When the U.S. announced the release of American hostage Mark Frerichs—a navy veteran who has been held by the Taliban since 2020—it failed to mention that he was released in exchange for a convicted Afghan drug trafficker and prominent Taliban ally, Bashir Noorzai.
“After more than two years in captivity… Frerichs is safe and on his way home from Afghanistan… Mark’s return to his loved ones is the result of intense engagement with the Taliban,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.
Halfway across the world in Afghanistan, the Taliban were also congratulating themselves for securing the release of Noorzai. Many Taliban leaders and fighters flocked to the Kabul airport carrying colorful garlands to welcome him.
Often dubbed the “Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan,” Noorzai is a notorious drug lord from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. He was the earliest financier of the Taliban in the 1990s, fueling the group’s insurgency with funds from his illicit narcotic trades.
“You can’t imagine the importance of this man within the Taliban,” former Afghan security official Ahmad Shuja Jamal told The Daily Beast.
Now, his release after more than a decade has Afghan experts and political stakeholders guessing if the U.S. is leaving the door open for establishing ties with the Taliban.
“He is very influential within the Taliban, but particularly within the Noorzai tribe where most of the Taliban leadership come from,” former Afghan spy chief Rahmatullah Nabil told The Daily Beast, adding that as one of the “founding father of the Taliban,” Noorzai wields considerable influence over senior leaders like Mullah Haibatullah, the current leader of the Taliban.
“In the past, he was an intermediary between Taliban leaders and the Americans in 2001. I suspect even now his release is conditional to a deal with the Americans,” Nabil said. “He is someone who can influence the Taliban to bring about desired changes, those that the international community wants to see. He could be the U.S.’s man inside the Taliban.”
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