Bravo! Pakistani forces, tipped by U.S. intelligence agencies, freed Pennsylvanian Caitlan Coleman, along with her Canadian husband, who had been held captive for five years by the Haqqani network in Afghanistan.
The couple was grabbed in 2012 while traveling through Central Asia as tourists and held in Afghanistan in an underground prison, where Coleman gave birth to three children. They were freed as they were being driven through a Pakistani tribal area, stuffed into the trunk of a car.
One might hope the hostage release signals that Pakistan is finally ready to stop providing safe havens for pro-Taliban terrorists like the Haqqanis, who slaughter Afghans and kidnap Americans. One might fantasize that Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service – a longtime supporter of the Haqqanis – had finally seen the light.
In referring to the hostage recovery, President Donald Trump said of Pakistan, “This is a country that did not respect us, this is a country respects us now, believe me.”
Don’t hold your breath.
U.S. presidents have been trying for decades to break the tie between the ISI and the Haqqanis, an Afghan tribal network that formed in the 1980s during the battle against the Soviets. The group (up to 10,000 men) operates openly out of Pakistani tribal areas near the Afghan border; its fighters cross regularly, backing Taliban efforts to over throw the Afghan government. Last June, it carried out the largest ever terror attack in Kabul, killing and wounding hundreds with a massive truck bomb.
The ISI knows where to find Haqqani leaders. Yet they continue to operate freely.
Coleman and her husband were snatched in hopes of exchanging them for top Haqqani leaders imprisoned in Kabul, including Anas Haqqani, youngest son of legendary network founder Jalaluddin Haqqani.
“They still want their son back,” says Jere Van Dyk, author of “The Trade: My Journey into the Labyrinth of Political Kidnapping.” Van Dyk, a journalist who got to know Haqqani leaders when they were fighting the Soviets, interviewed leader Ibrahim Haqqani twice this year in an effort to mediate help for Coleman and her family. He believes the group may yet seek more hostages to bargain for Anas.
Moreover, the militants still hold two faculty members of the American University of Kabul, including American Kevin King, who were abducted in August 2016. Another American, Paul Overby, disappeared in May 2014 while trying to interview a Haqqani leader.
“The Haqqanis are under the complete control of the ISI,” says Van Dyk. He adds that there is no way he could have arranged his interviews without an ISI green light.
Which brings us back to the question of whether this hostage rescue means that Pakistani policy has changed.
Certainly Pakistanis took note of President Trump’s tough language in August when he announced a new strategy for Afghanistan. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations,” Trump said. Moreover, the administration put $255 million in military assistance to Pakistan into the equivalent of an escrow account that Islamabad can only access if it cracks down on terror networks that attack Afghanistan from its soil.
“I’m convinced,” Van Dyk told me, “that Trump’s speech put so much pressure on Pakistan this was a way to show the Pakistanis were not almost a terrorist state.”
This is all for the good. But we have seen this movie before. Many times.
President George W. Bush laid down harsh terms to Pakistan after 9/11, forcing then President Musharraf to distance the country from the Taliban. But that never prevented the ISI from continuing to help their Taliban and Haqqani clients. And we still don’t know the full story of how Osama bin Laden hid safely next to Pakistan’s top military academy for years.
President Obama also read Islamabad the riot act about support for terrorists. In 2016, the Pentagon withheld $300 million in military assistance to Pakistan for not acting against militants who fueled violence in Afghanistan.
Now President Trump is trying, yet again.
And rightly so, since Pakistani havens for the Haqqanis and other Taliban make it impossible to stabilize Afghanistan. But the Pakistanis still believe they need to back Afghan militants as a hedge against their arch enemy India, who, they (mistakenly) think is trying to control over Afghanistan. (Note: Trump has openly encouraged Delhi to increase involvement in Kabul, which will hardly make Islamabad more willing to change course.)
“The United States shared intelligence with Pakistan and Pakistan acted,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, who is an expert on links between the ISI and militant groups. “But why is Pakistan not able to act on its own? No one can answer with precision whether the ISI knew (where the hostages were held) or not. “
In other words, it is far too early to see the rescue of Caitlin Coleman and family as a game changer. Despite Trump’s swift self-congratulations the White House should resist being fooled.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.