerichs, the influential Afghan tribal leader and Taliban operative imprisoned in the US since 2005 on suspicion of drug trafficking was at the center of talks about prisoner swap for at least a decade, according to a retired Special Forces officer familiar with the negotiations.
More than 11 years before US contractor and naval veteran Mark Frerichs was seized by the mighty Haqqani network in January 2020, a development was first reported the following month by News weekThe same Taliban-aligned group captured US Army Private Bowe Bergdahl, who left his post prior to his disappearance in 2009.
Bergdahl was eventually released in a 2014 deal overseen by President Barack Obama, who served as Vice President Biden, in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban prisoners.
But James Amerine, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who led a team to secure Bergdahl’s freedom, said Noorzai was first named as a candidate for reviving the stalled attempt to get the US soldier back. .
“The deal with Noorzai was a long time coming,” said Amerine News week. “In 2012, negotiations with the Taliban for Bergdahl’s release had failed and we were tasked with finding a way to get the POWs home. We did our research and believed that Noorzai would be an ideal option.”
Amerine argued that Noorzai was chosen not only because of the Taliban’s interest in bringing him home, but also because of the controversial circumstances in which he was arrested in the first place.
Noorzai, who returned to Taliban-led celebrations in Kabul on Monday after spending some 17 and a half years in US captivity, was arrested in New York in 2005 while on a self-proclaimed diplomatic mission during a particularly bloody stage in The United States. directed war in Afghanistan launched in the wake of 9/11. He had reportedly been given assurances that he would not be detained, and Amerine was among those who felt he should never have been.
“He was a US ally before he was captured, and even those involved in his arrest believed it was a mistake,” Amerine said. “But Noorzai was embroiled in the US policy of eliminating Afghan warlords to promote democracy in Afghanistan, a policy that has continued to haunt us over the years, especially last year when Afghanistan collapsed without a fight.”
The Pashtun ethnic leader is said to have far-reaching connections between several players in Afghanistan, including Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Haqqani Network, which operates across the porous, troubled border between the two nations. His arrest and eventual life sentence for allegedly trying to smuggle more than $50 million worth of heroin into the United States infuriated the Taliban, who have since sought its return.
Rather than support peace in the region, Amerine said the capture of Noorzai exacerbated the situation.
“Noorzai was not the people Pablo Escobar had in mind,” Amerine said. “He controlled much of Afghanistan, including the drug trade. His imprisonment destabilized the area and was a huge blunder in our fight against the insurgency.”
But because of its importance to southern Afghanistan’s complex tribal ecosystem, Amerine believed the Taliban would be willing to support a trade not just for Bergdahl, but for various foreigners controlled by the Islamist group.
“We have offered the trade to the Taliban in exchange for Bergdahl and some Western hostages in Pakistan,” Amerine said. “The Pakistani ISI informally supported the deal because the ISI had a good relationship with Noorzai and saw him as a stabilizing influence in southern Afghanistan. They even helped promote trade.”
However, by the time talks resumed, he said the State Department had put forward another proposal.
“When the Taliban returned to the negotiating table, apparently ready to trade, the State Department instead offered the five Taliban they had wanted to trade for years and the Taliban accepted that deal instead,” Amerine said. ‘Who not? We offered Noorzai for Bergdahl and five hostages. Instead, the Taliban received five Taliban officials for Bergdahl.”
Amerine called the release of the so-called “Taliban Five”, comprising former Guantanamo Bay inmates Abdul Haq Wasiq, Norullah Noori, Mohammad Fazl, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mohammad Nabi Omari, a “political disaster” that “did nothing to promote peace.” “process as the State Department had hoped.”
All five men have since held senior positions in the Taliban-led Islamist emirate created in the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last August.
And in the years since Bergdahl’s release, Amerine said that “the Taliban continued to seek Noorzai’s release now that it seemed to be an option for them.” Today, Amerine expresses his support for swapping Noorzai for Frerichs, although he said the deal could have been closed much earlier if the US had taken the necessary steps to do so.
“The release of Frerichs seemed imminent as a trade for Noorzai more than a year ago,” Amerine said, “but the political fallout from Afghanistan’s complete collapse appeared to be delaying the deal as the Biden administration no longer wanted blue eyes.” .”
“I felt terrible for his family over the past year,” he added, “because he could have been released a while ago if politics hadn’t stopped the deal.”
Frerichs’ release on Monday was made public in a statement from Biden, who said the result was “the culmination of years of tireless work by dedicated officials in our government and other partner governments”. He said the effort required “difficult decisions” to be made, a likely reference to Noorzai’s release.
Reached for comment, State Department referred to News week on a phone call from a senior government official to reporters shortly after the president’s announcement.
The senior official said a number of government experts consulted on the matter concluded that Noorzai’s release “would not materially change any risk to Americans or fundamentally alter the contours of the drug trade” in Afghanistan.
The official also revealed that Biden made the decision to release Noorzai in June to secure Frerichs’ release. Asked about the delay, the official said that “it still costs quite a bit to work something like this out, including something as logistically challenging as having confidence on both sides of a settlement like this that it will go through as agreed.”
“It took some time to go from that willingness to move on to actually being willing to do this,” the official added. “But once it became clear that we could have confidence in that, we moved extremely fast and got this done, and of course we are happy with the result.”
News week had reported more than a year ago during the Afghan government collapse in August 2021 that the Biden administration was supporting such trade pending proof of life, which eventually emerged in April. Since the news of Frerichs’ first disappearance, News week has discussed the matter with Frerichs’ family and senior US and Taliban officials, including Anas Haqqani, who celebrated Noorzai’s release on Monday in a statement posted on Twitter.
At his welcome reception in Kabul, Noorzai thanked the Taliban leaders for his efforts to secure his return, as did Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, who said: “Praise be to God, today in Afghanistan, instead of “The system that used to arrest its own Afghans and hand them over to foreigners, there is a system that frees its Afghans from foreigners at any cost and reunites them with their families,” said ministry spokesman Hafiz Zia Ahmad.
As for Frerichs, who is currently returning to the US via Qatar, who has credited the Biden administration for playing a key role in facilitating negotiations that led to a successful outcome, his family expressed gratitude for his release.
“My brother is alive and safe because President Biden has taken action,” Frerichs’ sister, Charlene Cakora, said in a statement shared with News week. “There were people arguing against the deal that brought Mark home, but President Biden did the right thing. He saved the life of an innocent American veteran.”