When the US announced the release of American hostage Mark Frerichs – a Marine veteran held by the Taliban since 2020 – it failed to mention that he was released in exchange for a convicted Afghan drug trafficker and prominent Taliban ally, Bashir Noorzai.
“After more than two years in captivity… Frerichs is safe and on his way home from Afghanistan… Mark’s return to his loved ones is the result of intensive cooperation with the Taliban,” Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said last week.
On the other side of the world in Afghanistan, the Taliban also congratulated themselves on Noorzai’s release. Many Taliban leaders and fighters flocked to Kabul airport with colorful garlands to welcome him.
Often referred to as the “Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan,” Noorzai is a notorious drug lord from southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. He was the Taliban’s earliest financier in the 1990s and fueled the group’s insurgency with funds from his illegal drug trade.
“You cannot imagine the importance of this man within the Taliban,” former Afghan security official Ahmad Shuja Jamal told The Daily Beast.
Now, after his release more than a decade, Afghan pundits and political advocacy groups are guessing whether the US is leaving the door open to establishing ties with the Taliban.
“He is very influential within the Taliban, but particularly within the Noorzai tribe, which is where most of the Taliban leadership comes from,” former Afghan spy chief Rahmatullah Nabil told The Daily Beast, adding that as one of the “founding fathers the Taliban” Noorzai wields considerable influence over high-level leaders such as Mullah Haibatullah, the current leader of the Taliban.
“In the past, in 2001, he was an intermediary between the Taliban leaders and the Americans. I suspect his release is still dependent on a deal with the Americans today,” Nabil said. “He is someone who can influence the Taliban to bring about the changes that the international community wants to see. He could be the US man inside the Taliban.”
According to Noorzai’s lawyer, the former drug lord had cooperated with the US before his arrest and at one point “handed over 15 truckloads of weapons, including about 400 anti-aircraft missiles, hidden by the Taliban on his tribe’s territory.”
In his own grand welcome in Kabul, Noorzai said he hoped his release would improve relations with the US. “I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America because an American has been released and I am free now,” he said.
Aside from his political clout, Noorzai brings the promise of financial relief from his drug trade to a struggling Taliban leadership, which runs the country with the fumes left behind after the previous government was toppled.
“Over the past year, the Taliban have realized that running a government is difficult and not as easy as waging a guerrilla war fueled by drug trafficking and black market funds,” said a former Afghan security official who is involved with the efforts to reduce the number of Afghans Narcotics is familiar in the previous government, told The Daily Beast.
While the Taliban have outwardly banned opium cultivation and trafficking in Afghanistan, illegal drug trafficking has actually continued to increase. Afghanistan’s opium production, which accounts for over 80 percent of the world’s supply, now covers 263,000 hectares of land – three times more than in 2001 when the US invaded the country.
“I think he could then try to consolidate his power politically, maybe even take on the role of de facto leader of the Taliban.”
The Taliban have not been forthcoming with experts trying to quantify the problem, but recent satellite imagery showed the Taliban have cut down native pomegranate farms to replace them with opium fields. Similarly, images show that a premier drug trading hub — the Abdul Wadood Market — has also expanded.
Noorzai’s return to Afghanistan will only exacerbate this problem, the security official said.
“Noorzai is not the first drug smuggler in the United States [had] released; About 50 other drug traffickers were released after the Doha deal, but he is certainly the most prominent,” the official said. “All of them [released prisoners] have returned to their drug business, as has Noorzai. The Taliban continue to rely on drug trafficking and smuggling to survive financially.”
As the Taliban seek recognition from international government and the lifting of sanctions against their members, they have not only continued to breach Doha Accords, but have also committed large-scale human rights abuses. Most recently, Al Zawhiri, the al Qaeda chief, was attacked by a US drone in the heart of Kabul, contrary to Taliban claims that they had cut ties with the militant organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Nabil speculated that whether Noorzai would return to the drug trade would depend on the political responsibility he would be given, not only by the Taliban but also by the US
“He may not openly return to drug trafficking once he has made a deal with the American to be the go-between with the Taliban, maybe even their de facto ruler,” he said. “I think he could then try to consolidate his power politically, maybe even take on the role of the de facto leader of the Taliban.”
https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-america-released-bashir-noorzai-the-pablo-escobar-of-afghanistan?source=articles&via=rss Why America Released Bashir Noorzai, the “Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan.”