Afghan peace deal leaves two American hostages in limbo
At the recent signing ceremony for the Afghan peace accord in Doha, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cautioned the Taliban against declaring victory, noting there is more work to be done to ensure the future of Afghanistan. That’s certainly true if you are the family of either Paul Overby or Mark Frerichs, two American citizens missing in Afghanistan whose names were conspicuously absent from any media coverage or official statements around the event.
The Overby case is a particularly difficult one. He went to Afghanistan in 2014 to interview the leader of the Haqqani network for a book he was writing. His disappearance was not publicly acknowledged until 2017, and as far as the public record states, he disappeared and his whereabouts have remained unknown. Shortly after, the Taliban issued a public statement that they did not have him, for whatever value that has.
The Frerichs case has its own complications but is relatively more straightforward. It is unclear what business brought Frerichs to Afghanistan, but he disappeared at the end of January 2020 and the media have reported that U.S. government officials confirmed he is in the custody of the same Haqqani network. In other words, he was taken captive while the details of the peace accord were being worked out by part of the same Taliban that later would sign that accord. While some might argue that the Haqqanis — and not the Taliban — likely have the hostages, they essentially are one and the same. The head of the Haqqani network, Sirrajudin Haqqani, is the deputy emir of the Taliban.
Those of us who work to bring American hostages home safely held our breath, waiting to see if there would be a side deal to release Frerichs once the accord was signed, or if his government would get him home in some other manner during the negotiations. At the same time, we were hoping that the parties would agree to clear the decks on outstanding issues and give the Overby family some answers.
None of that has happened. Despite pages of ink spent on the details of the accord, no journalist has written about it. The same major news outlets that carried news of the Frerichs abduction just a few weeks ago have not highlighted the unresolved case, even as they cover seemingly every other detail of the peace deal. Something similar happened to the family of Bob Levinson — a friend of mine who is still being held hostage in Iran — when other Americans were released from Iran in concert with the commencement of the Iran nuclear deal.
Now that the deal has been signed between the U.S. and the Taliban, the Afghan government and Taliban are trading statements about the next steps. The Taliban seek the release of around 5,000 fighters in Afghan government custody. The Afghan government has its own reasons to want to go slowly, for fear of losing all leverage in a post-war political settlement with the Taliban. But hesitation on that issue is now a factor in having the Taliban resolve the two cases of American citizens.
Hostages are rarely released on goodwill alone. For those who take them into custody, hostages are commodities and they are released as part of a quid pro quo or part of a process in which their captors get something in return. Failure to bring the cases of Overby and Frerichs into the peace accord deprives American officials of their greatest possible leverage to resolve these cases. As the dust settles on the peace accord and both sides monitor each other’s implementation, the Taliban once again have an advantage and two American families have lost an opportunity.
Eric Lebson served as a director at the National Security Council working on Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009-2011. He volunteers to support the families of American hostages held abroad.