The rescue of an American woman, her Canadian husband and their three children who were held by a faction of Taliban-linked militants for more than five years has raised hopes of a possible warming in the long fraught relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
For American Caitlan Coleman and her husband, Joshua Boyle, the release marks the end of a wrenching saga during which Coleman gave birth to two boys and a girl and pleaded for their release in videos posted by their captors on the Internet.
“They have been essentially living in a hole the last five years, and that’s the kind of people we are dealing with,” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told reporters.
The Pakistani military said that the couple and their three children were found “through an intelligence-based operation” Wednesday in coordination with U.S. agencies tracking the hostages along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government offered scant details of the rescue effort that freed the family, and there were conflicting reports Thursday about whether the captives were secured as a result of a handover or a shootout.
President Donald Trump in a statement praised the operation as a hopeful sign that Pakistan “is honoring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region.”
Only about a month ago, Trump slammed the Pakistani government for accepting “billions and billions of dollars” in American aid while “housing the very terrorists we are fighting.” In the immediate aftermath of the mission, the president suggested that his tough words had prompted a change in Pakistani behavior.
“They worked very hard on this, and I believe they’re starting to respect the United States again,” Trump said in brief remarks. “It’s very important.”
But current and former U.S. officials said it is unclear whether the Pakistani action represents a single event or a more substantive change in policy. U.S. officials have long complained that Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to eliminate extremist havens along its border with Afghanistan has badly hindered U.S. efforts to defeat the Taliban and end America’s longest war.
The Pakistanis, meanwhile, have accused the United States of hypocrisy and were infuriated by Trump’s harsh criticism of their counterterrorism efforts. Last week, Pakistan’s foreign minister met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and let loose with his frustrations at a luncheon with American reporters.
“Ask them what they have done in Afghanistan. What have they achieved?” Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the foreign minister, said of the Americans. “We are wholeheartedly, single-mindedly targeting these terrorists.”
Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani High Commission in Ottawa, said that Boyle, Coleman and their children were taken over the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the tribal area of Kurram on Wednesday by their abductors. U.S. intelligence officials, who had been tracking their movements, provided information to Pakistan’s intelligence service, which planned the operation that secured the family’s release.
“They are safe, and they are being repatriated to their country of origin, Kiani said.
Even after the family’s release, however, there was still drama and confusion surrounding the rescue and the family’s next steps. Boyle’s parents spoke with their son by phone and were hopeful that he and his family would be on a plane in a matter of hours.
“First time in five years we got to hear his voice,” Boyle’s mother Linda said in an interview with the Toronto Star. “He told us how much his children were looking forward to meeting their grandparents.”
At the Coleman home in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, a sign on the door read, in part: “We know there is much interest in the joyful news that they’ve finally been released, and are overwhelmed with gratitude and emotion. At this time, as we focus on their wellbeing and make plans for our family’s future, we respectfully ask for some privacy.”
Reports later Thursday suggested that Boyle for unexplained reasons had refused to let his family board an aircraft that would fly them to the United States. His father told the Star that previous reports indicating that the family were en route to the United States “were definitely premature.”
Boyle was previously married to the sister of Omar Khadr, once the youngest detainee at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Khadr pleaded guilty to murder, among other charges, at a military commission before being returned to Canada in 2012 to serve out his sentence. He was released in 2015.
Coleman and Boyle were abducted in October 2012 while traveling in Afghanistan and were held in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, a militant faction with ties to the Taliban.
Coleman was pregnant when she was captured, and the couple had three children, all of whom were born while their parents were being held captive. The release came just after the fifth anniversary of the couple’s disappearance while traveling in Wardak province, a violent and mountainous region near the Afghan capital, Kabul.
In a video released late last year, the couple said they feared their family could be executed in retaliation for Western attacks and pressure on militants. Coleman clutched at a headscarf. Boyle had a long, untrimmed beard.
“We have waited since 2012 for somebody to understand our problems, the Kafkaesque nightmare in which we find ourselves,” Coleman said in the video. “. . . My children have seen their mother defiled.”
Boyle said in an earlier video: “Our captors are terrified at the thought of their own mortality approaching and are saying that they will take reprisals on our own family. They will execute us, women and children included.”
In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s apparent rescue by Pakistani forces there was, for the first time in years, some cause for optimism for improved relations between Washington and Islamabad.
“This provides a template to move this relationship forward, even if incrementally, in a clear-eyed, realistic and positive manner,” said Daniel Feldman, who served as President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We must find other such discrete areas of aligned interest.”
But questions remained Thursday about the operation. For example, it wasn’t clear whether the captors holding Boyle and Coleman were part of the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction that has largely been protected by the Pakistan government, or a splinter group that does not enjoy such special status.
U.S. officials in recent months had suspected that Boyle, Coleman and their children were being held inside Afghanistan, though there was never enough information to locate them in “real time,” said a former U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
The couple and their children were being spirited across the border into Pakistan when U.S. officials appear to have learned about their whereabouts and passed on the intelligence to Pakistani officials, who moved quickly to act.
“If both sides are highlighting this as a demonstration of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation, that suggests that there may be a will on both sides to work together,” said Laurel Miller, also a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until earlier this year when the unit she led in the State Department was closed.
The Trump administration’s current strategy in Afghanistan is built around using more air power and advisers to bolster the Afghan military and punish the Taliban. The end goal is to push the Taliban and affiliated groups, such as the Haqqani network, into peace talks with the goal of reaching a negotiated settlement.
Pakistan’s cooperation has long been considered critical to any hopes of a durable peace deal in Afghanistan. The Obama administration had appeared to be making progress in talks with the Taliban but those efforts came to an abrupt halt after the U.S. military killed Taliban leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, in a drone strike in May 2016.
Last week, Pakistan’s foreign minister said that the death of Mansour had created a “trust deficit” with the Taliban that would make future negotiations difficult.
“Our influence over the years [with the Taliban] has diminished,” Asif said.
Tillerson is expected to visit Pakistan later this month.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Shaiq Hussain, Greg Jaffe