President Joe Biden’s vow to Americans left behind in Afghanistan — “We will get you home” — rings hollow to the family of Lombard resident Mark Frerichs.
The 59-year-old civilian contractor and Navy veteran was abducted by Taliban-linked militants in late January of last year.
While little is known about the circumstances of his abduction, U.S. officials said they believed he was kidnapped by members of the Haqqani network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and believed to be responsible for some of the highest-profile terrorist attacks of the war. The group was designated a terrorist organization by the Obama administration in 2012.
Uncertainty remains over who exactly has abducted Frerichs and where he is. No formal demands have been made, and no group is known to have claimed responsibility for his abduction.
In the days following the abduction, Navy commandos raided a village and detained suspected Haqqani members but failed to find Frerichs, according to news reports. U.S. officials believed he was held for a time in Khost, a mountainous eastern province along the border with Pakistan and a historical haven for Taliban and al-Qaida militants. Navy SEALs and U.S. intelligence agencies searched for leads before the trail went cold, an Associated Press investigation found.
In May 2020, the FBI released a poster in multiple languages seeking information in Frerichs’ kidnapping, the same month that an AP investigation found no public indications that Frerichs had been part of the peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The Trump administration’s first public statement about the capture came that month in a series of tweets from U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. He said he had pressed Taliban leaders during an overnight meeting in Qatar to secure Frerichs’ release, as well as to discuss a long list of issues as varied as violence reduction and cooperation in fighting Afghanistan’s COVID-19 pandemic.
After Biden took office, he also instructed negotiators to raise Frerichs’ case. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in June that Biden did not press him on the matter in a White House meeting. Still, Ghani said, “We will do everything in our power” to help facilitate the American’s release.
Now Ghani is gone, having fled his country as the Taliban made their final push into Kabul, and so are America’s troops.
But asked about Frerichs during a news briefing, Defense Department spokesman John Kirby expressed a “strong desire” to see Frerichs returned home to his family where he belongs. The best Kirby could offer was the administration’s promise to “remain focused on returning him safely to his family,” even after American forces depart.
But that promise leaves more questions than answers, now that U.S. forces have departed with an unknown number of Americans left behind. As the administration struggles to account for and rescue those remaining Americans, as well as thousands of Afghans who worked for Americans, Frerichs’ case faces new dangers of being lost in a pile of other issues facing U.S.-Afghan relations — and without the diplomatic leverage or intelligence capabilities that America’s military presence offered.
Instead, the Taliban are struggling to cobble together a government after a victory that has elevated the Haqqani network, its most radical and violent branch, built around a family of the same name. Khalil Haqqani, brother of group founder Jalaluddin, openly spoke to a crowd of the faithful recently, despite a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.
In the past, the Haqqani network has kidnapped other American and British citizens for ransom or prisoner swaps.
Biden’s administration must not be the second, after Trump’s, to fail Frerichs. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a combat veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has taken a personal interest in Frerichs’ case. With fellow Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin, Duckworth urged the administration to grant Frerichs’ case the high priority it so far has been denied.
Duckworth and Durbin wrote letters to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the administration to prioritize bringing Frerichs and other American hostages home safely. Duckworth made a similar plea to the previous administration in November 2020.
“Now is the time to strike a deal to make sure we secure Mr. Frerichs’ safe release. I will continue to advocate on his behalf and do all I can to bring him home,” Duckworth said recently in a statement.
So should the Biden administration. Frerichs must not be forgotten. Neither should another American captive in the region whose fate remains similarly unknown. Paul Overby, an author from Massachusetts, has not been seen since his abduction in May 2014 in Khost province as he sought to interview a Haqqani leader.
Obviously Commander in Chief Biden has a lot of work to do in Afghanistan. He has to show that he and the nation he leads can fight terrorism from “over the horizon,” via drones and other air power without boots on the ground. He has to restore the confidence of allies in America’s ability to perform better than the chaotic Afghan exit on his watch.
And, no less important to the administration’s reputation for reliability, he must keep his promise to remember the Americans who were left behind in that exit — and bring them home.
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