An account of the Canadian-American couple’s captivity and release and what happened in the intervening five years
For five years the Haqqani network kept the Canadian-American couple and their children in captivity in the hope that eventually its demands would be accepted.
It didn’t happen despite informal contacts that were established by the US and Canadian authorities with the Haqqani network to explore possibilities of making a deal for the release of the hostages.
Finally on October 1, the five-member family was rescued in a hastily organised operation by the Pakistan Army on the basis of intelligence provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) through the US ambassador in Pakistan, David Hale. Pakistan’s military spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor claimed the family was freed when the vehicle in which it was being shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan was intercepted in the tribal region of Kurram Agency. He said the vehicle’s tires were fired at and blown out, forcing the captors to flee.
Joshua Boyle, the 34-year Canadian, later said he was slightly injured in the leg from shrapnel due to the gun battle that ensured during the dramatic confrontation between the Pakistani soldiers and the captors. His 31 years old wife, Caitlan Coleman from Pennsylvania in the US, and their three young children were recovered unharmed. The two boys and a daughter, who was born about two months ago, were born in captivity.
Coleman also gave birth to another daughter, but the accounts given by the Afghan Taliban and Boyle about the circumstances of her death differ. While Boyle alleged that the Haqqani network, which is part of the Taliban movement, killed his daughter shortly after birth, the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, in a statement said Coleman had a miscarriage and the child died due to lack of doctor in the remote area where the family was being held. Taliban also denied Boyle’s allegation that his wife was raped, arguing that the couple were never separated during captivity to avoid any kind of misunderstanding. The spokesman claimed Boyle had been forced to make such remarks against the Taliban after his release and return home. He argued that the couple and their three children would not have gone back alive if the Taliban had any plan to harm them. He maintained that the Taliban didn’t treat prisoners the way the inmates at the prison in the US airbase at Bagram in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay were treated.
The Haqqani network, founded by the Afghan mujahideen commander Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani and now led by his son Sirajuddin Haqqani who is also deputy head of the Taliban movement, had never formally claimed responsibility for the abduction of the Canadian-American couple and made no demand publicly for their release. They were seized by Haqqani network fighters while backpacking in Afghanistan’s Wardak province, located next to Kabul, on October 12, 2012. Questions were raised as to why the couple, particularly the seven-month pregnant Coleman, was backpacking in a dangerous country like Afghanistan. Only the most adventurous tourists would dare to travel to Afghanistan for any kind of tourism, including backpacking. Coleman’s father after her release publicly showed anger towards Boyle for taking his pregnant daughter on a risky journey to Afghanistan. Beside, Boyle gave another meaning to their trip to Afghanistan by claiming that they were pilgrims and had gone there to help needy Afghans.
It was learnt that all this had made the Haqqani network initially suspicious of the couple and its members thought they were spies. However, no further action was taken against the couple on this basis and it seems the Haqqani network leadership finally concluded that they weren’t spying for anyone. Also, Boyle kept telling their captors that they had converted to Islam and therefore deserved to be treated kindly.
In any case, the American woman and Canadian man were quite precious and the Haqqanis were hoping to get their demands accepted by exchanging them for the release of their men imprisoned by the Afghan government and also getting paid some money as ransom. They had many reasons to keep the hostages alive and spend money on meeting their needs by keeping them safe, well-fed and healthy.
The demands conveyed by the Haqqani network through different channels to the US and Canadian governments and Boyle’s parents in Canada were significant and unacceptable. It wanted freedom for about 10 of its members in custody of the Afghan government. In particular, the Haqqanis wanted the release of three men and it was made clear there could be no compromise on this demand. They included Anas Haqqani, the young son of Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani and his maternal uncle Haji Mali Khan. The third person in the list was Qari Rasheed, who was apprehended a few years ago by the US authorities along with Anas Haqqani in Bahrain while returning from a visit to Qatar where they had gone to meet the five Taliban leaders freed by the US from its Guantanamo prison in exchange for the American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Haqqani network fighters in Afghanistan. Anas Haqqani has been sentenced to death by a court in Kabul, but the sentence hasn’t been implemented despite demands by certain Afghan politicians. Taliban have warned of a severe backlash and revenge attacks in case he was executed.
Another major demand was payment of ransom. Sources close to the Haqqani network said $15 million ransom was demanded, though the amount kept changing. The Haqqanis had made it clear their major objective was to secure release of their men, particularly Anas Haqqani, Haji Mali Khan who was arrested several years ago, and Qari Rasheed. However, the demand for ransom wasn’t given up at any stage of the informal contacts between the two sides.
The stated policy of the US and Canadian governments is not to negotiate with kidnappers and militants they consider terrorists. However, in the past certain Western government have made deals indirectly with kidnappers by nominating influential Afghan tribal elders and even politicians to speak on their behalf and ransom money too was paid to get hostages released. In the case of the Canadian-American family, the government of Canada had made it clear that it wasn’t holding any Afghan Taliban or Haqqani network member and was, therefore, in no position to agree to prisoners’ exchange.
Any decision to free the men demanded by the Haqqani network could have been made only by the Afghan government and the US. This too wasn’t going to happen as no such deal was made for five years. In fact, the Haqqanis were getting frustrated as their demands weren’t being accepted and holding the hostages in secret locations had become a difficult and costly exercise.
The Haqqani network is still holding two other Westerners - 61-year old American Kevin King, and the Australian Timothy Weeks who were teaching at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and abducted in August 2006. The US Navy SEALS had reportedly launched one unsuccessful rescue operation to recover them. It is now obvious that neither the US nor Australia would accept any Haqqani network demand for their release. After seeing the benefit of trusting Pakistan and sharing intelligence with its military for rescuing the Boyle family, the US would be tempted to work closely with Pakistan’s security forces to undertake similar operations to rescue other hostages and also tackle militants.
Though sections of the US media quoting their security officials have reported that Pakistan was forced by circumstances to conduct the operation to recover the Canadian-American family after being warned of another humiliating raid on the lines of the US Navy SEALS action that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011, this is a one-sided narrative intended to show the might of the US and the outcome of the Trump administration’s tough new policy.
It is clear that cooperation rather than confrontation would provide better results in the war against terrorism. The US needs to trust Pakistan instead of bullying it through tactics like giving India a bigger role in Afghanistan if it wants to achieve better results in stabilizing the war-ravaged country and making an impact in the war on terror.