Friday May 20, 2022

American author Overby untraceable two years after he went missing

January 05, 2017

Had gone to Afghanistan to interview Haqqani, write book on conflict

PESHAWAR: There is still no word about the whereabouts of an American author Paul Overby who went missing in Afghanistan’s Khost province in May 2014.

According to his family, the 74-year-old Overby had gone to Afghanistan to write a book on the ongoing war as a means of explaining the conflict from both the sides. The last contact with him was made on May 17, 2014 before he attempted to cross the southeastern border from Khost into Pakistan. He is said to have chosen this route as previously he had been unsuccessful in obtaining a visa for Pakistan.

Overby, a freelance writer and author of the book, Holy Blood: An Inside View of the Afghan War, published in October 1993, was hoping to interview Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of the well-known Afghan mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and leader of the Haqqani network that has been declared a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States. For this purpose, Overby was willing to take risks and even travel through a dangerous border area and attempted crossing illegally into Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region to try and meet the elusive Haqqani.

It was a long shot as Haqqani, for whose capture the US has announced a reward of $10 million, has rarely granted interviews. Allowing a Western writer to meet and interview him would have been well-nigh impossible.

However, Overby was someone used to taking risks. Way back in the late 1980s, he had spent two and a half years in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He wrote to this scribe some years ago that "since 1988 I had the fortune to fight for a brief moment alongside the Afghan mujahideen freedom fighters against the communists." He had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan eight times, had learnt to speak Pashto and studied the Quran. He dressed like the Pashtuns wearing shalwar-kameez and putting a white cap on his head when travelling in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

However, Overby's adventure this time was poorly conceived and ill-timed. Around that time, Pakistani military was in the final stage of preparations to launch its massive "Zarb-e-Azb" operation in North Waziristan against the local and foreign militants. In fact, airstrikes to soften up the militants' positions had already been launched. Anyone, more so a Westerner, trying to enter North Waziristan from Afghanistan would certainly have aroused suspicion. It is also unclear if he managed to cross over to Pakistan or disappeared on the way from Khost city to the Pak-Afghan border.

In recent years, Overby was regularly in contact with this writer. In his emails, he wrote about his love and admiration for the Afghans and also for the Pakistani Pashtuns. He was opposed to the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, whether the Soviets in the 1980s or the Americans after the 9/11 attacks. He wanted the US-led Nato forces out of Afghanistan.

Intrepid and focused, Overby had many goals. One was to find the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as part of his larger plan to seek the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. His theory as explained to this scribe was that "No Osama, no Americans!" So he wanted to locate him in order to say, "Now we've got him, time to go home."

Long before the drawdown of Nato forces from Afghanistan in December 2014, Overby used to argue "That the withdrawal of US forces could be used to clearly show the average Afghan and Pakistani that we are not out to kill Muslims, and especially Pashtuns." He felt it could convince the Taliban that there is no more reason to fight and also isolate fanatics who want to continue killing in the name of their distorted idea of Islam. He also wanted an end to the US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Overby, wherever he happens to be, turned 74 on November 27, 2016. Hailing from western Massachusetts, he has no children. His wife, who is also old and depended on her husband in her everyday life, has been desperately seeking information about Overby's whereabouts for the last more than two years. She is appealing "to those holding her husband to return him as soon as possible and show the mercy of Allah to unite an aging couple who have been apart too long." In particular, she is concerned that her husband is receiving the medical attention he requires because of his age and health. She pointed out that Overby has a condition that can easily become life-threatening. A tumor in his ear became infected, spread throughout his body and required weeks of hospitalisation in 2008 when he was in Peshawar and doctors told him this could happen again.

Overby last spoke on the phone to his wife on May 16, 2014 and told her he would return to Khost in a few days. He had cautioned her that something would have gone wrong if he didn't come back to Khost. He was right as something has indeed gone wrong because there is no trace of this white-bearded man who had embarked on a dangerous journey in a remote area in the Af-Pak border region.

If he was seized, the kidnappers could have made public their demand by now for ransom or release of their men by the Afghan or Pakistan government. Naturally, suspicion would fall on militant groups operating in this particular area or even on intelligence agencies. Sources in the Afghan Taliban group and their faction, Haqqani network, maintained that Overby wasn't in their captivity. The Haqqanis are holding a Western couple - American woman Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle - hostage for four years and their two children were born in captivity. In a recent video, Coleman beseeched President Obama to accept the kidnappers' demands and secure their release before he leaves office on January 20. The Overby family too is worried that time is running out for them to bring him home.