KABUL: A US engineer Mark Frerichs held by the Taliban as a hostage since 2020 has been exchanged for an Afghan drug kingpin and a Taliban supporter, Haji Bashir Noorzai, who was in US custody since 2005. The prisoner swap has raised questions for the Afghan nation and analysts.
Noorzai was imprisoned in America for 17 years and Mark Frerichs, a former US Navy officer, for over two years in Afghanistan. The Taliban said that Frerichs and Noorzai were swapped at Kabul airport on Monday.
On his return to the Afghan capital, Bashir Noorzai was given a hero’s welcome and was greeted by Taliban fighters carrying flowers.
Haji Bashir Noorzai – who is he?
In addition to being a businessman, tribal leader, and Taliban co-founder, Noorzai was closely associated with the late Taliban founder and supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. He helped finance the first Taliban government in the 1990s.
In years following the US-led international coalition’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he would cooperate with the US. However, he was arrested during a visit to the country in 2005.
Noorzai was indicted for supporting the Taliban and smuggling heroin worth $50 million to the United States. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on April 30, 2009.
Upon his release, Noorzai told a news conference on Monday, “My release together with that of an American will make peace between the countries.”
Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting minister of foreign affairs, referred to the swap as a result of his efforts, expressing that the Taliban were willing to engage in dialogue with the United States to resolve other issues.
Analysts say Noorzai’s release will lead to changes in the Taliban governance structure, and some even predict he might obtain a leadership position in the system. Afghans question the US’s role on releasing high-level Taliban members to secure the release of its citizens.
It is reported that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the incumbent deputy prime minister of the Taliban, had also spoken with the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regarding his release during the peace talks between the Taliban and the US in Qatar last year.
Regarding the release of Noorzai, US President Biden said, “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” Biden said. “Our priority now is to ensure Mark receives a healthy and safe return and is given the space and time he needs to transition back into society.”