My brother has been a hostage of the Taliban’s Haqqani network since Jan. 31, 2020 — but you may never have heard his name.
Mark Frerichs, who is from the Chicago suburb of Lombard, has been a civil engineer living in Afghanistan for the past decade. When I spoke with him a couple days before he was kidnapped in Kabul, Afghanistan, he told me with pride about having worked on a municipal water project. He has always been good with his hands and wanted to do something to rebuild a country that had seen decades of destruction.
It is perplexing to think that an American veteran — Mark previously served in the U.S. Navy — has been a hostage under Taliban control for 17 months, yet this fact is virtually unspoken as our military rightfully withdraws from a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
As noted in a Sun-Times editorial on Thursday, a series of unforced errors that define Mark’s captivity present a case study in how to waste diplomatic leverage.
The cascade of errors started with the Trump Administration valuing a declaration of an end to the war in Afghanistan above saving the life of an American veteran. Mark was seized a full month before the U.S. signed a peace accord with the Taliban on Feb. 29, 2020, yet our nation’s chief negotiator, Zal Khalilzad, never mentioned Mark to the Taliban before signing the deal.
Roger Carstens, the United States special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, was engaged early in Mark’s ordeal, but all diplomatic efforts related to Afghanistan had to go through Khalilzad, who proved to be an unfortunate bottleneck. Until very recently,D Carstens was precluded from talking with the Taliban or the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar or anyone else who could help to get Mark home.
When asked about Mark in 2020, the Taliban representative said he was safe and healthy and then asked about Bashir Noorzai, a major Afghan drug trafficker who has been in a U.S. prison for the past 16 years. Noorzai’s release is the only thing the Taliban has indicated it wants in return for freeing Mark, but some parts of our government have opposed a swap, fearing it would set a bad precedent.
Of course, such swaps have been agreed to numerous times before. The precedent was set long ago. There was, for example, the very public exchange of hostages and prisoners in 2016 when the Iran nuclear deal was implemented.
Former President Trump, the self-proclaimed master negotiator, apparently did not lift a finger to get Mark home, but our family had great hope that President Biden would make Mark more of a priority. Despite asking twice for a call, we have yet to hear directly from the president. Until today, the president had never said Mark’s name publicly.
We haven’t even heard from Khalilzad, who remains the point man in negotiations with the Taliban since Biden took office.
We support bringing our troops home. We support rescuing those Afghans who worked with the United States during the war. But the fact remains that Biden’s announcement that all troops now will be withdrawn by Sept. 11 has made it only harder to get Mark back home.
The president’s announcement amounts to a missed opportunity to trade Mark for Noorzai and, at the same time, perhaps gain an extension of a cease fire and a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.
Our senator from Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, tells us she has spoken with President Biden about Mark, and that he’s assured her he’s doing all he can to bring Mark home. We also recently heard that Ambassador Carstens finally has been given clearance from our government to meet with the Taliban, and that our government has reached out to ask Pakistan, Afghanistan and Qatar for help.
I don’t understand why our government waited so long to do these obvious and basic things. Why didn’t they try to get my brother home when we had greater leverage? Why is he just now being mentioned, when our troops are almost completely out of Afghanistan and when the military bases we might have used for a rescue mission have been closed?
Mark wasn’t grabbed because of anything unique to Mark. He was grabbed because he’s a U.S. citizen and the Taliban wanted something to trade. Our government ignored that simple truth for the past 17 months.
On July 13, Mark will turn 59. Our family prays every day that he’ll be home by then to blow out the candles on a birthday cake.
And we dearly hope the diplomatic efforts we’re hearing about now, finally, will not be too little and too late.
Charlene Cakora is the sister of Mark Frerichs.
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