Posted by on January 14, 2022 2:09 pm
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Mark Frerichs, sole American hostage held in Afghanistan, nears third year in captivity

Mark Frerichs, sole American hostage held in Afghanistan, nears third year in captivity

Barnini Chakraborty January 14, 01:50 PMJanuary 14, 01:52 PM

The family of Mark Frerichs, the only known U.S. hostage being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan, has watched helplessly as two administrations have failed to secure the veteran’s release and fear that time and what little leverage the United States still has is slipping away.

The Taliban have been saying for more than a year that they are willing to negotiate Frerichs’s release and were on board for a prisoner swap. The Biden administration hasn’t bitten, though similar deals were made during the Obama and Trump administrations.

Frerichs, a civil engineer and former Navy diver from Illinois, had been working overseas as a contractor for 10 years when he was abducted on Jan. 31, 2020, in Kabul.

He spoke to his sister Charlene Cakora just a few days before he was taken. She told the Washington Examiner that he didn’t indicate he was in any danger during their last exchange. In fact, everything seemed normal.

FAMILY URGES BIDEN TO PRESS TALIBAN FOR RELEASE OF HOSTAGE AS WITHDRAWAL NEARS

Cakora said she would often ask her older brother why he chose to work in war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I would say, ‘Why are you rebuilding? All they’re going to do is blow it up again,'” she said.

Frerichs would reply that if the buildings or structures were bombed, he’d simply rebuild them.

Cakora said Frerichs loved his job. He enjoyed working with his hands and helping people.

“It was a good fit for him,” Cakora said. “He was proud that he was out there helping them, doing his part.”

But it all ended nearly two years ago. Frerichs was grabbed, smuggled out of Afghanistan’s capital, and likely taken to the country’s mountainous region that served as the Taliban’s center from 2001 until the U.S. retreated from the troubled nation in August 2021.

His kidnappers are believed to be members of the Haqqani network, a brutal Taliban-tied group that was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department nearly a decade ago. The criminal syndicate was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the late mujahedeen leader and Cold War American ally who turned his weapons on the U.S. after American troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The Haqqanis operate under the Taliban umbrella.

The Taliban, which now control Afghanistan, have said they are willing to free Frerichs if the U.S. releases Bashir Noorzai, an Afghan drug lord serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for smuggling $50 million of heroin into the country. Noorzai has already spent 16 years on U.S. soil.

THE TALIBAN ARE SUMMARILY EXECUTING AFGHANS, AND THE STATE DEPARTMENT IS ‘DEEPLY CONCERNED’

Cakora said she wants the government to make the deal and bring her brother home but has hit a wall, first with the Trump administration and now with the Biden administration.

Frerichs was abducted right around the time the Trump administration was nearing a deal with the Taliban to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

Three months before Frerichs’s kidnapping, former President Donald Trump approved a controversial prisoner swap that sparked protests internationally. The Haqqanis released two American University professors, Kevin King and Timothy Weeks, who were taken at gunpoint in Kabul in August 2016, as well as 10 Afghan soldiers. In exchange, and under pressure from the State Department, the Afghan government released three high-ranking Haqqani commanders who had a disturbing history of carrying out car bombings and assassinations.

Christopher Miller, an Army veteran who served as Trump’s secretary of defense, told the New Yorker that the “end of wars come down to prisoner negotiations” and that as the Taliban were in the final stages of their agreement with the Trump administration, they needed another bargaining chip.

“The Haqqanis had to restock,” Miller said. “It was really bad timing for Mark.”

Cakora told the Washington Examiner she thought the Trump administration would negotiate with the Taliban for her brother’s release but that it repeatedly ignored the family’s requests, shut it out of conversations, and then finally just said no.

A month after Frerichs’s kidnapping, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Afghanistan’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, met with Taliban negotiators to formalize the agreement to withdraw the U.S. military from the battered country.

Pompeo and Khalilzad relinquished most of the leverage the Trump administration had without inking a broad peace agreement. After nine rounds of talks, the deal was signed on Feb. 29, 2020, and included freeing up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan. It made no mention of the only U.S. hostage still being held captive.

Back home, Frerichs’s family was falling apart. His father has given up hope of seeing his son alive again.

“My sister doesn’t know how to deal with this stuff, and my dad’s too negative,” Cakora said, who is now the main point of contact between the family, the FBI, and the State Department.

All the pressure has taken a toll on her, too.

Cakora told the Washington Examiner she had to retire early from her job at Nicor Gas because it became mentally exhausting to advocate for her brother’s release and do her work.

“I had to have my mind 100% on the job because if I didn’t, somebody’s house might blow up,” she said, adding that she would be called to supervise and fix gas leaks in the middle of the night.

So Cakora retired and turned her full attention to bringing her brother home.

She thought things would get easier as word got out of the kidnapping. Then came the pandemic, the disastrous pullout in Afghanistan, and an administration change.

“It seems like it’s one thing after another,” she said. “I’m not pro-Trump or anything, but it was another bump on the road because now we have a whole new administration to deal with.”

Though Cakora has been in contact with U.S. government officials, very little progress has been made despite ample opportunities.

In late June, then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was pressed by reporters to comment on Frerichs’s kidnapping. He said his government would do what it could to help but admitted the topic never came up during his meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House.

Another missed opportunity took place during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan last year. It was one of the last times the U.S. had the leverage to demand Frerichs’s release.

His family saw a rare sliver of hope this week when it was announced the Biden administration would be providing more than $308 million in additional humanitarian aid to Afghans facing food shortages, economic collapse, COVID-19-related problems, and terror from Taliban rule. The latest assistance brings the total amount of money and aid from Washington to nearly $782 million since October and seemed to be the perfect time to restart talks to free Frerichs, but so far, nothing seems to have materialized.

US TO PROVIDE $308 MILLION IN AID FOR AFGHANS

Frerichs’s advocates worry that the longer the Biden administration waits, the worse it will get for Frerichs. They also fear that with the midterm elections coming up, Democrats won’t press it out of fear it will be politicized and used against them.

One Democrat not willing to wait is Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth. She’s championed for Frerichs’s release with Khalilzad, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and even with Biden in an Oval Office meeting. She said she believes that it’s imperative that Frerichs come home as soon as possible, and her office has indicated that if a prisoner swap is needed, so be it.

For its part, the State Department told the Washington Examiner it has been in regular contact with Frerichs’s family but did not say what, if anything, it is doing to bring the Navy veteran home.

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“The families of Americans held captive abroad can face incredible hardships as they tirelessly advocate for their loved ones,” an emailed statement said. “We remain in regular contact with families, including the family of Mark Frerichs. We are grateful for their partnership and feedback, and we work to ensure that we are sharing information in a way that is helpful.”

The email added: “The safe and immediate release of U.S. citizen and Navy veteran Mark Frerichs is imperative. We have made that clear to the Taliban. As the Taliban seek legitimacy, they cannot continue to hold a U.S. citizen hostage. The Taliban must immediately release Mark Frerichs.”

© 2022 Washington Examiner

Originally appeared at Washington Examiner

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