The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. hails release of Taliban captive following prisoner swap

Bashir Noorzai, center, a warlord and drug trafficker with ties to the Taliban who was released from federal prison in the United States in exchange for U.S. hostage Mark Frerichs, attends a ceremony in Kabul on Sept. 19. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
6 min

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Bashir Noorzai had been held in Guantánamo Bay. He was serving his life sentence in a federal penitentiary. The article has been corrected.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Mark Frerichs, an American contractor held captive by the Taliban since his abduction in Kabul in 2020, was freed in exchange for an Afghan imprisoned on drug trafficking charges in the United States, U.S. and Afghan officials said Monday.

Frerichs’s family hailed his release, saying they were “grateful and excited” to learn he had been set free after more than 2½ years in militant captivity.

“Our family has prayed for this each day,” Charlene Cakora, Frerichs’s sister, said in the statement from Camden Advisory Group, which had been advocating for his release. “We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us.”

President Biden applauded the release of Frerichs, who U.S. officials said was in U.S. care in Doha, Qatar. “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” the president said in a statement.

U.S. officials said Frerichs’s release capped months of behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Taliban, the insurgent group that has governed Afghanistan since August 2021, when the United States withdrew from the country.

U.S. plan to withdraw from Afghanistan prompts fears that U.S. hostage held by Taliban will be left behind

To obtain his freedom, an official said, the U.S. government released detainee Bashir Noorzai (also known as Haji Bashir Noorzai), a warlord with ties to the Taliban who was sentenced to life in federal prison for drug trafficking after being lured to the United States and arrested in 2005.

In Kabul, acting Afghan foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi hailed Noorzai’s release. “This will open a new chapter in the bilateral relations between the United States and Afghanistan,” he said at a news conference that was broadcast by local television outlets.

“We have been persistent in our efforts to free [Noorzai], and now he is with us in his own country,” Muttaqi continued. He said the two men were swapped at Kabul’s international airport.

Celebration, uncertainty and fear grip Kabul one year on

Senior U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, said Frerichs was in “stable health” and was being offered U.S. support. They declined to provide details on where Frerichs was kept during his long captivity.

Frerichs’s release illustrates the delicate path the Biden administration must tread in its dealings with Afghanistan’s new leaders, whom the United States fought for two decades before they took over after the collapse of the U.S.-backed government.

The United States, like other nations, has not officially recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government, but U.S. officials have engaged with it regularly as they seek to provide aid to Afghans in need and advocate for the rights of women and girls as the group imposes new restrictions on them.

The Frerichs deal comes weeks after the United States conducted a drone strike in downtown Kabul that killed al-Qaeda’s top militant, a development that highlighted the Taliban’s ongoing ties to terrorist organizations and posed a major setback to the potential normalization of U.S. ties with Afghanistan’s new leaders.

One U.S. official said the Biden administration told Taliban leaders after that strike that “we would hold them directly responsible if any harm were to come to Mark, and that the best way they might begin to rebuild trust with the United States with the world was to immediately release him.”

“If the Taliban are as interested as they say they are in normal relations with the international community, then that practice must resolutely end,” another official said, referring to hostage-taking.

Officials said there was a “narrow window of opportunity” following Biden’s initial decision this summer to potentially grant Noorzai clemency. They contrasted the conviction of Noorzai, who was alleged to have been distributing heroin in the United States since the 1990s, with the fact that Frerichs hadn’t been tried for any crime.

The swap is not the first the United States has undertaken in Afghanistan. In 2014, the Obama administration approved the exchange of five senior Afghans held at the Guantánamo Bay prison for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, then a Taliban hostage. Other Americans abducted in Afghanistan have escaped or been freed.

The officials declined to say whether other U.S. citizens are now being held by the Taliban. Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists said an American filmmaker and an Afghan producer had been taken into Taliban custody. It was not immediately clear whether they were still being held.

The release of Frerichs comes as the Biden administration attempts to secure the release of two Americans it says are being wrongly held by Russia, potentially via another prisoner swap.

In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said officials had made Moscow a “substantial proposal” to secure the release of basketball star Brittney Griner and businessman Paul Whelan. The offer was believed to include the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is imprisoned in the United States. On Monday, the Russian government accused Washington of holding up talks to secure their releases.

Laurel Miller, who served as a senior official for Afghanistan during the Obama and Trump administrations, said that while Frerichs’s release was a positive development, it wouldn’t necessarily lead to progress on other issues the United States has cited as impediments to fuller global support of the Taliban government, like allowing all girls to return to school.

“It’s very difficult to see that this solves any problems in the U.S.-Taliban relationship other than the specific problem of Frerichs being wrongfully held as a hostage,” she said. “This was a transactional exchange.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), whose office has described Frerichs as an “Illinoisan,” said she had been advocating for his release since the Trump administration. In a phone interview, she said she had urged the Biden administration to free Noorzai, arguing that the Afghan prisoner is elderly and in poor health.

“He’s being kept alive at taxpayers’ expense; we’re providing his health care,” Duckworth said she told U.S. officials. “And I’d rather have Mark come home.”

George reported from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Ryan reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.