Today’s announcement that Pakistani troops rescued a U.S.-Canadian family held hostage by a Taliban faction comes as the U.S. and Pakistani governments labor to avert a break in their strained relations. It’s unclear whether the rescue can be parlayed into a broader improvement in their ties.

Yusuf and Asif
USIP's Moeed Yusuf and Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif.

“This clearly was a case of close operational cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan, and the release of this family is something the U.S. has been seeking for a long time,” said Colin Cookman, who coordinates research work on South Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “It might provide a short-term opening for more constructive engagement,” he said.

American Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, were abducted five years ago in Afghanistan and were freed yesterday with their children, who were born in captivity.

The United States for years has pressed Pakistan to crack down on the operations in Pakistan of the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban-aligned guerrilla force that is based both in Afghanistan and in the adjacent tribal border districts of Pakistan. The Haqqani network has been behind many of the deadliest Taliban attacks in Kabul and other parts of eastern Afghanistan, according to the U.S. and Afghan governments. These include bombings or commando attacks on the U.S., Indian and other embassies, Afghan government offices and hotels in Kabul.

U.S. officials and independent analysts have noted for years that, while Pakistan’s army has subdued certain militant groups, in areas such as South Waziristan and the Swat Valley, it has abstained from doing so against the Haqqani network, based largely in the border district of North Waziristan. Pakistani troops rescued the family in the adjacent tribal district of Kurram, where the Haqqani forces are also known to operate.

Pakistani officials have objected that U.S. pressure fails to recognize the costs Pakistan itself has incurred from terrorism, a point that Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif emphasized last week in a forum at USIP. "Lately, there has been a tendency to place Pakistan's counterterrorism credentials under focus,” Asif said. “The truth is that Pakistan is not just fighting, but also winning, against terrorism" over a decade of military operations, he said.

A dose of that recognition was offered this morning by President Donald Trump, who called the rescue “a positive moment for our country's relationship with Pakistan.” He said that “the Pakistani government's cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America's wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region.”

For the United States, “these one-off actions are appreciated, but it’s not clear that they address the broader disconnects at a moment of serious tension,” Cookman said. The next question for U.S.-Pakistan ties will be to see whether the action of freeing the U.S.-Canadian hostages, and Trump’s recognition of that cooperation, can be built upon amid a flurry of talks among senior officials of both countries, Cookman noted.

The tensions in U.S.-Pakistan ties have risen and fallen in cycles for years—and the latest acrimony began with President Trump’s August 21 speech on South Asia policy, in which he warned Pakistan to stop the operations in its territory of militant groups such as the Haqqani forces, and invited India to offer greater economic support to the Afghan government. Pakistan’s military describes India as an existential threat to Pakistan and opposes any Indian role in Afghanistan.

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