A top leader of Afghanistan’s hard-line Islamist Taliban movement has demanded the United States release an Afghan drug kingpin serving a life sentence for international narcotics trafficking conspiracy in a U.S. prison.
Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, says Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the movement’s top negotiator and deputy leader, made the demand in a virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 29.
“Mullah Sahib asked the American secretary of state to release Hajji Bashar Noorzai, who is incarcerated in a U.S. prison,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan on June 30.
Noorzai is believed to be a close confidant of late Taliban founder Mullah Omar. In the spring of 2009, a court in New York City sentenced Noorzai to life in prison after he was found guilty the previous fall of being involved in a conspiracy that sent large quantities of heroin to the United States and around the globe.
“He also called for other Afghans imprisoned in Guantanamo to be released, too,” Shaheen added.
The U.S. State Department has yet to confirm the video call.
Barnett Rubin, an academic and former State Department adviser on Afghanistan, says that Noorzai, believed to be in his 50s, is politically significant for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, where the movement first emerged in the mid-1990s.
“He is politically important to the Nurzais in Loya Kandahar,” Rubin said of Noorzai’s status as an important tribal figure among the Nurzai, a large Pashtun tribe in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar and adjoining regions collective referred to as Greater Kandahar by Afghans. “That is a very important constituency for the Taliban,” he added.
In 2009, Noorzai told a judge in Manhattan that he led his country toward peace and stability and has never worked against U.S. interests.
“In all my life, I never did anything against the United States government, against the United States people and against the United States legal system,” he was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
But proving the Taliban’s popularity in Afghanistan, even in former strongholds such as Kandahar, is tricky. Few former Taliban leaders have won elections after renouncing the insurgency or surrendering to the Afghan government. Public opinion surveys show the Taliban is supported by only a small minority of the country’s diverse estimated 35 million population.
Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander reconciled with the Afghan government, says that by demanding Noorzai’s release the Taliban are making a political point and indicating that they want to maintain old ties.
“The Taliban’s aim is not only to help Noorzai but they have also demanded the release of all Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The Taliban want to show that they are pushing for releasing all prisoners from American prisons.”
Releasing prisoners was one of the key confidence-building points in the Taliban’s agreement with the United States, which was signed on February 29. The agreement said that the United States is “committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides.”
So far, the Afghan government has released some 3,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for hundreds of Afghan soldiers and government workers held by the Taliban.
Noorzai was one of the first former mujahedin commanders who surrendered to the Taliban after their emergence in late 1994. He later reportedly bankrolled some of the Taliban’s military offensives and grew close to its leaders, Mullah Omar in particular.
In April 2005, U.S. prosecuting attorney David Kelley alleged that Noorzai and the Taliban had a “symbiotic” relationship. "Between 1990 and 2004, Noorzai and his organization provided demolitions, weaponry, and militia manpower to the Taliban,” he said. “In exchange, the Taliban permitted Noorzai's business to flourish and served as protection for Noorzai's opium crops, heroin laboratories, and drug transportation routes out of the country."
According to a brief biography published in a book by former Taliban diplomat Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Noorzai attempted to switch sides and tried to align with the United States and the Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Noorzai was arrested in New York City in April 2005 after traveling there and was reportedly arrested after talking to federal agents.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Omid Zahirmal contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.