Charlene Cakora is the sister of Mark Frerichs.
American diplomats had an early opportunity to try to bring Mark home — and did not take it. A month after he was abducted, the United States signed a peace accord with the Taliban. Mark’s name apparently was not even mentioned in the lead-up, despite the fact that U.S. officials were well aware of his kidnapping.
In the summer of 2020, the Taliban began asking about Bashir Noorzai, an Afghan drug dealer in U.S. custody; it wants to trade him for Mark. I understand Noorzai is a convicted criminal, and I cannot speak to whether he deserves to be released. But I know we have held him for more than 16 years and that others who have done a lot worse have been sent home. It’s normal for prisoners to be returned after wars end.
We have had so many opportunities to secure Mark’s release — and two successive administrations have missed every one of them. Each time, there was something more important. We helped facilitate the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners in 2020, but no Mark. We drew down our troop levels at the end of 2020, but no Mark. We evacuated the country in 2021, but no Mark. Since our withdrawal, we have allocated nearly $800 million in aid for Afghanistan since October, but no Mark.
The Biden administration has known since its first day what the Taliban wants in exchange for Mark’s freedom. My understanding is that the Taliban has never asked for anything else or anything more and has never entertained any other deals. It has made this clear to the U.S. government and underscored it to journalists and aid workers.
A few weeks after President Biden’s inauguration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a Zoom call with the families of Americans either held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. I walked away from it encouraged that he understood the urgent need for action and would work to get my brother and others home.
In December, national security adviser Jake Sullivan had another Zoom call with the same group. I heard the same encouraging things, but by that point, I was jaded. The administration gets good headlines by talking tough about American hostages held abroad. It mollifies family members so we don’t voice our frustration to the media. Yet if it simply took action to bring our loved ones home, we would sing its praises to the heavens.
I have talked to everyone who will listen. What I have heard consistently from inside and outside the administration is that the decision to make the trade that will bring my brother home rests with the president. We know that he is aware of my brother’s existence — he has mentioned Mark in an address before, though my two requests to speak with him have been turned down — but he has not taken a stance on the trade. Does he know the decision is now up to him? His senior aides are aware of the situation, yet my family is still waiting.
Maybe officials are stalling because they are worried about the midterm elections — though hostages should not be political considerations. Maybe they are trying to find a deal that does not require them to release a bad guy.
Yet there is no other option on the table for me and my family. For us, it is simple: The U.S. government either makes this trade or it doesn’t save my brother’s life. Every day we don’t bring Mark home is another day he remains in danger.
Jan. 31 will mark two years since my brother was kidnapped — and 376 days that the administration has had the ability to act to bring my brother home and has not made a decision.