American troops are leaving Afghanistan, finally and necessarily. But with every soldier who boards a plane home, the odds grow that one American, Mark Frerichs, will be left behind.
Frerichs, 58, is a civil engineer from suburban Lombard. In January 2020, he was kidnapped in the capital city of Kabul, likely by the Taliban’s Haqqani network, which in the past has kidnapped other American and British citizens for ransom or prisoner swaps.
The Trump administration failed to make Frerichs’ release a condition, or even a bargaining chip, when negotiating with the Taliban for the withdrawal of American troops. Now the Biden administration, while committed in principle to working to gain the release of any American hostages, has done little in public support of Frerichs.
Time is running out. That is the problem. What little negotiating leverage the United States has to secure Frerichs’ freedom will become next to nothing once our nation’s military presence ends in Afghanistan. It also will become more difficult for the U.S. to generate the intelligence needed to find Americans and conduct rescue operations.
A nation’s foreign policy cannot turn on the fate of just one person. The notion that the U.S. should continue in a failed war in Afghanistan indefinitely unless Frerichs — or another hostage, the American writer Paul Overby, who disappeared in Afghanistan in 2014 — is set free is difficult to argue.
Yet there’s no doubt the Trump administration missed its chance; it failed Frerichs, a veteran of the U.S. Navy. And we fear the Biden administration is doing the same, rushing toward unilateral withdrawal with blinkers on, failing to pull out all diplomatic stops to bring Frerichs home, too.
The most promising route to freeing Frerichs would be for the U.S. to pressure Pakistan, where Frerichs likely is being held, to lean on the Taliban. In 2017, Pakistan — always seeking to gain favor with the U.S. — helped arrange the release of Caitlan Coleman, a backpacker from Pennsylvania who had been held by the Taliban for five years.
A more distasteful yet still viable route would be for the U.S. to agree to a prisoner swap — Frerichs in return for an Afghan drug lord named Hajji Bashir Noorzai. An ally of the Taliban, Noorzai has been held in U.S. prisons for 16 years, serving two life sentences.
Nobody in Washington is keen on such swaps, which can encourage even more hostage-taking. But in the real world of geopolitics, swaps occasionally are made to get a good job done. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama swapped five Taliban prisoners for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Taliban prisoner for five years.
Getting Frerichs home would be a good job done. Government officials say he was just as advertised — a civilian contractor working on a water project who was uninvolved in any military activities.
That clearly would be Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s view of Frerichs, on whose behalf she has personally lobbied President Biden.
“Withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan without securing the safe return of my constituent, Mark Frerichs, would be an abject failure of the United States government to rescue an American citizen and Illinoisan who served his country in uniform,” Illinois’ junior senator, told us. “Now is the time to redouble our efforts to make sure we secure Mr. Frerichs’ safe release and bring him home.”
The Biden administration should leave no stone unturned. Bring Mark Frerichs home.
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