When the U.S. announced the release of American hostage Mark Frerichs—a navy veteran who has been 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 intense engagement with the Taliban,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.
Halfway across the world in Afghanistan, the Taliban were also congratulating themselves for securing the release of Noorzai. Many Taliban leaders and fighters flocked to the Kabul airport carrying colorful garlands to welcome him.
Often dubbed the “Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan,” Noorzai is a notorious drug lord from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. He was the earliest financier of the Taliban in the 1990s, fueling the group’s insurgency with funds from his illicit narcotic trades.
“You can’t imagine the importance of this man within the Taliban,” former Afghan security official Ahmad Shuja Jamal told The Daily Beast.
Now, his release after more than a decade has Afghan experts and political stakeholders guessing if the U.S. is leaving the door open for establishing ties with the Taliban.
“He is very influential within the Taliban, but particularly within the Noorzai tribe where most of the Taliban leadership come from,” former Afghan spy chief Rahmatullah Nabil told The Daily Beast, adding that as one of the “founding father of the Taliban,” Noorzai wields considerable influence over senior leaders like Mullah Haibatullah, the current leader of the Taliban.
“In the past, he was an intermediary between Taliban leaders and the Americans in 2001. I suspect even now his release is conditional to a deal with the Americans,” Nabil said. “He is someone who can influence the Taliban to bring about desired changes, those that the international community wants to see. He could be the U.S.’s man inside the Taliban.”
According to Noorzai’s lawyer, the former drug lord had cooperated with the U.S. before his arrest, and once “handed over 15 truckloads of weapons, including about 400 anti aircraft missiles that had been hidden by the Taliban in his tribe’s territory.”
Speaking at his own grand welcome in Kabul, Noorzai said he hoped his release would improve relations with the U.S. “I hope this exchange can lead to peace between Afghanistan and America, because an American was released and I am also free now,” he said.
Aside from his political influence, Noorzai brings the promise of financial relief through his drug trade to a flailing Taliban leadership, which has been running the country on fumes left behind after the fall of the previous government.
“In the last one year, the Taliban have come to realize that it is difficult to run a government and not as easy as running a guerrilla war fuelled by drug trafficking and black marketing funds,” a former Afghan security official familiar with counternarcotics efforts under in the previous government told The Daily Beast.
While outwardly, the Taliban has banned opium cultivation and trade in Afghanistan, the illicit drug trade has in fact continued to grow. Afghanistan’s opium production, contributing to over 80 percent of the global supply, now covers 263,000 hectares of land—three times more than in 2001, when the U.S. invaded the country.
The Taliban have been less than forthcoming with experts wanting to quantify the problem, but recent satellite imagery revealed that the Taliban have felled native pomegranate farms to replace them with opium fields. Similarly, images show that a prime narcotic trading hub—the Abdul Wadood market, has also expanded.
Noorzai’s return to Afghanistan will only fuel this problem, the security official said.
“Noorzai isn’t the first drug smuggler the US [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 gone back to their narcotic business again, as will Noorzai. The Taliban continue to depend on drug trafficking and smuggling to sustain themselves financially.”
While the Taliban has been seeking recognition from the international government and the lifting of sanctions on their members, they have not only continued to breach agreements of the Doha deal, but have also been committing large-scale human rights violations. Most recently, Al Zawhiri, the Al Qaeda chief, was targeted by a U.S. drone in the heart of Kabul, contrary to the Taliban claims that they have severed ties with the militant organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Nabil speculated that whether Noorzai returns to the narcotic trade will depend on the political responsibility he is given, not just by the Taliban, but also the U.S.
“He may not return to narco-trade openly if he has struck a deal with the American to be the go-between with the Taliban, perhaps even their de facto ruler,” he said. “I believe then he might seek to consolidate his power politically, perhaps even assume the role of the de facto leader of the Taliban.”