After five years in captivity in Afghanistan, an American woman and her family have finally been freed from the clutches of the Taliban.
On Wednesday the Pakistani military took Caitlan Coleman, 31, her Canadian husband, Josh Boyle, 34, and their three young children — all of whom were born while in captivity — into custody. The family was then released into the custody of workers at the US embassy in Pakistan, an official told NBC News.
US and Pakistani officials are declaring the liberation of the family the result of a productive cooperative effort by both countries and heralding it as an opportunity for them to improve their strained relationship.
“This is a positive moment for our country's relationship with Pakistan,” President Donald Trump said in a statement on Thursday. “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.”
Trump also added that he’d like such collaborations to happen again. “We hope to see this type of cooperation and teamwork in helping secure the release of remaining hostages and in our future joint counterterrorism operations.”
The Pakistani military said that it recovered the hostages based on US intelligence about their location.
"The operation by Pakistani forces, based on actionable intelligence from US authorities was successful; all hostages were recovered safe and sound and are being repatriated to the country of their origin," the statement said.
It’s not yet clear how the operation actually worked and if there was any bargaining or concessions made to the militants that held Coleman and her family. Intelligence officials believe the militants that held them were members of the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban who may also be holding Kevin King, an American university professor kidnapped in Kabul in August 2016.
What we do know is this breakthrough was a long time coming.
The story of Coleman and her family’s capture is really unusual
The story of Coleman and Boyle’s capture and their half a decade in captivity is an extraordinary saga, one that Vox’s Yochi Dreazen described in a thoroughly reported deep dive he wrote back in February.
They didn’t fit the profile of most people captured in war zones. They weren’t soldiers captured by the enemy, aid workers who were caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, or journalists who made a miscalculation about the safety of an area.
Rather, they were an adventurous couple on one last journey before they started parenthood. Coleman and Boyle went on a journey in 2012 through Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the year after they got married in Guatemala.
Coleman had promised her parents that she and her husband wouldn’t go to Afghanistan during their trip. But that fall they did just that, despite the fact that the country is a war zone and easily one of the most dangerous countries in the world to visit.
As Dreazen pointed out, what made their trip all the more remarkable is that Coleman was likely in the third trimester of a pregnancy.
“It’s not just reckless,” one senior US military officer who served in Afghanistan at the time the family went missing told Dreazen. “It’s fucking crazy.”
After Haqqani network militants captured Coleman and Boyle in the fall of 2012, they tried to use them as bargaining chips with the US for years. Coleman and Boyle surfaced in a few different Taliban videos over their time in captivity, pleading for the US to make whatever concessions were necessary to secure their release. During the videos they also described the harrowing nature of their imprisonment. “My children have seen their mother defiled,” Coleman said in a video released by the Taliban in December 2016.
The videos were sometimes released strategically to make specific bargaining requests. In August of 2016, a senior member of the Taliban told Reuters that the timing of the release of a video of Boyle and Coleman that month was meant to pressure Kabul not to carry out the death sentence given to Anas Haqqani, an imprisoned militant whose father founded the Haqqani network.
Multiple US attempts to negotiate their release went awry as different branches of the US government disagreed on the best way to do it. As Dreazen reported, at one point a Taliban representative told US military negotiators they’d free the Coleman family in exchange for a ransom of $150,000. The military passed the details to the FBI, which oversees foreign kidnapping cases involving US citizens, but the agency never followed up.
Over the course of their five years in captivity, Coleman and Boyle had three children, who in all likelihood have had little to no contact with the outside world for the entirety of their existence.
The freedom of Coleman’s family is a win for Trump in a region where the US has had little military success and where he’s made dubious policy moves lately.
Despite the fact that the US entered Afghanistan more than 16 years ago to topple the Taliban, the Taliban has experienced a resurgence in recent years and currently controls or influences roughly 40 percent of the country. But in August, Trump announced an unspecified increase in the US’s troop presence in Afghanistan.