Senior Taliban member released from US custody in prisoner swap

Senior Taliban member released from US custody in prisoner swap
Taliban members listen to haji Bashar Noorzai, not in the picture, a Taliban associate who was released in a prisoner swap, in Kabul on Monday. (AFP)
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Updated 20 September 2022

Senior Taliban member released from US custody in prisoner swap

Senior Taliban member released from US custody in prisoner swap
  • Haji Bashar Noorzai was ‘backbone’ of Taliban system, expert says
  • US officials had said release of American citizen would influence their view of Taliban legitimacy

KABUL: The Taliban and the US have completed a prisoner swap, Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister said on Monday, with an Afghan tribal leader traded for an American engineer in an exchange that Kabul said will further bilateral relations with Washington.

Haji Bashar Noorzai was released after more than 17 years in US custody. He was arrested in New York City in 2005 on drugs charges and sentenced to life in prison by a US court four years later in a case that had drawn wide attention because of his prominent role in the illicit drug trade as well as ties to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Noorzai was exchanged with US citizen Mark Frerichs at the airport in Kabul, acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said in a news conference. Frerichs had worked in Afghanistan on development projects and was abducted in February 2020.

“The American delegation came to Kabul for the exchange of Haji Bashir and the American prisoner Mark Frerichs, and today at 10 a.m. in the morning, talks were held with them at the Kabul Airport and the exchange was carried out,” Muttaqi told reporters.

“This exchange is a new chapter in the relations between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the United States of America. We believe that this development will lead to further advancement in bilateral relations,” he added, referring to the Taliban government.

The US had been pushing for the release of Frerichs, including after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August last year and US-led foreign forces withdrew from the country.

The US Department of State said in January that “the legitimacy the Taliban seek is impossible to consider while they hold a US citizen hostage,” adding that the release of Frerichs, who was believed to be the last American held by the group, was among their “core, non-negotiable priorities.”

The prisoner swap meant that the US government “achieved its last goal,” Dr. Faiz Zaland, an Afghan analyst and public policy lecturer at Kabul University, told Arab News.

“I fear that the US will not have any further interest in Afghanistan and things may get slow, blurry and complicated in the country,” Zaland said.

A year since the Taliban took over the new government is struggling, with the aid-dependent economy in freefall and billions of dollars in foreign aid suspended, as foreign governments’ refusal to recognize Afghanistan’s new rules keep the country isolated.

But Noorzai’s release is likely to help the Taliban sustain their legitimacy and rule within Afghanistan.

Noorzai, who commended the Taliban’s efforts when speaking to the media following his arrival in Kabul, was a “very close ally” of Omar, the Taliban founder, in the 1990s and “a backbone of the Taliban’s system in terms of financing and military equipment,” Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary told Arab News.

“If the Taliban were not able to release him, they wouldn’t have been able to convince their members and commanders that they are trying for the release of their friends,” Sarwary said.

He added: “In the past 20 years, the Taliban proved that they will never leave their friends alone.”