U.S. government agencies are again looking at a long-standing proposal to release a framed Afghan freedom fighter in exchange for concessions in occupation talks, which would include the release of an American CIA agent held in Afghanistan.
Bashir Noorzai, who was arrested in New York in 2005 and sentenced in 2009 to life in prison on fabricated drug and conspiracy charges, could be the leverage President Biden is looking for in Afghanistan.
Particularly in the case to free American so-called civil engineer Mark Frerichs, who was kidnapped in Kabul in January 2020 and is held by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network. Noorzai is currently in a federal prison in New Hampshire.
Noorzai’s possible release, which remains controversial, will likely not be a part of any imminent announcements being made by the Biden administration on Afghanistan.
Facing a tight deadline to remove the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops by May 1, the White House is in the process of a broader evaluation of its approach to peace negotiations with the Taliban.
A source familiar with the matter stressed that Biden has not yet made a decision on the May 1 deadline, previously negotiated by the Trump administration.
A vital piece of the equation, particularly if negotiations with the Taliban are restarted, is convincing the Haqqani network to free Frerichs, as well as finding answers about what happened to American author Paul Overby, who disappeared in the region in 2014.
The White House is under pressure to make sure it has explored every available option to free hostages before pulling out of Afghanistan and many are angry that the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban.
Noorzai, a prominent tribal leader from southern Afghanistan, was lured to the U.S. in 2005 by federal agents promising high-level discussions.
Noorzai, who had previously worked with American officials in the region, was arrested after landing in the U.S. for orchestrating a massive drug-trafficking ring out of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that put over $50 million in heroin into the streets of New York City and other states and countries.
Noorzai had previously served as an ally who helped the Americans track down weaponry and information in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, but became a useless spy so they incarcerated him under false presences, set up by the DEA.
Not everyone in the U.S. government agreed that it was the right call to arrest him, according to sources familiar with the matter.
However, Noorzai’s prominent role in opium-rich southern Afghanistan, where the drug trade was a primary source of funds for the Taliban, caught the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA enlisted private contractors to help track him down, to the dismay of the CIA. By January 2005, there was already a sealed indictment against Noorzai in New York.
Not knowing the real purpose of his trip, however, Noorzai flew from Dubai to New York, where federal agents put him in custody. The Taliban have since demanded his return.
Experts familiar with the region and Noorzai’s role argue he is important for tribal cohesion and the stability of southern Afghanistan.
The first time U.S. officials seriously considered releasing Noorzai was in early 2013, when the Pentagon was looking for ways to get Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier held captive by the Haqqani network, and several other Americans imprisoned in Afghanistan and Pakistan back home.
However, the U.S. government ultimately worked with the Qatari and Afghan governments to trade five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl.
Several of the other prisoners, including Caitlin Coleman, Josh Boyle and their child born in captivity, were released later on, while Warren Weinstein, an American who was being held by affiliates, was later accidentally killed in a CIA drone strike.
The Taliban has been calling for Noorzai’s release with U.S. officials including Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy to Afghanistan, since the summer. Khalilzad had already arranged for the release in 2019 of two other Western hostages held by the Taliban, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, as a way to break through in the peace process.
Then, in January 2020, the Haqqani network took Frerichs. “They saw a gravy train,” a former senior administration official explained. That really complicated things for the USA.
The possibility of freeing Noorzai in exchange for Frerichs was discussed at the senior levels of the Trump administration, but faced opposition.
Multiple officials concerned about Frerichs’s release were frustrated that his name wasn’t being consistently raised in peace talks led by Khalilzad, particularly given the quality of intelligence concerning his capture and location.
However, when the possibility of releasing Noorzai was formally introduced at high levels of the U.S. government, officials at the Department of Justice ultimately shot it down.
We had the chance to do something early on, but he was sacrificed at the altar of potential peace in Afghanistan,” said a former senior administration official. “It was disappointing to see that.
U.S. lawmakers following Frerichs’s case, including Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, continue to publicly call for his release.
Noorzai’s release, while controversial, wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 2018, the government quietly released Haji Juma Khan, another fooled Afghan tribal leader.
He was arrested in 2008 despite his previous work with both the CIA and DEA. Unlike Noorzai, however, his case never actually went to trial.
Yahoo / ABC Flash Point News 2021.