Hope dims for American hostage as US hastily exits Afghanistan

The family of Mark Frerichs fears time is running out to secure his release.

June 19, 2021, 12:15 PM

The Illinois family of a U.S. Navy veteran who has been held hostage by the Taliban has said for the past year that he might get left behind by his own country. With the accelerated and chaotic exit from Afghanistan by America's remaining military forces, their worst fears may be realized.

Once American military and special operations personnel have left Afghanistan -- which some officials anticipate will happen by July Fourth -- experts say the U.S. will lose most of whatever leverage it might have to free civil engineer Mark Frerichs through one of the limited number of tracks the government has already contemplated or acted upon during his 17 months of captivity.

Frerichs, 58, from Lombard, Illinois, was kidnapped in January 2020 in the capital city of Kabul after being lured to a business meeting that was a ruse, officials have told ABC News. Officials believe he is being held by the Taliban's Haqqani network, which has kidnapped other American and British citizens for ransom or prisoner swaps over the course of the two-decade war.

Critics say the Trump administration was slow to raise Frerichs' captivity last year with Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, during negotiations to end the long war which followed the 9/11 attacks. U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-American diplomat, did not publicly mention Frerichs until months after he had forged a pact to withdraw U.S. military forces, which was signed just a few weeks after the U.S. citizen's abduction.

PHOTO: U.S. Navy veteran Mark Frerichs is seen in this undated photo provided by his family.
U.S. Navy veteran Mark Frerichs is seen in this undated photo provided by his family.
Courtesy Charlene Frerichs

The options that have been considered for freeing Frerichs include trying to arrange a controversial prisoner exchange involving an Afghan druglord, encouraging Pakistan to influence the captor network, or staging a high-risk rescue operation if Frerichs can be located, numerous officials told ABC News in recent weeks on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters.

Hope has dimmed this year for the first option, which would involve President Joe Biden issuing the commutation and release of convicted Afghan drug trafficker Hajji Bashir Noorzai after serving 16 years of his two life sentences. Taliban officials have requested Noorzai's release numerous times over the years, including during negotiations since 2020 to end the U.S.-led war, though never specifically promising Frerichs' freedom in exchange.

Since Frerichs' location is unknown and U.S. special mission units' presence in Afghanistan is all but gone, the hostage-rescue option is seen as even less likely than Biden commuting Noorzai's prison sentence.

A key U.S. special operations air base in Jalalabad, Eastern Afghanistan -- where U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011 launched their raid over the border to Abbottabad, Pakistan, to kill Osama Bin Laden and where other SEALs launched raids in Afghanistan last year to attempt a rescue of Frerichs -- closed a month ago.

Only Bagram Airfield and the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul will still be in American hands by next week.

That leaves the third option as the one that current and former senior U.S. officials view as the best hope -- pressuring, or offering incentives to, the Pakistan Army's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy service to lean on the Haqqani captor network to free the American hostage.

U.S. intelligence is now assessing rumors that the Pakistani ISI already has gotten involved in the Frerichs matter, one source told ABC News. Many assume he is being held captive inside Pakistan, like most of the Haqqani network's Western hostages in the past.

Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) acknowledged that Biden may deem it necessary to release Noorzai, but he told ABC News that he opposes the move. Instead, Waltz said the Pakistan option is more logical because Biden's order to exit Afghanistan by this coming Sept. 11 has left the U.S. with little leverage to win Frerichs' freedom through negotiations with the Taliban.

"We absolutely should do it," Waltz told ABC News last week regarding the Pakistan option. "The Pakistanis could get Mark out tomorrow and we could get him home tomorrow."

Some former officials in the Obama and Trump administrations believe Pakistan's ISI service would derive little benefit from the Taliban-requested release of Noorzai, who was arrested by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in 2005 and later convicted of running a substantial heroin network from Afghanistan. But they may see helping to secure an American hostage as a way to ingratiate themselves with the Biden administration, the former officials said.

"I believe the Pakistani authorities can often influence these situations -- but in this case, they can benefit more from intervening sooner than later," said ABC News contributor Thomas Bossert, former Assistant to President Trump for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. "The pending withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan adds a great deal of uncertainty to Mr. Frerichs' future, and uncertainty is the enemy."

The Biden official who would lead any possible effort to press Islamabad to take an active role with Frerichs' liberation is U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs Ambassador Roger Carstens, who, like Khalilzad, is a holdover from the Trump administration who was asked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to stay on and continue to aggressively seek the freedom of U.S. hostages abroad. Earlier this month, while in Doha, Carstens participated in a virtual conference on hostages organized by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation and the New America Foundation.

PHOTO: Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative on Afghanistan Reconciliation, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on May 18, 2021, in Washington.
Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative on Afghanistan Reconciliation, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on May 18, 2021, in Washington.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Frerichs' home state of Illinois said helping to secure her constituent's return must be a top priority.

"Without getting into specifics about any ongoing discussions or proposals, those participating in these negotiations should explore all the options and take the perspectives of those with expertise in these sorts of situations into account," Duckworth said in a statement to ABC News. "Mark Frerichs is an American citizen and Illinoisan who served his country in uniform, and our nation should leave no stone unturned as we work to secure his safe return home."

Pressuring Pakistan to act on a hostage case has succeeded in the recent past. In 2017, the Trump White House initiated secret efforts to cajole Pakistan into resolving the case of Pennsylvania backpacker Caitlan Coleman, who was a hostage of the Taliban for five years in Pakistan's Northwest tribal belt, ABC News has reported.

Coleman was abruptly freed by the Haqqani network, along with her Canadian husband and their three children born during their captivity, when a car they in which they were stashed was stopped at a Pakistan Army checkpoint in October 2017. Pakistani officials at the time falsely claimed the family had been held in Afghanistan and were freed during a daring rescue operation and shootout by their forces when the car crossed the border, and Trump publicly praised Pakistan's help.

But as ABC News reported at the time, Coleman was held in Pakistan for much of her captivity, and the interdiction had actually been arranged by the ISI and Haqqani network following threats from U.S. intelligence officials who were tracking the captive family's location and movements in the car, with SEAL Team Six at Jalalabad Airfield poised to launch a raid into Pakistan to rescue Coleman if necessary.

"It is in the interest of the ISI to help get Mark Frerichs out, to gain favor with the U.S. by helping us bring an American back home -- and they are well advised that they do it now if they can," said retired U.S. Army Col. Chris Costa, a former Special Assistant to President Trump for Counterterrorism and Hostages, who is now executive director of the International Spy Museum.

"They are often interested in deriving a benefit with a successful operation, be it counterterrorism or a hostage recovery," Costa said.

Frerichs' sister, Charlene Cakora, urged Washington to pull every political lever with time running out.

PHOTO: Advisors from the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade are pictured during their 2019 deployment to Afghanistan, May 20, 2019.
Advisors from the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade are pictured during their 2019 deployment to Afghanistan, May 20, 2019.
2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade, FILE

"If there are countries out there that can help -- whether Pakistan, Qatar, or any others -- we are begging for their help to bring Mark home," she said in a statement to ABC News this week.

Rep. Waltz, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who authored the memoir "Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret's Battles from Washington to Afghanistan," said the hasty U.S. exit leaves the administration with few options for freeing the last hostage, Frerichs, or for determining the fate of another American missing in Afghanistan for years, author Paul Overby.

"Zal [Khalilzad] deserves a lot of the blame," Waltz said. "Mark should have been more of a priority way before a lot of the decisions were made" about withdrawing from Afghanistan after two decades.

But Khalilzad has insisted in recent months that he has raised Frerichs' captivity directly with his counterpart in Doha, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. He has not disclosed what response he has received, but sources say the Taliban chief has not denied that the group's Haqqani faction has held the American.

"In my meetings with the Taliban, I have demanded his release," Khalilzad told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 18.

While Baradar has, since last summer, asked repeatedly for the release of Noorzai, federal law enforcement officials within the U.S. Department of Justice have balked at the Taliban's requests for Noorzai's return in exchange for hostages, insiders have said.

PHOTO: Bashir Noorzai is pictured in an undated photo provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Bashir Noorzai is pictured in an undated photo provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
DEA Handout via Getty Images

Career officials pushed back on the idea while Trump was still in office, and Biden's attorney general, Merrick Garland, has also privately opposed Noorzai's sentence being commuted in exchange for the Frerichs' release, according to three senior officials who have served in both administrations. One of the officials said flatly that Noorzai, who was an original financier of Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the 1990s and one of the biggest heroin traffickers in the world, "isn't going anywhere."

"The sentence handed him was a reasonable one, as are DOJ's concerns about releasing him," said Gretchen Peters, a former ABC News correspondent in Islamabad and author of "Seeds of Terror," about the Taliban's opium business.

"The question is, do we value the life of an American hostage over the message it sends to free a major drug trafficker? Jailing Noorzai didn't stop heroin trafficking in Afghanistan. It's a difficult decision," Peters said.

Some U.S. officials have questioned whether swapping Noorzai for Frerichs would be another lopsided trade more beneficial to the Taliban, not unlike the five Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo who were controversially swapped in 2014 by then-President Barack Obama for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Haqqani prisoner for five years.

Frerichs, who had almost no online footprint when he was abducted, was a Navy diver in the 1980s and for the past decade was a civil engineering contractor most recently working on a water project in Afghanistan. Despite a range of rumors, he was not involved in any military activities, according to the family members and numerous officials familiar with his case.

His sister said that time has almost run out.

"We understand that the Taliban wants one of their guys released from U.S. custody in exchange for Mark. This guy [Noorzai] has been in prison for 16 years and the war is coming to an end. We think people on both sides should be able to go home when it ends," Frerichs' sister Charlene told ABC News.

"If the Justice Department is opposed based on precedent or principle, let me ask what those officials would do if it was their son or brother?" she said. "President Biden told us he wants Mark home. This war is ending and Justice needs to understand that we're running out of options to save my brother."

Editor's Note: Following publication of this report, spokesperson Maliha Shahid of the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, D.C., said in a statement to ABC News that "Pakistan has always regarded any assistance it can provide in helping the United States and other foreign countries with the recovery of their hostages from Afghanistan as a moral and humanitarian responsibility. This assistance has always been extended in good faith, and not driven by 'incentives' or 'pressure.'" The statement also said that Pakistan has "no evidence to suggest that Mark Frerichs is being held in Pakistan" and that Pakistan "remains committed to play any role it can" to reunite Frerichs with his family.

ABC News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.

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