Is the Taliban's new interior minister holding an American hostage?

AP Photo/Zabi Karimi

So says the Associated Press, which notes that Sirajuddin Haqqani presents lots of other problems as well. The new Taliban interior minister still shows up on the FBI’s most-wanted list of terrorists, and the Haqqani network remains a lethal terrorist force within Afghanistan even while incorporated into the new government. But this may be the first acknowledgment of an actual post-retreat hostage crisis involving officials of the new government, such as it is:

The Taliban on Tuesday announced an all-male interim government for Afghanistan stacked with veterans of their hard-line rule from the 1990s and the 20-year battle against the U.S.-led coalition, a move that seems unlikely to win the international support the new leaders desperately need to avoid an economic meltdown.

Appointed to the key post of interior minister was Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head and is believed to still be holding at least one American hostage. He headed the feared Haqqani network that is blamed for many deadly attacks and kidnappings. …

The U.S. State Department in a statement expressed concern that the Cabinet included only Taliban, no women and personalities with a troubling track record, but said the new administration would be judged by its actions. The carefully worded statement noted the Cabinet was interim, but said the Taliban would be held to their promise to give safe passage to both foreign nationals and Afghans, with proper travel documents, and ensure Afghan soil would not be used as to harm another.

“The world is watching closely,” the statement said.

If Haqqani is personally holding an American hostage, that makes the State Department’s statement on diversity in the government exponentially more idiotic. The Wall Street Journal’s Seth Jones calls this an obvious “slap in the face” to the US, made worse by our apparent silence on whether the new minister is in fact keeping an American citizen hostage. Plus, Haqqani and his family are the gateway to al-Qaeda and renewed operations in Afghanistan:

The Taliban’s appointment—days before the 20th anniversary of the terror attack—is nothing less than a slap in the face of the U.S. and its Western allies. …

But with the announcement of the Taliban’s new cabinet, the U.S.’s catastrophic Afghanistan policy has gone from bad to worse. When President Biden was vice president, the administration designated the Haqqani Network a foreign terrorist organization because of its involvement in strikes inside Afghanistan, attacks against U.S. military and civilian personnel, and close ties with al Qaeda.

The Haqqani Network was involved in attacks against the U.S. embassy and North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Kabul—including while I was in Afghanistan with U.S. special operations forces. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the network’s leader, was well known to the U.S. military and intelligence community, and he barely escaped several attempts to target him. He is a wily and dangerous enemy with American blood on his hands.

Relations between Sirajuddin Haqqani and al Qaeda are even closer today, as recent U.S. and U.N. Security Council assessments have painstakingly documented. During peace negotiations last year, for example, one U.N. assessment concluded that “the Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, members of the Haqqani Network reportedly met with al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in February 2020 and discussed subjects including the implications of a possible peace deal with the U.S. According to U.N. estimates, senior al Qaeda leaders met with Taliban officials at least a half dozen times between May 2019 and May 2020. And they have continued to meet since then, according to numerous officials.

What about the hostage himself? The US suspects that the Haqqanis abducted an American contractor in January 2020, although they have denied it:

The Haqqani network, which dominates most of eastern Afghanistan, has been blamed for dramatic attacks in Kabul in the past two decades and for orchestrating kidnappings, often of Americans. Washington believes it still holds Mark Frerichs, a civilian contractor, who was abducted in January 2020 and hasn’t been heard from since.

The date on this abduction indicates enough blame to spread around. The New Yorker’s Michael Ames noted last night that the Trump administration never pressed hard on Frerichs, even though they had every reason to suspect that the Taliban and/or Haqqanis had him in their possession:

The previous day, Frerichs had been abducted in Kabul. He was smuggled out of the capital and likely taken across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border into the tribal areas of Western Pakistan, a mountainous region that has served as a Taliban haven since 2001. For more than a decade, it’s where the Taliban have held their highest-value hostages, inside the borders of America’s purported ally, where the U.S. military is prohibited from operating. Frerichs is being held by the Haqqani network, the Taliban-affiliated, mafia-esque criminal syndicate founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the late mujahideen leader cultivated by the C.I.A. during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. For years, the Haqqani network has been the Taliban’s most capable and ruthless faction, responsible for carrying out many of the war’s bloodiest attacks and running a lucrative kidnap-for-ransom business.

The timing of Frerichs’s abduction was not incidental. He was abducted just as the Trump Administration was in the final stages of reaching an agreement with the Taliban to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan—and at a moment when the Haqqanis appeared to have recently run out of American hostages. Three months before Frerichs’s kidnapping, in November, 2019, President Trump approved one of the war’s most controversial prisoner swaps. In a deal that sparked protests in the streets of the Afghan capital, the Haqqanis released Kevin King and Timothy Weeks, American and Australian professors taken at gunpoint outside the American University in Kabul in August, 2016, and ten Afghan soldiers. In exchange, the Afghan government, under pressure from Trump’s State Department, released three high-ranking Haqqani commanders, responsible for terrorizing the city with years of car bombings and assassinations. They included Anas Haqqani, who, along with other commanders from the group, is now in charge of security in the Afghan capital. On Tuesday, the Taliban announced an interim government with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the network’s commander and a U.S.-designated terrorist since 2012, serving as interior minister and overseeing law enforcement nationwide. …

Frerichs’s sister Charlene hoped that the Trump Administration would negotiate with the Taliban for her brother’s release. The talks in Doha had been ongoing for months. Four weeks after Frerichs’s kidnapping, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s Afghan peace envoy, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, met with Taliban leaders in Qatar to formalize an agreement on the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. In a move that was harshly criticized, Pompeo and Khalilzad relinquished the most significant leverage that the Trump Administration held—the presence of U.S. ground troops—without securing a broad peace agreement in the country. (Khalilzad declined requests for an interview.) On February 29, 2020, in an elaborate ceremony in the Doha Sheraton, the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan was signed by Khalilzad and Taliban leaders, culminating nine rounds of talks. The agreement included freeing up to five thousand Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan, but made no mention of the new American hostage.

Former Trump Administration officials told me that Frerichs was seen as a distraction. “Zal and Pompeo were so eager to get a peace deal signed, they wanted to not deal with the fact that a U.S. hostage had just been taken a month earlier,” a former senior Administration official told me. Congressman Mike Waltz, a former Green Beret and a Republican from Jacksonville, Florida, agreed. “I don’t think we ever should have signed that deal,” he said. “Not just because they were holding a hostage, but because they took him just in the few weeks prior.” Miller, Trump’s former Defense Secretary, also criticized Khalilzad. “Zal is always the smartest guy in the room, a modern-day Henry Kissinger,” Miller said. “He didn’t really give a shit.”

Apparently not, although the Taliban insisted they didn’t have Frerichs whenever the Trump administration’s negotiation team brought him up. It’s very possible that they’re intending to humiliate both administrations by producing Frerichs in some sort of hostage video after taking control of Afghanistan. It’s also possible that they never had him and that another group abducted Frerichs, but the ascendancy of the Taliban and the Haqqanis make that a rather unlikely prospect.

Even apart from Frerichs, the Biden administration has a growing problem with trapped Americans and allies that could easily tip over into an explicit hostage crisis. Members of Congress have grown frustrated enough to go public, as are private organizations:

U.S. Lawmakers and veterans trying to assist in the evacuation of 143 stranded Americans and many Afghan allies are growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of action by the Biden administration, which is insisting the Taliban’s efforts to block flights from leaving the country is not a “hostage” crisis – that the militant group controlling Afghanistan simply wants the proper documents from those seeking to leave.

Nonprofits working to evacuate those left behind after the Aug. 31 exit of all U.S. troops have been waiting for more than a week with six chartered planes at Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan ready to depart the country. But those aircraft have remained on the ground first as State Department officials put up roadblocks and then as the Taliban issued demands, sources with first-hand information have told RealClearPolitics. …

While some groups are still trying to work with the State Department to help the planes depart, leaked emails show the department refused to green light a number of privately chartered flights out of Afghanistan that could have evacuated U.S. citizens and Afghan special immigrant visa applicants. Military lawyer and retired Marine Eric Montalvo shared the communications with Fox News after he organized some of the flights.

Senate Democrat Richard Blumenthal vented publicly about the incompetence from the Biden administration, and the lack of focus on this catastrophe. Biden doesn’t actually need much help from the Taliban in getting humiliated on the global stage. He and his team appear to be managing that on their own with horrifying efficiency.