(CNSNews.com) – A deal with the Taliban that secured the release of an American hostage in exchange for a convicted Taliban-associated heroin trafficker “required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” President Biden said on Monday.
But, he added in a statement, “My administration continues to prioritize the safe return of all Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, and we will not stop until they are reunited with their families.”
Mark Randall Frerichs, a 60-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who had worked on development projects in Afghanistan for a decade, was seized in January 2020 and held for the past 31 months, reportedly by the Taliban faction known as the Haqqani Network. The leader of the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is interior minister in the regime established by the Taliban after it seized power in Kabul last summer.
The U.S., like all other governments, does not recognize the regime, but has been engaged in what a senior administration official called “months of tough negotiations with the Taliban for Mark’s release.”
“And it became clear in the course of those negotiations that the release of Bashir Noorzai, a drug trafficker who spent 17 years in U.S. federal custody, was the key to securing Mark’s overdue freedom,” said the official, briefing on background.
Frerichs arrived safely in Doha, accompanied by the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens, and was in “stable health.”
Arrested in New York in 2005, Noorzai, a close associate of former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, was convicted of conspiracy to import and distribute heroin, and sentenced in 2009 to life imprisonment.
A year before his arrest, President George W. Bush had designated Noorzai as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” eligible for sanctions under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.
When a federal judge in August last year – a week before Kabul fell to the Taliban – denied a motion for Noorzai’s compassionate release, he ruled that his “release and removal to Afghanistan would neither reflect the seriousness of the offense and punishment, nor would it protect the public from further criminal activity.”
“As set forth in the PSR [pre-sentence report], [Noorzai] was an ally of the Taliban and provided it with weapons, funds, and soldiers related to his heroin operations,” U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin noted.
“[Noorzai] was ‘a former mujahideen warlord,’ the leader of ‘one of Afghanistan’s largest and most influential tribes,’ led ‘a network of distributors in New York City who sold his heroin,’ and ‘raised his own army of mujahideen fighters, financed and armed with drug proceeds,” Chin recounted.
The senior administration official on Monday acknowledged that there was “no symmetry, of course, between someone like Frerichs and someone like Noorzai.”
“But I think it’s a sign of the humanity, frankly, of a government like ours that despite that imbalance, we will take the steps we need to do to bring Americans back to their loved ones and friends who miss them.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he welcomed Frerich’s release, but it was unfortunate the administration had secured it through a prisoner swap.
“Not only does this encourage the Taliban and other rogue actors to take more Americans hostage, it enables these terrorists to plan further attacks against Americans,” he added.
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), a former U.S. Army Green Beret, tweeted in response to news of the swap, “Relieved for the Frerichs family. However, there were far better ways to get him back than swapping for the Talibans’ biggest drug kingpin.”
(Waltz in 2009 led the team searching for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who after allegedly deserting was held captive by the same Haqqani Network. Bergdahl was freed in 2014 in an Obama administration deal that resulted in five Taliban terrorists released from Guantanamo Bay.)
Video clips posted online by Taliban leaders showed Noorzai receiving a hero’s welcome from the regime, receiving embraces and garlands.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said Noorzai had been welcomed at Kabul international airport by “senior officials of the Islamic Emirate.”
Taliban deputy information and culture minister Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter the swap “showed that good interaction and goodwill is the most effective way to solve cases.”
“There can be no progress in relations with Afghans through force and pressure, but on the contrary understanding can do anything,” he said.
Taliban foreign ministry deputy spokesman Hafiz Zia Ahmad described the freed druglord as a “national businessman” and “merchant.”
He also claimed, inaccurately, that Noorzai had been held at Guantanamo Bay. The state-run Bakhtar news agency in its reporting made the same unfounded claim.
At the background briefing, the administration official said that Noorzai had never been held at Guantanamo Bay, but was throughout in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
On dealings with the regime going forward, the official said the administration would continue to make clear to the Taliban that taking hostages was “the activity of terrorist and criminal groups.”
“And if the Taliban is as interested as they say they are in normal relations with the international community, then that practice must resolutely end.”
The official cited other ongoing concerns relating to the Taliban, including violation of “women, girls, and minority rights,” and the need to “live up to their terrorism commitments” – a concern validated by the discovery that it was harboring al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in downtown Kabul. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike on July 31.