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American Woman And Her Family Released From Captivity In Afghanistan


A Canadian-American family is free today after years of captivity in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States government says it won release of the family from the custody of a militant group with help from Pakistan. Pakistani officials say their intelligence service was involved. And we're going to talk about this with Asad Hashim, who is a journalist based in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Welcome to the program.

ASAD HASHIM: Hi. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Because it's been a while, just remind us, who - who is this family?

HASHIM: So Joshua Boyle, who is a Canadian national, and his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, were - were backpacking through Central Asia back in 2012. So it's been about five years. And this was in December 2012 or so, roughly, around about this time of the year when they were picked up while they were backpacking. Now, their families at the time were actually not in contact with them so they did not even know that they had crossed the border over into Afghanistan at the time. And they disappeared. They were out of contact for a while. And then after a few contacts were made, it was initially assumed that the Afghan Taliban had picked them up. And then later it emerged that the Haqqani network had possibly abducted them.

INSKEEP: The Haqqani network. This is a militant group with ties to the Taliban and also, according to many reports, ties to Pakistan's intelligence services.

HASHIM: Correct. Absolutely. This is something that the U.S. has - has constantly been haranguing Pakistan over, and - and just recently we saw this with Secretary Mattis, the U.S. defense secretary, testifying before a Senate hearing. And the top U.S. military official, General Dunford, as well, brought up these issues of Pakistan intelligence agencies' links with the - with armed groups such as the Haqqani network, which has not attacked, so far, any targets in Pakistan but continues to be responsible for some of the most violent attacks in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: So this family spent five years in captivity. And I say a family. We should emphasize it was a couple at the beginning but grew into a family while they were in captivity.

HASHIM: Absolutely. So when they were picked up, it was just the two of them. And at the time it was understood that Caitlan Coleman was pregnant with their first child. And then when a few videos - we've had a few videos of them since they've been in captivity, and last August and then again in December. Now, in December, which was the latest video that we saw last year, December 2016, they appeared with two children in - in this film. And Caitlan Coleman at the time did not appear to be at least visibly pregnant. But now, according to the statements that we're getting from the Pakistan military, five people were - were rescued, and that includes three children. And so presumably all three children have been born in captivity to - to this couple.

INSKEEP: What have Pakistani and U.S. authorities said about how they were released?

HASHIM: Well, very little at the moment. It seems that the - the Pakistani military has - has focused on the fact that this has been a joint-intelligence based operation where they acted on what they call actionable intelligence that was provided by the U.S. intelligence agencies. They say that U.S. intelligence agencies had been tracking the - the couple, and as soon as they saw that they had been shifted onto Pakistani territory yesterday - that is, on the 11th of October - they then shared that information with Pakistan, who then acted on it early this morning or possibly late last night, it's unclear, and recovered the couple from the Kurram Agency tribal district, which is right on the northwestern border with Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Sure. Mountainous area, often very violent. Now, when you say recovered, does that mean that there was a negotiated release of the prisoners, or that there was some kind of military operation to swoop in and get them?

HASHIM: It seems unclear at the time. According to the Pakistani military, what they said - this is all that they've said, and I quote from their statement, "all the hostages were recovered safe and sound and are being repatriated to the country of their origin." They say that there was a intelligence-based operation. Usually when they use the word operation, that would tend to mean that there was some sort of a rescue operation. But obviously when it comes to - to hostage negotiations and - and elements like this, it's - things can be quite murky, and it's very difficult to verify exactly what happened. We do know that in December last year the Haqqani network had told Reuters that they were - that they would negotiate for the release of this couple only if three of their senior commanders were released. And one of those would include the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was of course also the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban. At this point, I would hasten to add, it's unclear whether anybody has been released or whether there has been a negotiation or whether this was just your hostage rescue operation.

INSKEEP: Can I ask about one more thing? The United States State Department put out word on this saying that the release, however it was accomplished, of these people is a sign that the Pakistani government is honoring America's wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region. Was Pakistan under pressure to do more, serious pressure from the United States? And does Pakistan see this as an effort to do more?

HASHIM: Absolutely. I would say - I mean, this mantra of the do more mantra, as it's known here in Islamabad, is something that's - that's been a part of the Pakistan-U.S. relationship for a long time now, even under the previous U.S. administration. Under Trump, obviously, with the new - with the announcement of the new Afghan and South Asia strategy recently, Pakistan has come under - come under even more pressure from the U.S. administration. Today, actually, the - one of Trump's South Asia advisers, key advisers, Lisa Curtis, is actually in Islamabad holding talks with the Foreign Office. Those just concluded a little while ago. And so the timing of this is quite significant because obviously the release has somehow happened at the same time as - as this meeting, and it seems like that would be a way for Pakistan to demonstrate that it is on board with acting on U.S. intelligence. This has been a longstanding gripe from the U.S. side, where they claim that actionable intelligence was shared with Pakistani authorities and they do nothing, particularly against Haqqani network targets. Pakistan denies this and says that whenever intelligence is provided to them, they do act on it. In either case, wherever the truth may lie, it seems that in this case Pakistan is attempting to demonstrate that it really is on board with - with acting on - on the U.S.'s wishes.

INSKEEP: Asad Hashim is a journalist based in Islamabad who joined us via Skype. Thanks very much.

HASHIM: Thanks very much for having me, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.