WASHINGTON — U.S. government agencies are again looking at a long-standing proposal to release an Afghan drug kingpin in exchange for concessions in peace talks, which would include the release of an American held in Afghanistan, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.
Bashir Noorzai, who was arrested in New York in 2005 and sentenced in 2009 to life in prison on drug and conspiracy charges, could be the leverage President Biden is looking for in Afghanistan, particularly to free American civil engineer Mark Frerichs, who was kidnapped in Kabul in January 2020 and is held by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network. Noorzai is currently in a federal prison in New Hampshire.
Noorzai’s possible release, which remains controversial, will likely not be a part of any imminent announcements being made by the Biden administration on Afghanistan. Facing a tight deadline to remove the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops by May 1, the White House is in the process of a broader evaluation of its approach to peace negotiations with the Taliban.
A source familiar with the matter stressed that Biden has not yet made a decision on the May 1 deadline, previously negotiated by the Trump administration.
A vital piece of the equation, particularly if peace negotiations with the Taliban are restarted, is convincing the Haqqani network to free Frerichs, as well as finding answers about what happened to American author Paul Overby, who disappeared in the region in 2014.
Both the White House and the State Department declined to comment on whether Noorzai’s release was being discussed within the government. However, in a statement, State Department spokesperson Ned Price wrote that “American citizen Mark Frerichs has spent over a year in captivity. We will not stop working until we secure his safe return home.”
If the possibility of releasing Noorzai rises to the level of the White House, it would likely involve a complex and lengthy deliberation, featuring input from the agencies and senior officials, particularly Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Attorney General Merrick Garland.
The White House is under pressure to make sure it has explored every available option to free hostages before pulling out of Afghanistan, and many are angry that the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban while the Haqqani network was openly holding an American captive.
“While there are always big policy issues at play, Americans held hostage abroad must take priority,” said Margaux Ewen, executive director of the James Foley Legacy Foundation, named after an American journalist killed in Syria by ISIS militants.
Ewen urged the White House to do whatever it can to free hostages before even considering leaving Afghanistan. “What kind of a message does it send if the United States is dealing with the Taliban when they are still holding Americans hostage? How can we sign a peace deal with them without first resolving Mark Frerichs and Paul Overby’s cases?”
Frerichs’s family declined to discuss specifics, citing ongoing internal discussions, but told Yahoo News they support any and all efforts to bring him home.
“We want to see all our troops come home from Afghanistan, but we are worried that we are losing leverage to get Mark home safely. We have confidence in President Biden and Secretary Blinken and welcome anything the government can do to help make Mark’s return a priority,” said Charlene Cakora, the sister of Frerichs.
Noorzai, a prominent tribal leader from southern Afghanistan, was lured to the U.S. in 2005 by federal agents promising high-level discussions. Noorzai, who had previously worked with American officials in the region, was arrested after landing in the U.S. for orchestrating a massive drug-trafficking ring out of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that put over $50 million in heroin into the streets of New York City and other states and countries. That money directly financed Taliban activities, according to the U.S. government.
Noorzai had previously served as an ally who helped the Americans track down weaponry and information in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. “But there was growing confusion within the U.S. government about what to do with Noorzai,” wrote national security journalist James Risen in his book “Pay Any Price,” given the tribal leader’s prominent role in the drug trade and his financial support for the Taliban.
Not everyone in the U.S. government agreed that it was the right call to arrest him, according to sources familiar with the matter. However, Noorzai’s prominent role in opium-rich southern Afghanistan, where the drug trade was a primary source of funds for the Taliban, caught the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which enlisted private contractors to help track him down, to the dismay of the CIA. By January 2005, there was already a sealed indictment against Noorzai in New York.
Not knowing the real purpose of his trip, however, Noorzai flew from Dubai to New York, where federal agents put him in custody.
The Taliban have since demanded his return.
Experts familiar with the region and Noorzai’s role argue he is important for tribal cohesion and the stability of southern Afghanistan.
The first time U.S. officials seriously considered releasing Noorzai was in early 2013, when the Pentagon was looking for ways to get Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier held captive by the Haqqani network, and several other Americans imprisoned in Afghanistan and Pakistan back home. However, the U.S. government ultimately worked with the Qatari and Afghan governments to trade five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl.
Several of the other prisoners, including Caitlin Coleman, Josh Boyle and their child born in captivity, were released later on, while Warren Weinstein, an American who was being held by al-Qaida affiliates, was later accidentally killed in a CIA drone strike.
The Taliban has been calling for Noorzai’s release with U.S. officials including Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy to Afghanistan, since the summer. Khalilzad had already arranged for the release in 2019 of two other Western hostages held by the Taliban, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, as a way to break through in the peace process.
Then, in January 2020, the Haqqani network took Frerichs. “They saw a gravy train,” a former senior administration official explained. “That really complicated things for us.”
The possibility of freeing Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs was discussed at the senior levels of the Trump administration, but faced opposition.
“I think that’s a nonstarter,” said Lisa Curtis, who was in charge of the South and Central Asia portfolio at the National Security Council under Trump between 2017 and 2021. “This person is known as the Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan,” she explained. Noorzai’s arrest was a huge victory for the DEA in particular.
“The U.S. authorities worked very hard to arrest him. ... I can tell you that while there may have been some folks pushing for it, there was a great deal of resistance,” she recalled. “If the entire peace process is turned on this issue, maybe there would be some consideration.”
Multiple officials concerned about Frerichs’s release were frustrated that his name wasn’t being consistently raised in peace talks led by Khalilzad, particularly given the quality of intelligence concerning his capture and location. However, when the possibility of releasing Noorzai was formally introduced at high levels of the U.S. government, officials at the Department of Justice ultimately shot it down, the sources said.
A spokesperson for DOJ declined to comment.
“We had the chance to do something early on, but he was sacrificed at the altar of potential peace in Afghanistan,” said a former senior administration official. “It was disappointing to see that.”
Not every U.S. official believes releasing Noorzai is the only way to simultaneously get Frerichs home and reenergize the peace negotiations that Trump left behind.
Curtis, who believes the administration should not immediately pull out of Afghanistan, suggests that there are multiple levers of power to pull to get the Taliban back to the table. “The Taliban certainly want their members delisted from U.N. sanctions lists, they want more prisoners released, and many of them actually don’t want to be international pariahs like they were in the 1990s,” she said. “The other leverage I would say is more negative. We could certainly step up our military activity against the Taliban if, for example, they start increasing attacks on U.S. forces.”
However, several sources familiar with the discussions feel that the Afghan drug lord may be the only chance the U.S. government has to get Frerichs home, and maybe some other major concessions along the way in a broader peace arrangement.
“We can’t really move forward and leave an American behind,” said one former senior administration official.
U.S. lawmakers following Frerichs’s case, including Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, continue to publicly call for his release.
“Mark Frerichs has been held hostage in Afghanistan for more than a year. His family deserves to see him home once again and I will continue to work with the Biden administration to ensure his safe return,” Durbin said in a statement to Yahoo News.
Noorzai’s release, while controversial, wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 2018, the government quietly released Haji Juma Khan, another Afghan drug lord. He was arrested in 2008 despite his previous work with both the CIA and DEA. Unlike Noorzai, however, his case never actually went to trial.
“It’s been kind of comical to see Noorzai on the table over the years,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, who has testified to Congress about the deficiencies of the U.S. government’s hostage recovery process. “So much time has passed now that releasing Noorzai, he’d probably be released straight into retirement.”
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