US releases convicted Afghan drug smuggler in prisoner swap with Taliban
The US and the Taliban have engaged in a prisoner swap, with an American contractor held hostage in Afghanistan being freed in exchange for a Taliban ally who was convicted of drug smuggling in the United States, according to US and Taliban officials.
Mark Frerichs, who had spent more than a decade in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor, was abducted in January 2020. He was believed to have been held by the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the Taliban.
The deal for Frerich's release involved the release of Bashir Noorzai, a close ally of the Taliban, who had been arrested in 2005 on federal heroin trafficking charges in the US.
He was sentenced in 2009 to life imprisonment after being convicted in a federal court in New York. US prosecutors accused him of owning opium fields in Kandahar province and relying on a network of distributors in New York.
Noorzai told reporters at a press conference in Afghanistan that he had been released from an unspecified US prison and handed over to the Taliban in Kabul as part of the swap.
In a statement on Monday morning announcing the release of Frerichs, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave thanks "to our partners in Qatar" for helping to secure the deal.
"I have no higher priority than the safety and security of Americans around the world. We will remain tireless in our efforts to seek the release of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained," Blinken said.
The swap comes after tension rose between Washington and the Taliban following a US drone strike on a neighbourhood in Kabul in August, which killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both sides subsequently accused each other of breaking the Doha Agreement.
The Taliban-appointed foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, spoke at the press conference in Kabul alongside Noorzai, and said the exchange potentially marked the start of "a new chapter between Afghanistan and the United States", according to Reuters.
US President Joe Biden described the release as "the culmination of years of tireless work by dedicated public servants across our government and other partner governments.
"Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly," Biden said in a statement, without mentioning the release of Noorzai.
Americans held in Syria, Iran
The exchange is one of the Biden administration's most significant prisoner swaps, and comes five months after a deal with Russia that resulted in the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed.
Several American citizens are still detained or held hostage across the world, including Austin Tice, a freelance photojournalist who disappeared after being detained at a checkpoint in Syria on 14 August 2012. Biden said in August that Washington knows "with certainty" that the Syrian government is imprisoning Tice, although Damascus denies this.
Tice, and Syrian-American psychotherapist Majd Kamalmaz, are among roughly half a dozen US citizens believed to be held by the Syrian government or forces allied with Damascus.
Several US citizens are also being held in Iran. On Sunday, Tehran said that it was ready for a prisoner exchange with Washington, even as the negotiations over a return to the 2015 nuclear deal have faltered.