KABUL — The Biden administration’s vow to withdraw troops from Afghanistan without conditions has left the fate of a Taliban-held American hostage uncertain.
President Joe Biden has instructed U.S. negotiators in recent weeks to raise the case of Mark Frerichs, a civilian contractor who was abducted in Kabul last year, in talks with the militant group. But he would need to issue specific instructions to U.S. negotiators to make his release a precondition of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and he has not, said one senior U.S. official closely involved in talks with the Taliban. The official, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing sensitive negotiations.
“We have not been told to tell the Talibs that, let that be clear,” the official said. The official and a second senior official also closely involved in the talks insisted that the United States has enough leverage in other forms to continue to press for Frerichs’s release.
Both time and influence are running short. The United States has rejected requests by the Taliban for a prisoner swap, and with all U.S. troops set to withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, Frerichs’ family is increasingly concerned their loved one will be left behind.
The family and advocates have criticized U.S. officials negotiating with the Taliban, particularly U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, for not prioritizing the case in the lead-up to the deal that the Trump administration struck with the Taliban and in the more than a year of negotiations with the militants that followed.
“If the president wants Mark home, then his ambassador should follow his orders and get it done before we run out of time and leverage,” said Charlene Cakora, Frerichs’ sister. “I’m sick of government people trying to make it look like they are helping us, when we are not convinced they are. America doesn’t leave people behind, right?”
That Frerichs has not yet been brought home is “not for lack of effort,” the first official said. The official described numerous “intense” meetings with the Taliban focused on his recovery over the course of more than a year.
Frerichs, 58, a former Navy diver from Lombard, Ill., had been living in Kabul for a decade working on construction projects as an engineer when he was abducted by a criminal gang a few weeks before the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed in February 2020. He was handed over at an unknown date last year to the Haqqani network, a group that has close ties to the Taliban and has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
In mid-2020, the Taliban took custody of Frerichs. Today, the United States is “extremely confident” he is alive and remains in Taliban control, according to the second senior U.S. official.
Advocates for this case say the presence of American troops in Afghanistan is the most powerful bargaining tool the United States has with the Taliban.
“What it means to prioritize an American being held hostage abroad is to use the leverage we have, when we have it to get someone home,” said Margaux Ewen, executive director of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation and an advocate for the Frerichs family. “It seems that everyday that we approach the troop withdrawal we’re losing that leverage.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who represents Frerichs’ home state, “believes we shouldn’t leave any American behind and that our nation must continue to prioritize the safe return of Mark Frerichs,” spokesman Ben Garmisa said in a statement.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told The Washington Post in a statement that the Biden administration “has no higher priority than the safe return of Americans held overseas against their will.”
“That is why Ambassador Khalilzad — acting at the direction of the National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, and, ultimately, the President — has repeatedly raised the case of Mark Frerichs with the Taliban,” he said. “We will not stop until he is safely reunited with his family.”
Price declined to discuss whether Khalilzad advised the Biden administration to make Frerichs’s release a condition of the withdrawal.
“The Ambassador was integral to the decision-making process. But we wouldn’t want to detail the deliberative process,” Price said. The White House referred questions to Price.
Frerichs’ case is rarely raised in public by senior U.S. officials involved in negotiations with the Taliban. During the Trump administration, Frerichs was not mentioned in the public text of the U.S.-Taliban deal, nor in statements surrounding its signing. Biden did not acknowledge his case when he announced the new withdrawal timeline. Khalilzad tweeted about him once in May 2020.
The tweet mentioned another missing American in Afghanistan, Paul Overby, whose case is older. He disappeared in Afghanistan in 2014 while researching a book. The second official said his case also has been part of the talks “to establish what happened to him to gain some sort of accountability.”
The Taliban’s political office in Qatar did not respond to requests for comment on either case.
During the Trump administration’s push for a deal with the Taliban and now, with the Biden administration’s withdrawal plans, Khalilzad “fell into the classic mistake of wanting the deal so badly, and the other side can always smell it,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret, veteran of the war in Afghanistan and advocate for the Frerichs family who is briefed on the negotiations by the family’s representatives. He said Khalilzad views Frerichs’s case as “an impediment” to securing a deal with the Taliban and did not push the issue at the negotiating table.
A former U.S. official briefed on the talks between the United States and the Taliban said Waltz’s account was consistent with his knowledge of the negotiations. The former U.S. official said he had been told that for over a year Khalilzad did not bring up the Frerichs case in a serious way with the Taliban, often only mentioning it in passing.
Both current U.S. officials said those characterizations are untrue. The first official said meetings that addressed Frerichs’s case were often one-on-one and behind closed doors. “I would be surprised how anyone would know” what was discussed in those meetings, he said. He credited U.S. influence for ultimately pressuring the Taliban to “acquire” Frerichs from the Haqqani network.
The United States knew that Frerichs had been kidnapped when the withdrawal deal was signed with the Taliban in February 2020, but the first official said it was not known then who the captors were. Only months later did U.S. negotiators pressure the Taliban to locate Frerichs and take him into their custody, allowing talks to begin on how to bring him home, according to the first official.
The Taliban asked for the release of Afghan drug kingpin Bashir Noorzai, who was convicted and sentenced in U.S. federal court for drug trafficking, in exchange for Frerichs, said the second official. The proposal was considered last year but ultimately overruled by the Justice Department because of concerns about setting a precedent by releasing someone convicted of a crime for political reasons, the former U.S. official said. Nearly a year later, it is unclear whether the proposal is back on the table.
The Taliban are also demanding the removal of sanctions on key Taliban leaders and the release of thousands of prisoners. The group’s political leadership is aware that the movement needs international recognition and large amounts of aid money if it were to exert power over Afghanistan on a national level.
Other political settlements negotiated by the United States have included the return or exchange of hostages. Five Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, were freed after talks that ran parallel to the 2015 nuclear negotiations with Iran. Two other hostages were not freed: Siamak Namazi, a business consultant abducted while the deal was being negotiated, and Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent who was abducted in Iran in 2007.
Namazi remains in Iranian custody, and Levinson’s family was informed he was deceased in 2020, but they are still seeking information about when and how he died.
“We have to send a very clear signal,” said Waltz, the Florida congressman. “You don’t get a deal — whether it’s the Iran deal, or in this case what the Taliban have been asking for 20 years, which is for Americans to leave — while you hold an American hostage. You don’t reward that behavior.”
Waltz also fears the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces will make it “incredibly difficult and incredibly risky” to conduct a rescue operation in Afghanistan to recover Frerichs.
But even before the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by Sept. 11, Frerichs’s family and advocates fear for his well-being after May 1, the original withdrawal deadline negotiated by the Trump administration with the Taliban.
After Biden extended that timeline, the Taliban warned “problems will certainly be compounded and those whom failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable,” according to a tweet from Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
The first senior U.S. official said there is “no indication” that Frerichs’s life will be in greater danger after May 1.
“We haven’t seen anything” that would suggest that, he said, “and the Talibs haven’t threatened anything like that.”