The Daily Telegraph
US navy veteran freed for Taliban druglord in prisoner exchange
JOE BIDEN has freed a prominent Taliban financier and drug lord in exchange for a US veteran held captive in Afghanistan for more than two years.
Haji Bashir Noorzai, a key figure within the Taliban, had been serving a life sentence in the US on drug trafficking charges.
He was granted clemency by the US president, an official confirmed, in return for the release of Mark Frerichs, an engineer and US navy veteran abducted in 2020 while working in Afghanistan. Noorzai’s release was proclaimed as a major symbolic victory by the militant group yesterday.
He played an instrumental role in the Taliban’s original takeover of Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is ready to solve problems by negotiation with all including the United States,” Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, told a news conference in Kabul.
President Biden said the release of Mr Frerichs was the “culmination of years of tireless work”.
The US president said the negotiation “required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly” but did not comment on the release of Noorzai.
The power to grant Noorzai clemency rested with Mr Biden alone.
Noorzai led one of Afghanistan’s most influential tribes and was named as one of the world’s most powerful drug kingpins by the George W Bush administration, prior to his arrest in 2005.
His drug-running operation was crucial to “securing the position of [the Taliban’s] supreme leader”, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the US government said at the time.
Bette Dam, a Dutch investigative journalist who chronicled the rise of Omar, said without Noorzai “the Taliban would most likely not have existed”.
She described how he had mobilised groups in Kandahar behind Omar to “lead an armed rebellion” in the province in 1994.
Noorzai remained a key ally of Omar’s and drug profits helped arm Taliban fighters and made Afghanistan a breeding ground for international terrorism.
He served 17 years in a US prison after being convicted of conspiring to smuggle more than $50million (£43million) of heroin into America and Europe.
Senior US officials said that the Taliban had made it clear during months of negotiations that Noorzai’s release “was the key to securing [Mr Frerichs’] overdue freedom”.
One official said US government experts had judged that Noorzai’s repatriation would not “materially change” the nature of Afghanistan’s drug trade or the country’s risk to Americans.
Mr Biden has faced intense pressure from American families to secure the release of citizens detained by hostile states and has vowed to step up efforts for their release.
Officials said the president had grown more concerned for Mr Frerichs’s safety after the US assassinated Ayman alzawahiri, an al-qaeda leader, with a drone strike on Kabul.
Mr Frerichs, from Illinois, had been detained in Afghanistan for 31 months.