Haji Bashir Noorzai is hugged after his arrival in Kabul.Image ANP / EPA

    Bashir Noorzai returned home this week after 17 years in prison. Taliban fighters welcomed the nearly 60-year-old tribal leader in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as a hero and decorated him with garlands of flowers.

    In exchange for his freedom, the Taliban regime released US Navy veteran Mark Frerichs. The 60-year-old American was kidnapped more than two years ago in Kabul. It was the first diplomatic agreement between Afghanistan and the US since the extremist movement took the country by force in August 2021.

    Noorzai was found guilty in New York in 2008 of heroin smuggling worth more than $50 million. He was considered one of the most powerful and dangerous drug traffickers in the world. A Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) official even called him the “Pablo Escobar of Asia.”

    Informant for the US

    Noorzai made his name as a drug lord in the southern province of Kandahar. With poppy fields and heroin labs in his possession, he headed an international drug network. He inherited the land and trade from his father. According to the Americans, Noorzai financed and armed his own army of mujahideen during the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union (from 1979 to 1989). During that period, Noorzai is said to have met the future Taliban founder Mullah Omar.

    From the 1990s, the wealthy drug trafficker maintained good ties with Omar and became a major financier of the Islamist movement. He provided the Taliban with an extensive arsenal of weapons, including grenade launchers and anti-tank weapons. In exchange for his support, the Taliban left Noorzai’s drug empire untouched, US authorities said in a statement following Noorzai’s conviction.

    Yet Noorzai also provided services to the United States. After the Americans ousted the first Taliban government in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Afghan tribal leader became an informant for President George Bush’s army. He revealed the locations of secret weapons depots and promised to use his influence in southern Afghanistan to stabilize the region. But after some of Noorzai’s Taliban friends disappeared, he no longer trusted the Americans and fled to neighboring Pakistan to continue his international drug trade.

    Later, US agents from the DEA contacted Noorzai again. They met several times in Dubai to investigate financial networks of terrorism in Afghanistan. Finally, in 2005, the Americans convinced Noorzai to travel to New York for a meeting. Near the former World Trade Center, he was questioned about Afghan opium production and Osama bin Laden, among others.

    Eleven days after his arrival, American agents arrested him. “I thought it was a joke,” Noorzai told magazine in a 2007 phone interview from his cell time. One of the DEA agents had said his trip to the US would be “like a vacation.” Afterwards, Noorzai concluded that he had been tricked. After his arrest, the drug lord disappeared behind American bars for 17 years.

    Global drug network

    For the Americans, Bashir Noorzai was at the intersection of the war on terror and the war on drugs. The then chief prosecutor in New York described Noorzai’s incarceration as a major victory in the fight against terrorism: “Bashir Noorzai’s global drug network supported a Taliban regime that has turned Afghanistan into a hotbed of international terrorism, a legacy that continues to destabilize the region. Today’s sentencing finally puts an end to Noorzai’s long career as a criminal.’

    Despite his undercover operations, the Taliban were eager to bring Noorzai back to Afghanistan. His release was already discussed two years ago during peace negotiations between representatives of the Taliban and diplomats of former President Donald Trump. In that so-called Doha agreement, the Americans also announced the complete withdrawal of NATO soldiers from Afghanistan.

    Finally, the Western soldiers, along with many Afghan civilians, left in a hurry in August 2021, after the Taliban captured the capital. The extremist movement installed a new government and declared Afghanistan an Islamic emirate. Secondary education for girls has been abolished.

    Although the Taliban regime is not recognized by any country in the world, Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi hopes the prisoner swap will “open a new chapter in US-Afghanistan bilateral relations.” In this way, Noorzai fulfilled the role of diplomatic pawn this week. The former drug lord himself saw a bright future after his arrival at Kabul airport: “My release and that of an American will bring peace between the two countries.”

    3 x Haji Bashir Noorzai:

    Bashir Noorzai was ranked 10th on a US list of most wanted drug lords in June 2004, alongside members of notorious Latin American families.

    The title ‘Haji’ in his name denotes an undertaken pilgrimage to Mecca. The annual pilgrimage is a religious duty for Muslims.

    Before his arrest, Bashir Noorzai spent most of his time in the Pakistani city of Quetta, with three wives and 13 children. He also had residences in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates.