The family of an American kidnapped in Afghanistan weeks before the U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace deal in late February is voicing fears that he will be left behind as the Trump administration pushes ahead with its implementation of an agreement to end the 18-year war.
Their concerns come amid growing pressure from Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the administration to do more to ensure the release of Mark Frerichs, 57, of Lombard, Illinois, and to halt a dramatic increase in violence between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
Two months after the deal, peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban still haven't started, and the 80% reduction in violence that the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan spokesperson said the militants agreed to has been jettisoned, even as the novel coronavirus threatens to overtake the country.
Frerichs is a longtime commercial contractor in Afghanistan who was abducted on Jan. 31. He is believed to be held now by the Haqqani Network, a faction of the Afghan Taliban known for killing hundreds of U.S. troops in combat and kidnapping journalists, tourists and former U.S. prisoner of war Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Frerichs, a U.S. Navy diver decades ago, is not a U.S. government contractor or a security operative or adviser, according to a family adviser and confirmed by several U.S. officials familiar with his background.
Charlene Cakora, a sister of Frerichs, said their family is pinning hope on the White House, which has successfully negotiated or secured the release of many detained U.S. hostages in Syria and North Korea, across Africa, and others also held by the Haqqani Network, such as professor Kevin King and separately Caitlan Coleman and her children.
"We know that President Trump does everything he can to get American hostages home safely. He won't leave Mark behind," she said in a statement to ABC News. "We have faith he won't let his diplomats cut any more deals with the guys holding my brother until they agree to release him."
The Navy's elite hostage rescue and counterterrorism unit, SEAL Team 6, raided at least one site in Afghanistan in the search for Frerichs, The Associated Press reported in late April. Officials have said the commando team has deployed to Afghanistan this year, but details of the reported raid to free Frerichs could not be immediately confirmed by ABC News.
Another American, writer Paul Overby, disappeared in eastern Afghanistan several years ago, and his fate remains unknown as well.
But critics say resolving Frerichs' and Overby's fates was brushed aside during the final days of negotiating and signing a deal between the U.S. and Taliban, with some suggesting that chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad did not want to derail the process of ending the war over the two missing U.S. citizens.
"The Trump administration has been very strong on hostages and on bringing Americans home, so I was surprised that Khalilzad continued with a peace deal with the Taliban after they took an American citizen hostage during a negotiation. That's a red line to me," Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., also a Green Beret officer, told ABC News on Friday.
Khalilzad said Thursday that he raised Frerichs' case in a meeting with Taliban leaders this week, urging "actions necessary to secure [his] freedom."
It was the first time the retired ambassador, who served as the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations under former President George W. Bush, has mentioned Frerichs by name, just days after the FBI released a poster about his case, featuring photos of his possible appearance and asking anyone with information to submit a tip.
Khalilzad's meeting with the militant group's leadership in Qatar comes amid a stalled peace process and an escalation in violence across the country. In his statement, he didn't say whether progress was made on any front, but that he and his team sought a reduction in violence and humanitarian ceasefire, the "acceleration of prisoner releases by both sides ... and movement to intra-Afghan negotiations ASAP," in addition to Frerichs' release.
Those intra-Afghan negotiations haven't happened largely because the Taliban says the Afghan government hasn't released enough of its prisoners. After initially balking at the idea of releasing Taliban fighters, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government has started, but in batches of 15 to 50, not the 5,000 that the U.S.-Taliban deal said would be released by March 10.
After a contentious presidential election, Ghani is also still finalizing a power-sharing deal with his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, which U.S. officials have said is hampering prisoner releases.
But more broadly, Trump's deal is imperiled by a major escalation in violence. The United Nations mission in Afghanistan reported a significant increase in attacks in March after the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed on Feb. 29 -- contradicting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's repeated line that the Taliban were meeting their commitments. The U.N. reported over 500 civilians, including 152 children, killed in Afghanistan in the first quarter of 2020.
The U.S. and NATO's Resolute Support declined to provide statistics to the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan for the time period since the deal, with Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman saying it's "part of the diplomatic discussions with the Taliban ... and sharing that information would not move the ball forward."
But the U.S. military has been vocal about demanding a decrease in violence, including by Afghan and U.S. forces.
"Reducing the violence is an absolute necessity -- and this is up to the leaders of all military forces -- Afghan Security Forces, Taliban fighters and, yes, the Coalition. Attacks generate attacks, while restraint produces restraint," U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesperson Col. Sonny Leggett tweeted on May 2, revealing that "ALL sides" agreed to reduce violence by "as much as 80% to pave the way for peace talks."
That contradicts what the Taliban has said -- that they never agreed to halt fire against Afghan security forces except for a week-long nationwide "reduction in violence" in February to get the U.S. to sign the deal. The group's spokesperson provided a brief readout Thursday of Khalilzad's meeting with leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, saying they "focused on the speedy release of prisoners" and made no mention of a ceasefire or reduction in violence.
Khalilzad said he'll meet again with Baradar and others after stopping in Pakistan and India.