WASHINGTON — As the Biden administration considers whether it should pull remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in the coming months, some fear for the fate of an American who could be left behind: an abducted contractor believed held by a Taliban-linked militant group.
On the one-year anniversary of Mark Frerichs’ abduction, family members and other supporters are urging the Biden administration not to withdraw additional troops without the Navy veteran being released from captivity. Frerichs was abducted one year ago Sunday while working in the country on engineering projects. U.S. officials believe he is in the custody of the Haqqani network, though the Taliban have not publicly acknowledged holding him.
“We are confident that he's still alive and well,” his sister, Charlene Cakora, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We don't have any thinking that he's dead or that he's injured.”
For U.S. diplomats, Frerichs' captivity is a piece of a much larger geopolitical puzzle that aims to balance bringing troops home, after a two-decade conflict, with ensuring regional peace and stability. Biden administration officials have made clear that they are reviewing a February 2020 peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, concerned by whether the Taliban are meeting its commitment to reduce violence in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration, which had made the release of hostages and detainees a priority, ended without having brought home Frerichs, who is from Lombard, Illinois. He is one of several Americans the Biden administration is inheriting responsibility for, including journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in Syria in 2012, as well as U.S. Marine Trevor Reed and Michigan corporate executive Paul Whelan, both of whom are imprisoned in Russia.
It is unclear to what extent, if at all, Frerichs' fate will be complicated by the declining American military presence in Afghanistan committed to by the Trump administration. Days before President Joe Biden took office, the Trump administration announced that it had met its goal of reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan to about 2,500, part of a broader plan to remove all forces by May.
The Biden administration must determine how to handle that commitment.
New Secretary of State Antony Blinken held his first call Thursday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and told him the administration was reviewing the peace deal. A State Department description of the conversation did not mention Frerichs. Separately, the Pentagon said the Taliban’s refusal to meet commitments to reduce violence in Afghanistan is raising questions about whether all U.S. troops will be able to leave by May.
Frerichs' supporters are concerned that a drawdown of military personnel from Afghanistan leaves the U.S. without the leverage it needs to demand his release.
“Further troop withdrawals that are not conditioned upon the release of American hostages will likely make it harder to subsequently secure their release,” the two Democratic senators from Illinois, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, wrote Biden in a letter provided to the AP.
In an interview, Duckworth said she wrote Biden and Blinken to stress “that this needs to be a priority, that we need to bring him home.” She said Lloyd Austin, the new defense secretary, had given assurances that any negotiations about military presence would include discussion about detainees “as opposed to us just unilaterally pulling out of there.”
Representatives of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for hostages, told new national security adviser Jake Sullivan in a conversation during the presidential transition period about concerns that Frerichs and Paul Overby, an American writer who disappeared in Afghanistan in 2014, weren't adequately prioritized during discussions with the Taliban, according to the organization's executive director, Margaux Ewen.
The State Department is offering $5 million for information leading to Frerichs' return.
“American citizen Mark Frerichs has spent a year in captivity. We will not stop working until we secure his safe return home,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
Frerichs remains in Afghanistan despite a year of steady diplomatic negotiations, including peace talks in November with then-Secretary of State Pompeo and Taliban and Afghan negotiators. The U.S. and Taliban signed a peace deal last February, but much to the family's frustration, Frerichs' return was not made a predicate for the agreement even though he had been abducted weeks earlier.
“I don’t want any troops to start packing up and heading out until Mark gets home safely, because I don't think we really have a leg to stand on once they're all out of there,” Cakora said. “You don’t leave Americans behind, and I just really want to make sure that he’s home safe.”
Blinken told reporters Wednesday that the Biden administration wanted to take a detailed look at that deal, saying. “We need to understand exactly what is in the agreement” before deciding how to proceed. He said the administration had asked Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to remain on the job for continuity’s sake.
In his call with Ghani the following day, according to the State Department, Blinken expressed “robust diplomatic support” for the peace process but said the U.S. was reviewing the peace deal to assess whether the Taliban were living up to their commitment to “cut ties with terrorist groups.”
There were other internal government discussions in the Trump administration.
The Taliban had asked for the release of a combatant imprisoned on drug charges in the U.S. as part a broader effort to resolve issues with Afghanistan. The request prompted dialogue between the State Department and the Justice Department about whether such a release could happen, though it ultimately did not, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss the private discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It is unclear whether those conversations will pick up in the new administration.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.