The sister of an American who was kidnapped in Afghanistan last year told CNN that she is worried that when the US troop withdrawal is complete, any leverage to get her brother home will vanish.
The major announcements from the Biden administration this week on the future of the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan and the unveiling of tough actions against Russia have left the families of Americans wrongfully detained in those countries concerned that the moves have further jeopardized the safety of their loved ones.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced he would withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, leaving behind only the military footprint necessary to protect the United States’ diplomatic presence. NATO coalition forces will also leave the country by that date.
Charlene Cakora’s brother, Mark Frerichs, was kidnapped in Kabul in late January 2020 where he was doing construction contract work. Frerichs, a Navy veteran from Illinois, is believed to be held by the Haqqani network, which is closely linked to the Taliban.
Now, with the impending withdrawal of US troops, Cakora told she believes “this puts a time stamp on Mark.”
“We have 150 days to get him home or our leverage is gone,” she said.
With the Taliban getting its desired outcome – a withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan – there are strong concerns that the US will be left without the leverage to try to get Frerichs home.
A senior administration official said that the US departure from the country will not be conditions-based, telling reporters this week that “the President has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.”
“What does this mean for Mark? It means our government has let us down,” Cakora said, adding, “President Biden, I know you want the troops home, but what if Mark was your son?”
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said last year he brought up Frerichs case in negotiations with the Taliban, but said the militant group claimed they didn’t have him. It is unclear if Khalilizad has pressured the Taliban for more information since their denial. The US government is offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his recovery.
Following the withdrawal announcement, the future of the US-Taliban talks are now unclear.
‘Why would they give you anything back?’
“Whatever leverage we’ve had with the Taliban, we’ve just announced that we have none,” said Peter Bergen, a vice president at New America and CNN national security analyst.
“The one thing they want we’ve just guaranteed we’re doing,” he told CNN. “I think that’s goes to the broad issue of our ability to influence their decision-making about anything, including American hostages.”
“If your negotiating position is we’re just going to give you everything you want, then, on the other side, why would they give you anything back?” Bergen added.
Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican who served in Afghanistan as a Special Forces Officer, said that “we not only gave away our leverage with this announcement, we’re withdrawing our capability to rescue him if our intelligence community can find him.”
“I can’t imagine how the family feels, much less how he feels, because one of the things – having gone through this training and understanding the mentality as a Green Beret but then also having rescued hostages – is the hostage taker is constantly telling you, ‘your country doesn’t care about you, they’re not coming to get you, and you don’t matter,’” he said. “So I just think it’s a terrible situation all around.”
A State Department spokesperson told CNN that “Frerichs has spent over a year in captivity” and they “will not stop working until (they) secure his safe return home.”
A day after the Afghanistan announcement, the Biden administration announced tough actions against Moscow, including sanctions and the expulsion of Russian diplomats, in response to a wide range of misbehavior by Moscow. Russia retaliated on Friday by announcing it would expel 10 US diplomats and sanction eight senior US officials
The parents of another US detainee, Trevor Reed, said they are concerned about the impact the escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow could have on their son.
“The family is concerned that hostiles could be taken out on Trevor or that it will prolong the ordeal,” said Jonathan Franks, the family spokesperson.
The family, who said they did not get a heads up that the actions were coming, also wondered why there was no action taken against the Russians who unjustly detained their son, and the officials who have perpetuated the situation.
“If the US is going to designate Russian individuals for human rights abuses it would be good to see the Magnitsky Act applied to those involved in Trevor’s unjust detention, including the judges and the prosecutors who are responsible for what has happened,” Franks told CNN Thursday.
The brother of Paul Whelan, an American detained in Russia for more than two years, told CNN that the family “is obviously concerned that, when the Russian Federation responds, it will reduce the number of Americans working at the US Embassy.”
“This could potentially make it harder for Paul to receive consular support as resources are once again stretched thin,” David Whelan said Thursday.
However, he noted that this was not the first tranche of sanctions the US had imposed on Russia since Paul was imprisoned,” and he’s “not sure they will have any more impact on his case than the others have.”
“On balance, I take hope from the possibility of a summit and attempts to re-establish the stronger relationship the Russian Federation and the US have had in decades past,” David Whelan said. “If the only news this week had been sanctions, then we might expect Paul’s wrongful detention to remain unaddressed by either nation. The sanctions may be a step back, but the potential for a summit is two steps forward.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken a personal interest in the matter of hostages and detainees, and spoke with the families early in his tenure as top US diplomat.
However, some of the families are wondering how the issue is factoring into the administration’s overall foreign policy agenda and how this week’s moves will impact their loved ones futures.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that in “every relationship we have, when it’s adversarial or even when it’s not, we raise issues of the detainment of American citizens or even the citizens of our partners and allies around the world through those diplomatic conversations.”
The State Department spokesperson told CNN that Blinken “has made clear that Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage are not an afterthought and their safety and recovery are part of any policy discussions.”
“We partner with the families of Americans being wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad. It is our job to be transparent with the families, especially when our policies are making headlines,” the spokesperson said.
Bergen noted that “every situation is very different and they’re all extremely complicated.”
“Typically considerations around hostages are not the first things that are on the negotiating table,” he told CNN Friday. However, Bergen noted that “having terrible relationships” with another country doesn’t necessarily preclude the release of citizens in their custody.
This story has been updated with comments from a State Department spokesperson.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly contributed to this report.