An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Bashir Noorzai had been held in Guantánamo Bay. He was serving his life sentence in a federal penitentiary. The article has been corrected.
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — American Mark Frerichs, a civilian contractor who was abducted in Kabul over two years ago, was freed in exchange for an Afghan detainee held in U.S. federal prison, U.S. and Afghan officials said Monday.
Frerichs’s family hailed his release in a statement, saying they were “grateful and excited to learn that he has been freed” after being held for more than 2½ years.
“Our family has prayed for this each day,” Charlene Cakora, his sister, said in the statement from Camden Advisory Group, which has been advocating for his release. “We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us.”
President Biden applauded the freeing of Frerichs, who U.S. officials said was now in U.S. care in Doha, Qatar. “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” he said in a statement.
U.S. officials said Frerichs’s release capped months of negotiations between senior U.S. officials and the Taliban, the insurgent group that has governed Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal last year.
To obtain his freedom, the official said, the U.S. government released detainee Bashir Noorzai (also known as Haji Bashir Noorzai) — a warlord and drug trafficker with ties to the Taliban — who was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to life in federal prison after being lured to the United States and arrested in 2005.
In Kabul, acting Afghan foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi hailed Noorzai’s release. “This will open a new chapter in the bilateral relations between the United States and Afghanistan,” he said at a news conference in Kabul that was broadcast by local television outlets.
“We have been persistent in our efforts to free [Noorzai], and now he is with us in his own country,” Muttaqi continued. He said the two men were swapped at Kabul’s international airport.
Senior U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, said Frerichs was in “stable health” and was being offered U.S. support. They declined to provide details on where Frerichs was kept during his long captivity or which faction of the Taliban had held him.
Frerichs’s release underscores the delicate path the Biden administration must tread in its dealings with Afghanistan’s new leaders, whom the United States fought for two decades before they took over after the collapse of the U.S.-backed government last year.
The United States, like other nations, has not officially recognized the Taliban government, but U.S. officials have engaged with it regularly as they seek to provide aid to Afghans and advocate for the rights of women and girls as the Taliban has imposed new restrictions on them.
Last week, the Taliban condemned a move by the United States to redirect $3.5 billion of the country’s frozen central bank reserves to a fund run in part by Swiss government officials and Afghan economic experts.
The Frerichs deal comes just weeks after the United States conducted a drone strike in downtown Kabul that killed al-Qaeda’s top militant, an incident that highlighted the Taliban’s ongoing ties to terror organizations and posed a major setback to any potential normalization of U.S. ties with the group.
One U.S. official said that the Biden administration told Taliban leaders after that strike “that we would hold them directly responsible if any harm were to come to Mark, and that the best way they might begin to rebuild trust with the United States with the world was to immediately release [him], and that didn’t happen immediately.”
“If the Taliban are as interested as they say they are in normal relations with the international community, then that practice must resolutely end,” another official said.
Officials said there was a “narrow window of opportunity” following Biden’s initial decision this summer to potentially grant Noorzai clemency. They contrasted Noorzai’s conviction with the fact that Frerichs had been in Afghanistan for work.
The release of Frerichs comes as the Biden administration attempts to secure the release of two Americans it says are being wrongly held by Russia, potentially via another prisoner swap.
George reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. Ryan reported from Washington.