North American couple freed after 5 years in captivity, but their mysterious story is raising questions

Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman were hiking in a dangerous region near Kabul when they were kidnapped in 2012

Greg Jaffe
Saturday 14 October 2017 18:15 BST
American-Canadian family held by Taliban-affiliated network speak on video in 2016

Pakistani officials have described the mission to free an American woman, her Canadian husband and their three children as a harrowing operation, but a rare bit of positive news in the troubled relationship between their country and the US.

Pakistani soldiers, acting on American intelligence, appear to have opened fire at the tyres of a car carrying Caitlan Coleman, 31, her husband, Joshua Boyle, 34, and their three children, not long after it crossed the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s tribal areas on Wednesday.

Shortly after the family’s release, a senior Trump administration official compared their ordeal to “living in a hole for five years”.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Mr Boyle said, “God has given me and my family unparalleled resilience and determination.”

But, as with so many aspects of the murky and often confusing US-Pakistan relationship, the family’s dramatic rescue has raised as many questions as it has answered. On Friday night the couple and their children arrived in Toronto, after the family – at the husband’s insistence – had refused to get on a plane bound for the United States.

The family’s refusal to travel to the United States led some former US officials to speculate about the couple’s motives in journeying to Afghanistan five years earlier, and suggest that they may be trying to avoid tough questions from intelligence officials.

Mr Boyle’s father told The New York Times that his son did not want to stop at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, where Americans have been accused of abusing detainees.

However, other US officials played down that explanation. “The administration made very clear that if they wanted to come back to the United States, there would be no problems,” said an official who is familiar with the case, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Shortly after marrying in 2011, Ms Coleman and Mr Boyle visited Central America and then headed off to Russia and Central Asia. Ms Coleman was pregnant with their first child in 2012 when they decided to go hiking in Wardak province, a dangerous region south of Kabul that is dominated by feuding militant groups.

The couple’s decision to visit Wardak and Boyle’s unusual personal history set off widespread speculation inside the US intelligence community about his motives. Before he wed Ms Coleman, Mr Boyle had married and divorced the oldest sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was arrested by US forces in Afghanistan in 2002 and was alleged to have ties to al-Qaeda.

The patriarch of the Khadr family was killed in 2003, along with al-Qaeda and Taliban members, in a shoot-out with Pakistani security forces near the Afghanistan border. Boyle’s associations with the family led some US intelligence officials to speculate that the visit to Afghanistan may have been part of a larger effort to link up with Taliban-affiliated militants.

“I can’t say that [he was ever al-Qaeda],” said one former intelligence official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. “He was never a fighter on the battlefield. But my belief is that he clearly was interested in getting into it.”

After they were taken captive, Boyle and Coleman appear to have suffered through a harrowing ordeal. In a video released in December 2016, Ms Coleman described her captivity as a “Kafkaesque nightmare”.

“Just give the offenders something so they and you can save face,and we can leave the region permanently,” she said in the video aimed at President Barack Obama.

The successful rescue set off a flurry of questions about what it might portend for US-Pakistani relations.

“The first thing to recognise is that this relationship is as broken as it’s been since 2011,” (when the US launched a clandestine raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden) said Moeed Yusuf, an associate vice president for the United States Institute of Peace.

The Trump administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan has put a heavy emphasis on military operations to punish the Taliban, and has increased pressure on Pakistan to eliminate enemy sanctuaries there.

Pakistan would prefer a plan that prioritises peace talks with the Taliban over a military-focused effort. In the aftermath of the successful mission, President Donald Trump suggested that his tough rhetoric had helped to bring Islamabad into line.

But Yusuf and other analysts suggested that the President was misreading Pakistani motives.

“The danger here is that Washington internalises the message that tough talk with the Pakistanis is working,” Yusuf said. “I am overall pessimistic about the relationship ... If there is one thing that underpins everything, it is a deep mistrust between these two countries.”

Other analysts who follow South Asia were slightly more positive in their assessments, and saw potential for cooperation between the two nations.

“The United States and Pakistan have some key areas of aligned interests, including on counterterrorism and counter-extremism,” said Daniel Feldman, who was the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration.

“This demonstrates that there are opportunities to work together in both our nations’ interests.”

At the Coleman household in south-east Pennsylvania, the focus wasn’t on geopolitics but on the return of a long-missing daughter.

Her family posted a note on their door referring to the “joyful news” and asking for privacy “as we make plans for the future”.

© The Washington Post

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