Today's D Brief: Navy vet released in Taliban prisoner exchange; NATO's Baltic plans; Biden's Taiwan question, again; UNGA week in NYC; And a bit more.

American engineer and Navy veteran Mark Frerichs has been released in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban. The group will get its tribal leader and drug lord who had been held by the U.S. since 2005. 

Frerichs, now 60, was taken in Afghanistan in January 2020; and his release “is the culmination of years of tireless work,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Monday morning. “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly,” Biden said. 

Frerichs was exchanged with Bashir Noorzai at the Kabul airport Monday, Reuters reported from Kabul. Noorzai was arrested in 2005 and sentenced in 2009 to life in prison on heroin trafficking charges, the Associated Press reports.

Frerichs’ sister, Charlene Cakora: “I’m so happy to hear that my brother is safe and on his way home to us. Our family has prayed for this each day of the more than 31 months he has been a hostage. We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us.” 

Afghan foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said the exchange is the start of a “new chapter” in relations between the United States and the Taliban. “This can open a door for talks between both countries,” he said, according to AP. 

Biden said Frerichs’ release “demonstrates our enduring commitment” to the safe release and return of all Americans wrongfully held abroad. “We will not stop until they are reunited with their families,” he said, noting that the administration has “Much more work to do in many other cases.” 

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Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 1995, the Washington Post and the New York Times published the “manifesto” of a domestic terrorist—aka, the “Unabomber”—because its author threatened to kill an unspecified person if the papers refused. The Post and Times publishers released a statement explaining the coercive situation and their choices within that framework, as recommended by the U.S. Attorney General and the FBI. Shortly after publication, the bomber’s younger brother recognized familiar language in the manifesto, and alerted the FBI. About six months later, the bomber Ted Kaczynski was arrested at his cabin outside Lincoln, Montana; his bombs had killed three people and wounded 23 others over nearly two decades of terrorism. He’s currently 80 years old, and is expected to die behind bars, where he is serving out eight life sentences without the possibility of parole. 

The Chinese navy could fully blockade Taiwan today if it really wanted to, a top U.S. naval commander told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Monday. “They have a very large navy, and if they want to bully and put ships around Taiwan, they very much can do that,” Vice Adm. Karl Thomas said. Thomas commands the U.S. Navy’s Japan-based Seventh Fleet, whose assets would almost surely be called into action should Beijing choose to militarily seize the self-governing island off its east coast.
By the way: President Biden again told reporters that the U.S. would indeed defend Taiwan if China invades, and that’s something Biden has said repeatedly the past few months (October and May, e.g.). But reporters, including most recently Scott Pelley of CBS News, keep asking because of China’s periodically antagonistic air force and navy, which acted arguably more boldly than ever before just last month—days after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island, becoming the highest-ranking American to do so since 1997. (For what it’s worth, Biden himself hasn’t always been crystal clear with his consistency on Taiwan matters, as analyst Ankit Panda noted on Twitter.)
“Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence,” Biden said Sunday evening. “We're not encouraging their being independent. We're not; that's their decision.”
When asked directly if U.S. forces would defend Taiwan, Biden replied, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” But if China goes the blockade route, “then that allows the international community to weigh in and to work together on how we’re going to solve that challenge,” Thomas told the Journal. As for what would seem to lie ahead, Thomas opted for a bit of local vernacular: “There’s a term in Mandarin—can shi—nibbling like a silkworm,” he said. “They just kind of continue to push the boundaries, see what they can get away with.” Read the rest, here.
Beijing’s reax: “We are willing to do our best to strive for peaceful reunification; at the same time, we will not tolerate any activities aimed at secession,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters on Monday. “There is only one China in the world, Taiwan is part of China, and the government of the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government of China,” she said.
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For the first time since 2017, a U.S. carrier will visit South Korea for joint drills near the peninsula, AP and Reuters reported Monday from Seoul. 
Involved: The USS Ronald Reagan battle group, and the nuclear-powered fast-attack sub, USS Annapolis.
The carrier is expected to arrive Friday, according to Yonhap News agency. But “Details of the planned military exercise in South Korean waters remain undisclosed,” Korea Times reported Sunday, noting the crew of the Reagan “participated in the joint drills with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in May,” including a “gunnery exercise, electronic warfare exercise, and helicopter deck landing qualifications.” Read more at Stars and Stripes.

The United Nations’ annual meeting begins this week in New York City, where a majority of the focus is expected to be on Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of democratic Ukraine.
New: Three Baltic nations just closed their borders to Russian tourists—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. “Russia is an unpredictable and aggressive state. Three-quarters of its citizens support the war. It is unacceptable that people who support the war can freely travel around the world, into Lithuania, the EU,” Lithuania’s Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said Monday. AP has more from Warsaw, here.
The view from the White House: “Russia’s turning out not to be as competent and capable as many people thought they were gonna be,” President Joe Biden told CBS News in an interview that aired Sunday evening on “60 Minutes.”
“Winning the war in Ukraine is to get Russia out of Ukraine completely and recognizing [its] sovereignty,” he said. “But [Russia] winning the war? The damage it’s doing, and the citizens, and the innocent people are being killed, it’s awful hard to count that as winning…The price Ukrainian people are paying for this war is extremely high. But we’re gonna stay with them as long as they need our help.”
“How far do you go?” asked Scott Pelley.
“As long as it takes,” the president replied.
New: Germany says it’s delivering four more howitzers to Ukraine’s military. “This brings the number of systems supplied jointly with the Netherlands to 22, of which 14 are Germany’s,” the German military tweeted Monday.
Developing: Ukraine’s military says a Russian missile struck dangerously close to another of Kyiv’s nuclear power plants, the Pivdennoukrainsk facility in southern Ukraine. View a 15-second video of the alleged strike on Twitter,  here.
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