WASHINGTON – They were recovered after five years in Taliban captivity by Pakistani military forces using intelligence from the United States.
Caitlin Coleman, an American citizen, and her husband, Joshua Boyle, a Canadian citizen, were kidnapped in 2012 in Afghanistan by the Haqqani Network, a militant group the United States says is based in Pakistan and conducts attacks against American and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
Thursday the couple and their three children, all born in captivity, were finally freed by the Pakistani military after reportedly being informed by U.S. intelligence that the couple had been shifted into Pakistani territory.
In a statement, the Pakistani military said, “The success underscores the importance of timely intelligence sharing and Pakistan’s continued commitment towards fighting this menace through co-operation between two forces against a common enemy.”
A White House statement praised Pakistan’s role in the incident calling it, “a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan. The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region.”
But while the outcome was positive, the incident highlights the love-hate relationship between the United States and Pakistan since the Afghan mission began in 2001.
“For years, the U.S. has sought to engage actors across the region with respect to the conflict in Afghanistan – this is nothing new,” said Sean Bartlett, spokesperson for Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Pakistan must play a constructive role in any political resolution in Afghanistan, and the senator thinks that the U.S. should consider all tools – including conditioning aid and sanctions on those who support proxy terrorist groups – to impact Pakistani behavior,” Bartlett said.
Cardin introduced the Promoting Peace and Justice in Afghanistan Act of 2017 in late September to “boost U.S. diplomatic and programmatic engagement on a peace process” after President Donald Trump announced the previous month that his administration would formulate a new strategy for Afghanistan.
Since then, reports have emerged that the administration plans to increase the number of U.S. military advisors in that country, currently near 11,000, by almost 4,000.
President Trump also had harsh words for Pakistan during the August announcement, accusing it of taking U.S. money while supporting the militant groups fighting American forces in Afghanistan.
At a recent hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was required on several occasions to defend Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, against the scepticism of numerous lawmakers of both parties.
“As we move forward we have to find ways to work with Pakistan,” said Mattis in response to a question. “Pakistan has lost more soldiers in this fight than anyone.”
But he also acknowledged that in the past Pakistan had “parsed” between militant groups, acting selectively to support militant groups it believed could be used against historic rival India in the future, something Mattis said was connected to doubts about the U.S. commitment to the conflict.
“The uncertainty in the region and the NATO campaign has been replaced by certainty due to the implementation of President Trump’s new South Asia strategy,” said Mattis, making clear that the United States was in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
“There could be American advisors there ten years from now, (though) maybe a handful compared to today,” the secretary added.
Mattis was joined by Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that uncertainty regarding U.S. policy in the region led to “hedging behavior” by the Taliban and regional actors.
The relationship between Washington and Islamabad has been fraught with tensions since the beginning of the conflict, with the United States accusing Pakistan of moving selectively against terrorist groups and providing sanctuary to others.
Pakistan for its part insists that it has eliminated terrorist sanctuaries on its territory and that accusations by the Americans are meant to cover their own failures in Afghanistan.
On a trip to Washington last week, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told the press that “Pakistan seeks recognition of its legitimate security concerns in the region.”
“We are genuinely concerned with respect to the role accorded in the strategy to India in general and its efforts, geared towards destabilization in Balochistan, in particular,” the minister said.
Mattis recently returned from a trip to India where he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying that India and the United States had a generational opportunity to build on the “strategic convergence right now between the world’s two largest democracies.”
This includes an expanded role for India in Afghanistan, something that raised alarm bells in Islamabad, which has worked for decades to deny India strategic space in Afghanistan.
That policy, known as “Strategic Depth,” was formulated in the aftermath of the Afghan-Soviet war and envisioned a friendly Afghanistan guarding Pakistan’s western flank, but it often clashes with U.S. goals in the region, according to analysts.
“The principal objective of U.S. policy in Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks has been to ensure that the country does not become a haven for terrorist groups,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, in an analysis of the new Trump strategy. “The option the Trump administration chose – staying in Afghanistan with a somewhat enlarged military capacity – is the least bad option.”
“However, that strategy needs to be resolutely coupled with explicit and sustained emphasis on better governance and political processes in Afghanistan and intense U.S. political engagement with Afghan governance issues,” Felbab-Brown wrote.
“There is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and more hard diplomatic work needs to happen in order to bring about a political resolution,” said Bartlett.
Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Largo, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, also said that the United States needs to use both military and diplomatic levers to influence regional actors and to create the conditions for the Afghan government and people to take ownership of their own security.
“Frankly the congressman sees that we need both levers, not only the military which we think is the finest in the world, the best prepared and capable in in the world, but also the State Department and USAID that has just as much capacity,” said Brown spokesperson Matthew Verghese.
“Both pieces have to work in concert along with a stable, competent Afghan government to get us close to what those victory conditions are,” Verghese said.
Mattis is scheduled to visit Pakistan in the coming weeks after a visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.