Confusion That is Joshua Boyle
by Brigadier (R) Samson Simon Sharaf
There is intriguing speculation and guesswork regarding the dramatic rescue of Joshua Boyle and his family by Pakistani forces close to Afghan border. Pakistan’s ISPR broke the news stating that the chase and rescue operation took place once the US intelligence informed Pakistan that a vehicle carrying captives had entered Pakistan from Afghanistan. It said that US intelligence agencies had been tracking them and shared their shifting across to Pakistan on 11 Oct 2017. The vehicle in fact was speeding from Kurram Agency towards Pakistan’s settled areas with US drones flying overhead. Pakistani forces isolated the vehicle carrying the hostages and rescued them. There are reports that some militants were either killed or taken alive. The mystery deepened with conflicting statements coming from USA, international press, analysts and Boyle himself.
The belated and an entirely different account given by CIA Director Mike Pompeo deepen the riddle. He said, “We had a great outcome last week when we were able to get back four U.S. citizens who had been held for five years inside of Pakistan”. Ahead of an expected diplomatic frenzy between USA and Pakistan, this statement sets the template on how cooperation between the two countries in likely to proceed. While President Trump was quick to roar the success of his ‘carrot and stick’ policy, intelligence chatter and conspiracy theories deepen the mystery. Conspiracies and speculations aside, Pakistan’s effective speed of action preempted a major crisis. This crisis could have been the ‘Black Swan’ needed to embarrass and pressurize Pakistan. Words of gratitude from USA are quickly changing to suspicion and contempt.
Within Pakistan, there is chatter that the captors included Afghan US contractors acting as double agents. The plan of shifting them to Pakistan got leaked and Pakistani forces were positioned for the moment. After the rescue, when a few captors and Boyle began to sing, everything got placed in the right box. Boyle’s reluctance to board a US aircraft and his praise of Pakistani army during his interviews in Canada gives another perspective to the entire mystery. As they say in artillery jargon, it was perhaps a ‘runaway gun’.
Not many years ago two retired Pakistani spymasters Khalid Khawaja and Colonel Imam were taken hostage in Waziristan and killed in cold blood. This particular episode not only exposed the level of influence Pakistan enjoyed over terrorist and militant groups but also the inability to secure the life of its premier Afghan handler. Similarly many officers and men were taken hostage and later beheaded.
The area where the captors entered Pakistan is difficult and where most TTP leaders have taken refuge and blown away. This is the same area that US and Afghan forces failed to seal and act as anvil once Zarb e Azb was undertaken in North Waziristan. It is the revolving door. To secure the area on Pakistan’s side, operations in Kurram Agency, Tirah and Rajgal had to be launched with Special Forces and infantry.
Once Pakistan Army cleared North Waziristan, hideouts of Afghan Taliban and TTP were found adjacent implying that the two despite different objectives cooperated with each other. In case of Colonel Imam, Pakistani intelligence officials failed to secure his release because the factions declined to cooperate. This influence further waned after Pakistan’s counter terrorism operations in Waziristan. Correspondingly the influence of Iran and Russia over them gradually increased limiting Pakistan’s negotiation space. In a high speed pursuit, it goes to the credit of Pakistani Intelligence and ground forces to have acted swiftly and effectively.
Living in custody of militants is neither comfortable nor easy. Hiding from roving eyes, they change locations, live in most inhospitable terrain and are mostly on the run. Pakistani officials have seen many hostages released from custody of terrorists. They are usually weak, underfed and haggard. Invariably they carry torture marks and are frail.
But the case of Joshua Boyle and his American wife, Caitlan Coleman appears very different. They appeared well dressed, healthy and even allowed having kids in captivity. The children appearing in pictures released by Afghan Taliban appear healthy, groomed, well dressed and with soothers in the mouth. Taliban deny that an infant was ever killed and maintained that it was a natural mortality. Curiously the couple was allowed to live together and rear four more children. This optics creates many doubts about the presence of Joshua Boyle and his American wife Caitlan Coleman in Afghanistan, how they landed as hostages, the life they lived for five years and their sudden appearance in Pakistan?
The couple’s entry in Afghanistan coincided with the release of Omar Khadr, a Canadian detainee at Guantanamo Bay from 2002 to 2012. In 2003, Omar’s father Ahmad Ahmed Said Khadr was killed in an operation by Pakistani forces against Al Qaida near the Afghan border. Joshua was a strong activist demanding the release of Omar Khadr and married his elder sister Zaynab Khadr to divorce her after a year in 2010. In 2012, with his new American wife Caitlan Coleman he entered Afghanistan after visiting Russia and Central Asia. They lived for some time in Kabul and communicated with their families on internet. The same year the couple went backpacking in an area infested with militants. According to Major General Nadeem Ijaz Ahmad an Ex Director General of Military Intelligence Pakistan, such movement was impossible under the watchful eyes of US and Afghan intelligence. This view is substantiated by Washington Post that wrote, “The couple’s decision to visit Wardak and Boyle’s unusual personal history set off widespread speculation inside the U.S. intelligence community about his motives”. The couple was therefore in radars of US and Pakistani intelligence.
But preemption and lack of information has led to far more speculations. Western media quoting unknown Taliban sources say that the family was shifted to Pakistan long ago. Pakistanis chased the vehicle from the moment it entered its territory, so on and so forth. Pakistan also has the captives and briefings from Joshua Boyles. So the issue is not likely to end for now. Overt public statements will be followed by discreet diplomacy.
Major General Nadeem Ijaz Ahmad (Retired) raises some very probing questions.
Why USA did not undertake rescue attempt for five years especially when the captives were located in Afghan controlled territory? Why no drone strikes were carried out by USA when the vehicle was in Afghan territory? Or, is there a suggestion that the captors were US sponsored Afghans feigning as Taliban?
It is nigh possible that like the Abbotabad Operation that boosted Barrack Obama’s reputation for a second term, this operation was meant to boost President Trump’s sagging approvals. Whatever the purpose, a major crises has been averted.
Pakistan’s quick reaction will not be appreciated for long. US strategic gobbledygook and blaming others for its failures will continue and Pakistan must prepare for tough times ahead. In the meantime, odd individuals including Joshua Boyle must keep singing.
The writer is a political economist and a television anchorperson