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Family of abducted man fears he will be 'left behind' in Afghanistan

Mark Frerichs, a contractor from Illinois, poses in Iraq in this undated photo obtained from Twitter that he would include with his resume when job hunting. Frerichs was abducted in Afghanistan in January 2020.

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By CAROL MORELLO | The Washington Post | Published: November 18, 2020

Charlene Cakora is glad more U.S. troops will be coming home from Afghanistan soon. But she also is filled with dread that the drawdown announced this week will complicate efforts to find her brother.

Mark Frerichs, a civilian contractor, was abducted in Afghanistan in January and hasn't been heard from since.

"I think it's bad news," she said of the troop reduction plan in a telephone interview from her home in Illinois. "We want the troops home, but we don't want Mark to be left behind."

The Trump administration says it will roughly halve the number of troops in Afghanistan, from about 5,000 to 2,500, by mid-January. Under a deal between the United States and the Taliban signed earlier this year, all American and NATO forces could be gone by May, if certain conditions are met.

It is unclear whether the force reduction will minimize U.S. leverage in finding Frerichs and another American, Paul Overby, who disappeared in Afghanistan in 2014 while researching a book. Both are believed to have been taken by the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that is an offshoot of the Taliban.

President Donald Trump has prioritized negotiations for the release of Americans held captive abroad and claims to have secured freedom for more than 50 from some 20 countries during his time in office. U.S. officials call them hostages, though some were imprisoned by foreign governments, mostly under dubious charges.

The State Department has offered $5 million under its Rewards for Justice program for information leading to the location, recovery and return of Frerichs and Overby. And the United States has won the release of Americans even in countries where there are no troops.

Little is known about the fate of Overby, a 77-year-old author, who vanished in 2014 in Khost province near the border with Pakistan while working on a book about the Afghan conflict. He had planned to cross the border into Pakistan and was trying to arrange an interview with the head of the Haqqani network when he disappeared. His family, contacted through an intermediary, declined to comment.

Frerichs, 58, was abducted on Jan. 31 this year. A former Navy diver, he had been living in Kabul for a decade working on construction projects as an engineer. He is believed to be alive and relatively well, despite being held by a militant group that has been designated a foreign terrorist organization.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for Afghan reconciliation, said in May that he had pressed Taliban leaders during meetings to secure Frerichs's release. Cakora and groups that represent American hostage families have faulted Khalilzad for not making her brother's release a condition of the agreement.

"I look at examples in the past, like when we left hostages behind in Iran in order to get the nuclear deal," she said. "We don't want this administration to let Mark be left behind, just to get troops out of Afghanistan. It's a scary thought."

U.S. officials insist they will not forget Frerichs and Overby, with or without troops in the country.

"Our work in Afghanistan and around the world will not stop until every American comes home," said a U.S. official working for the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, an interagency group that includes the FBI, the intelligence community and the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury and Justice. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of their operations.

Cale Brown, deputy spokesman for the State Department, said the safety of Americans abroad is its highest priority.

"The United States will continue to do everything in our power to bring American hostages home," he said.

But Frerichs's family and others fear the troop withdrawal forsakes much of the leverage the government has to insist on his release before any forces are brought home.

"We're maybe giving them what they want without getting what we want," Cakora said.

Sens. Richard J. Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both Democrats from Illinois, wrote Trump a letter calling for him to push the Taliban to facilitate Frerichs's quick release.

"Ultimately, Mr. Frerichs' swift and safe return, and that of any other Americans abducted, must be a top priority for our government amid the larger peace process in Afghanistan, and we welcome the opportunity to help on this urgent matter," they wrote.

Margaux Ewen, executive director of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, said efforts should be made "to be sure the releases of these two hostages are at the forefront of the conversation."

Eric Lebson, a former National Security Council official who volunteers to support families of captive Americans, said concerns about leaving Frerichs behind are valid.

"He was kidnapped a full month before the U.S. signed a peace accord with the Taliban, and there is no indication efforts were made to make signing it conditioned on his release," he said. "That is when the U.S. had the greatest leverage. Now we have announced our intention to withdraw a substantial portion of our troops in Afghanistan. Typically, one loses leverage when your adversary knows what you want and how bad you want it."

Cakora said U.S. officials involved in hostage recovery have kept in close contact with her, though they have had little concrete information to offer. She said her brother's name has rarely been mentioned publicly, and she fears his case will be lost in the shuffle of an administration in its waning days and a military preoccupied with the troop drawdown.

"What happens if there's a Mark sighting and they're in the middle of packing to go home, and they can't go and rescue him," she said.

"I can't blame anybody," she added. "There's just a lot going on right now. I feel Mark's a priority. My concern is only for Mark.