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This American woman has given birth to 2 children while being held hostage in Afghanistan. Why is the family still there?

Photo credit: The Taliban

The slender American woman in the black abaya looks directly at the camera, her two children, their faces caked with dirt, sitting just to her left.

“Today is December 3, 2016. We have waited since 2012 for someone to understand our problems, the Kafkaesque nightmare in which we find ourselves,” she says in the video released by her captors in Afghanistan late last year. “My children have seen their mother defiled. We ask, in our collective 14th year of prison, that the governments on both sides reach some agreement to allow us freedom.”

Then, aiming her words squarely at President Obama, she adds one more message.

“Your legacy on leaving us is probably important to you as our lives and those of our children are to us,” she says, reading from the prepared text in her hands. “So please don’t become the next Jimmy Carter. Just give the offenders something so they and you can save face and we can leave the region permanently.”

The woman is a Pennsylvania resident named Caitlan Coleman, and she, her husband, and their two young sons have been held by the Taliban for more than four years. The family are the longest-held of the handful of Americans known to still be in militant hands there. (The family of American writer Paul Overby revealed in January that he has been missing since May 2014, while the Taliban just released a new video of US academic Kevin King and his Australian colleague Timothy Weeks, whom they kidnapped in August 2016, tearfully pleading for their lives.)

We know Coleman’s name, and we know the name of her husband, Canadian Joshua Boyle. But we don’t the names of her sons, both of whom were born in Taliban captivity. The children have likely never met other Americans or read any English-language books. In the video, the older boy, believed to be about 4, is holding on to his brother, thought to be around 2. At one point the older child laughs and smiles at someone off camera, who promptly shushes him.

When we think about US hostages in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of us think about Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier who walked off his base and was snatched by the Taliban in 2009 before being freed in a controversial prisoner swap in 2014. Bergdahl was the subject of the most recent season of the popular Serial podcast; during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump called him a “a “dirty rotten traitor” who should have been executed for walking away from his Army post voluntarily before being kidnapped.

The Coleman saga has unfolded very differently. It begins with a risky decision by an idealistic couple seeking one last big adventure before becoming parents, and continues through years of bureaucratic indecision and infighting by a US government deeply divided over how far to go to try to get them back.

The Pentagon has a longstanding policy of doing everything possible to get missing troops back, even if it means swapping prisoners. The US government, by contrast, has an equally longstanding policy of refusing to negotiate with terror groups or to pay ransoms to buy the release of American civilian captives. Until recently, the families of missing US citizens were sometimes even told that they could be prosecuted under federal law — and potentially jailed — if they paid ransoms on their own.

Caitlan Coleman’s parents have never talked to their daughter’s captors and don’t know the names of their grandchildren. Unlike the families of other missing Americans, they have maintained a deliberately low profile and rarely talk to the media. When I spoke with Jim Coleman, he told me that he and his wife were still dealing with the shock of the new video, but were trying to remain optimistic by focusing on the hope that their daughter was building relationships with the Afghan or Pakistani women living near wherever she’s being held.

"I like to imagine Caity sitting around knitting with the other women while all of the different kids are playing together,” he told me. “That's my hope — that my grandchildren have other kids around."

The grim reality, though, is that US officials directly involved in the case believe they’d twice come close to nailing down deals that would have brought the family back, only to see those efforts stymied by other parts of the American government. In a previously unreported attempted deal, a Taliban representative told US military negotiators that 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.

The question now is whether Donald Trump will be willing and able to do what Barack Obama would not: make the type of concessions needed to strike a deal with the Taliban fighters holding the Coleman family. Trump has promised to take a hard line toward Islamist militants around the world. He also fancies himself a world-class dealmaker, and would love to score some early political wins. It’s hard to imagine a bigger one than being able to welcome a missing American woman and her two children back to the US.

That’s far from guaranteed, however. This is the story of how promising earlier efforts to bring the family back went awry — and of why Caitlan Coleman, Joshua Boyle, and their two children remain stuck in Afghanistan in the hands of captors who have threatened to kill them all.

A young couple went to Afghanistan. They never came back.

Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle in 2009.
Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle in 2009.
Courtesy of the Coleman family

Coleman and Boyle are Star Wars fanatics who first met more than a decade ago on an internet site dedicated to the movies. They were drawn to each other, in part, by a shared love of adventure and a belief that people of all backgrounds were fundamentally good.

“They really and truly believed that if people were loved and treated with respect that that would be given back to them in kind,” Linda Boyle, Joshua Boyle’s mother, told the Associated Press. “So as odd it as it may seem to us that they were there, they truly believed with all their heart that if they treated people properly, they would be treated properly.”

Their thinking was shaped by the months they'd spent traveling through Latin America and later living among impoverished indigenous people in Guatemala. Their families told the Associated Press that children there started calling Boyle, who was somewhat overweight, “Santa Claus” after he grew his beard out.

The couple got married in Guatemala in 2011; a short time later, Coleman discovered that she was pregnant, news she didn’t share with her parents. Jim and Lynda Coleman didn’t discover the truth until they found a printed sonogram after their daughter went missing in Afghanistan.

Coleman and Boyle wanted to have one last adventure before settling into parenthood. In the summer of 2012, they set off on a winding trip that took them through Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan before arriving in Afghanistan that fall. The plan caught her parents off guard.

Map of Coleman and Boyle’s travels.

Lynda Coleman, Caitlan’s mother, told Philadelphia Magazine reporter Holly Otterbein that her daughter had told her parents they’d stay out of the Afghanistan.

“They weren’t supposed to go to Afghanistan,” Lynda said. “They promised us they wouldn’t go.”

In the article, a lengthy joint profile of Coleman and Boyle, several of Coleman’s friends and relatives described her as a kindhearted, generous woman who had raised money for the poor in Haiti as a 10-year-old and then grew into the type of adult who never forgot a birthday or failed to reach out when someone close to her was in need.

Still, they acknowledged that Coleman was also naive and too quick to assume the best about the people around her.

“She always tried to see the best in people,” Julia Newberger-Johnson, a friend of Coleman’s since high school, told Otterbein, “and I guess that’s part of why they ended up where they are.”

Others, particularly in the US military, are even harsher in their assessment of Coleman’s choice to travel to Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous regions in the world, in what would have been the third trimester of her pregnancy.

“It’s not just reckless,” one senior officer who served in Afghanistan at the time the family went missing told me. “It’s fucking crazy.”

Coleman, then 26, was due in early January, and she and Boyle, then 29, planned to return home in December so she’d deliver the baby in the US. She never made it: Coleman’s parents last heard from their daughter and son-in-law in an October 2012 email Boyle sent from what he described as an "unsafe" part of Afghanistan.

Boyle was right to worry: Shortly after sending that email, he and Coleman were snatched by the Taliban, the militant Islamist group that has been battling the US since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. In 2013, the couple appeared in a pair of propaganda videos asking Washington to do whatever was necessary to free them from Taliban captivity.

Coleman’s parents didn’t see her face again until August 2016, when the Taliban released a video of Coleman and Boyle pleading with the US and Canada to find ways to prevent the Afghan government from executing Taliban prisoners and warning that the militants would kill them and their children if the demands weren’t met.

Stills from four videos of Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle released by the Taliban.
Still photos from Taliban videos of the family. Top left: July 2013. Top right: September 2013. Bottom left: August 2016. Bottom right: December 2016.

"They are willing to kill us, willing to kill women, to kill children, to kill whomever to get these policies reversed or to take revenge,” Coleman says in the video. “Because of this, I ask if my government can do anything to change the policies of the Afghan government, to stop their policy of executing men before these men start executing their prisoners, their family that they are holding."

Shortly after the video was made public, a senior member of the Taliban told Reuters that the timing of its release 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. Haqqani remains in a prison in Kabul, according to the Afghan ambassador to the US, Hamdullah Mohib. That means Haqqani could still be part of a potential future deal for Coleman, Boyle, and their children.

The fourth and final video — the only one to show Coleman’s children — was posted to YouTube in late December. US and Afghan officials familiar with the case say that no new talks with the Taliban have started since the video was released, and that none seem likely in the near future. That shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise.

The US and its allies don’t negotiate with terrorists, except for when they do

On paper, every president since Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan has abided by a simple maxim: The US won’t negotiate with terrorists, and it won’t make any concessions to them. There’s a simple logic at play. If terrorists believe they can change US policy by grabbing Americans — or receive money, weapons, or prisoners in exchange — the groups will have financial incentives to kidnap more US citizens.

That was precisely the rationale Reagan used when he reiterated the policy in 1985 after TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Shiite terrorists who executed a US Navy diver and threatened to kill more hostages unless dozens of militants were freed from Israeli jails (the remaining hostages were eventually released unharmed).

“America will never make concessions to terrorists — to do so would only invite more terrorism — nor will we ask nor pressure any other government to do so,” Reagan said. “Once we head down that path there would be no end to it, no end to the suffering of innocent people, no end to the bloody ransom all civilized nations must pay.”

In practice, though, many American presidents have been perfectly willing to throw out that policy and cut unsavory deals if it meant bringing back missing Americans. In the Reagan years, for example, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North tried to win the release of US hostages in Lebanon by selling weapons to Iran, which was considered a terrorist state.

Reagan consistently denied knowing about what eventually became known as the Iran-Contra affair, but that doesn’t change the fact that members of an administration that had sworn never to talk to terrorists eventually did just that.

In April 2002, then-President George W. Bush said, “No nation can negotiate with terrorists, for there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.”

At the same time, and with no public notice, his administration helped pay a $300,000 ransom payment to Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in the Philippines that was holding a pair of American missionaries. The money was raised privately, but the White House, FBI, and State Department knew about the negotiations with the kidnappers and helped arrange and deliver the funds.

Britain and Canada, like the US, refuse to pay ransoms to kidnappers holding their citizens. The governments of some of America’s other closest allies, however, do routinely negotiate with terror groups and pay ransoms to win the release of captive citizens. A 2014 investigation by the New York Times found that al-Qaeda and its affiliates in places like Africa had taken in at least $125 million in revenues from kidnapping since 2008, including $66 million in 2013 alone:

These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, which funneled the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid...

In its early years, Al Qaeda received most of its money from deep-pocketed donors, but counterterrorism officials now believe the group finances the bulk of its recruitment, training and arms purchases from ransoms paid to free Europeans.

Put more bluntly, Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of al Qaeda.

The Colemans and other families of US hostages missing in Afghanistan or the Middle East, by contrast, have been given conflicting government guidance about whether they could try to pay ransoms to get their relatives back. The mixed messaging reflected a sharp divide between the FBI and State Department on the one hand, and the Justice Department and many in the Obama White House on the other.

There is no law on the books banning families from paying ransoms to foreign kidnappers who have captured their loved ones, and many companies operating in dangerous parts of the world — especially from the oil and energy sectors — have long had insurance to cover the costs of hiring firms specializing in hostage recovery.

“This was something the US government was perfectly happy to leave to the private sector,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation who previously held a senior post at Kroll Associates, one of the largest and best-known of the hostage recovery firms. “It was something I was personally doing for years at Kroll, where we handled a kidnapping every two weeks.”

In this June 4, 2014 file photo, mother's Linda Boyle, left and Lyn Coleman hold photo of their married children, Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman, who were kidnapped by the Taliban in late 2012 in Stewartstown, Pa. The State Department is evaluating a v
In this June 2014 photo, Linda Boyle (left) and Lynda Coleman hold a photo of their married children, who were kidnapped by the Taliban in late 2012.
AP Photo/Bill Gorman, File

The FBI itself sometimes worked directly with the families of missing Americans to strike deals with foreign kidnappers.

Take the case of the American missionaries held in the Philippines. As detailed by Shane Harris, then of Foreign Policy, the FBI helped arrange the $300,000 ransom payment designed to win the release of Martin and Gracia Burnham, who had been kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf. A former US official told Harris that the FBI had worked to hide its role in the push to get the Burnhams back, and that Abu Sayyaf didn’t know of the US involvement.

The effort ultimately failed: The Burnham family paid the money, but Abu Sayyaf didn’t release the hostages. Martin Burnham was later killed during a Filipino military raid that freed his wife.

The federal government’s de facto policy of looking the other way when families paid ransoms for the release of their missing loved ones began to markedly change after ISIS started kidnapping Americans in Syria in 2014, when the group burst onto the world stage by quickly conquering large swaths of Iraq and Syria and instituting a brutal form of Islamic law.

Senior Obama administration officials told me in interviews at the time that they believed ISIS would never hold good-faith discussions and would use any ransom payments to fund new attacks at home or abroad. Giving money to Latin American insurgents waging uprisings in their own countries was one thing; giving money to a transnational terror group with ambitions of hitting the West was something entirely different.

The White House was even willing to use the threat of criminal prosecution to keep families from trying to talk to ISIS about the captive Americans. On at least three occasions, Col. Mark Mitchell, a counterterror specialist on the staff of the White House’s National Security Council, explicitly told the families that paying a ransom could lead to them facing charges under federal anti-terror financing laws.

Diane Foley, the mother of captive journalist James Foley, said that she felt confident Mitchell was misstating the law, but felt intimidated all the same because he was speaking for the White House. She told me in an interview that she was also struck by the fact that “he didn’t sound sympathetic” and was instead talking in a flat monotone.

“A family had never been prosecuted for trying to raise a ransom for a loved one, so that was just him misspeaking,” she told me in an interview. “He was trying to intimidate us, and it was appalling.”

The Foleys weren’t the only ones angered by Mitchell’s comments. A senior US official told me earlier this year that the Justice Department had never prosecuted a family for paying a ransom to the captors holding their relatives, and wouldn’t have if any of the families had been able to strike a deal with ISIS. “I was dumbfounded that he’d basically threaten them,” the official told me.

In the end, no ransoms were ever paid to ISIS, and the senior US official told me that the families had never held any serious negotiations with the group. ISIS would later release grisly videos showing its beheadings of two more American citizens, journalist Steven Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig. ISIS says that Kayla Mueller, another American held by the group, was killed in a Jordanian airstrike; the group sent her parents photographs of her corpse as proof of her death.

The fates of hostages held by jihadists, by nationality

Caitlan Coleman’s parents have faced the same unrelenting pain and uncertainty as the Foleys, Sotloffs, and Muellers did before they get definitive word of the fate of their missing children.

But they have a reason for muted optimism about her eventual release that the other families weren’t fortunate enough to share: Coleman and her family are being held by a group in Afghanistan with a long history of ransoming back hostages rather than killing them.

ISIS kills its US hostages. The Taliban tries to cash in on them.

The Taliban’s steady release of videos showing Coleman and her family provide a striking illustration of the core difference between the way the Taliban views its American hostages and the way ISIS sees them. To the Taliban and its allies in the Haqqani network, the captive Westerners are chits that can be traded for money or prisoners. To ISIS, the hostages are useful primarily as the unwilling centerpieces of the propaganda videos built around their eventual executions.

Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert who spent nearly five years advising Washington’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me that the Taliban and the Haqqani network are fighting to expel foreign troops from their country and to create an Islamic government there, but have no aspirations of carrying out attacks beyond the country’s borders or trying to conquer neighboring nations. They want to be part of the international system, not overturn it.

ISIS, by contrast, doesn’t believe in borders or recognize the validity of the modern nation state. Instead, Barnett says, they want to conquer as much territory as they can and subsume it into their self-proclaimed caliphate.

“ISIS uses hostages either to extract money or to demonstrate its terrifying character to intimidate the West into leaving ISIS alone to dominate the Islamic world,” he says. “The Taliban uses hostages to raise money and to seek recognition as a legitimate and effective partner in international affairs.”

The Haqqani network, the Taliban affiliate that is holding the Colemans, kidnaps and keeps Western hostages for an even more prosaic reason: the hefty ransoms they can receive in exchange for their freedom. I’ve spent significant time in Afghanistan, and US military officials there repeatedly described the Haqqanis as skilled fighters who operated more like a criminal gang — several, separately, likened them to the Sopranos — than a terror network.

The group got its start battling the Soviet Union, but grew steadily more radical in the runup to the 9/11 terror attacks. When US forces swept into Afghanistan, the Haqqani network morphed into Washington’s most effective battlefield adversary, using advanced weaponry from Pakistan to kill hundreds of US troops and maim thousands more.

To fund its operations, the group has set up what amounts to a vast criminal enterprise that includes both mafia-style extortion rackets targeting ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis and ongoing attempts to kidnap foreigners for money. It’s a lucrative way of raising money: When the Taliban snatched 19 South Korean missionaries in 2007, the group’s leaders said Seoul paid $20 million for their freedom. More recently, Taliban leaders told the Daily Beast in 2011 that France paid a ransom of tens of millions of dollars to buy the release of two French hostages.

The fact that the Taliban sees hostage taking as a moneymaking enterprise is why so many involved in the Coleman case believe she could be free by now. The talks US military negotiators held with a representative of the Haqqani network — confirmed by two people with direct knowledge of the matter — represent one of the biggest missed opportunities.

The Haqqani representative told the military personnel that they’d be willing to free the hostages in exchange for a ransom of $150,000, a relatively paltry sum for cases involving missing Americans. The US military personnel passed the representative’s contact information to the FBI, but the agency never pursued what appears to have been the most promising avenue to date for bringing the Coleman family home, according to the two sources. The FBI declined to comment.

Unlike ISIS, the group has also shown a willingness to keep hostages alive for years while negotiating over the terms of their release. Bergdahl says he was tortured brutally during his years in captivity after trying to escape, but some other hostages have said their captors provided them with food, water, and medical attention. In a video plea to the Taliban in June 2016, Coleman’s parents thanked the group for “extending its hospitality to and providing Caity and her family with care.”

Put another way, hostages held by the Taliban and its Haqqani affiliates — like Bergdahl — have a good chance of returning home; those held by ISIS don’t.

The Bergdahl trade was enormously controversial, with an internal government watchdog later concluding that the Obama administration broke the law by releasing the Taliban prisoners without giving Congress proper notice. The Colemans and the families of those held by ISIS were outraged that the Obama administration, after saying for years that it wouldn’t swap prisoners for the hostages, had done exactly that.

“We were told that the US government will not exchange hostages — period,” Jim Coleman told Circa News in November. “But they did.”

Controversy aside, the former senior US military officer who was directly involved in those talks told me that he thinks the US was right to negotiate with the militants.

Instead, he has a blunter and far more devastating critique: Washington could have gotten a better deal, one that also included Coleman and the other missing Western hostages.

“It should have been the five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl, Warren Weinstein, Caitlan Coleman, Josh Boyle, and their son,” the former officer said, noting that Coleman’s second son hadn't been born at the time of the possible prisoner swap. “We could have gotten everybody out. Caitlan and her kids should be home by now.”

The Pentagon thought it had a deal to free Coleman and her children. The State Department killed it.

On June 11, 2015, a highly decorated member of the US Special Forces took a seat in a packed committee room on Capitol Hill and told the lawmakers that the military had been extremely close to an agreement to free the Colemans and the other Western hostages, only to see it all collapse because of bureaucratic infighting within the Obama administration.

Lt. Col. Jason Amerine was so venerated within the military that the Army’s “Real Heroes” line had made a literal action figure showing him firing a machine gun. A Purple Heart winner, he had also received the Bronze Star for leading the elite team of US Special Operations Forces that protected Hamid Karzai in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks while the future Afghan president worked to cement his political standing within the country.

In his testimony, Amerine said he led a highly secretive group of US troops working to bring back seven Western hostages held in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a group that included both Bergdahl and Caitlan Coleman. The US had been talking to the Taliban about a so-called “5-for-1” swap of the five militants held at Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl, but Amerine said there was a better option available. Under what he termed the “1-for-7” deal, the US would have freed a captive Afghan drug lord named Haji Bashir Noorzai for the entire group of American and Canadian hostages.

Amerine told the lawmakers that his team was talking to the Noorzai tribe about the details of the deal and believed they could get the Taliban on board. Then, he said, Washington got involved.

“In the end when the Taliban came to the table, the State Department said it must be the ‘5-for-1,’” Amerine said.

Bergdahl was freed; the other hostages were not. Noorzai, a man sometimes called the Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan, is serving his sentence in a high-security prison in California. Coleman, Boyle, and their children remain in Taliban hands.

The State Department declined to comment.

Almost half of the Americans kidnapped since 2001 have been murdered. That’s more than any other country.

Two weeks after Amerine’s testimony on Capitol Hill, President Obama held a private meeting with the Foleys and other families of current and former hostages. He then took to the podium of the White House’s Roosevelt Room and conceded that Washington hadn't been doing enough to bring their loved ones home. That, he said, was about to change.

“These families have already suffered enough, and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government,” he said. “I acknowledged to them in private what I want to say publicly — that it is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down. I promised them that we can do better.”

Obama then laid out what amounted to the furthest-reaching changes to American hostage policy in decades. The US government itself would still not pay ransoms, but Obama said that this administration would no longer threaten to prosecute families who paid money to hostage takers on their own.

Obama also said the US would work to better coordinate its hostage-recovery efforts by creating a “fusion cell” within the FBI that would include officials from the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA. The move was meant to ensure that potential deals to free missing Americans didn't fall between the cracks because of bureaucratic divisions and rivalries, as happened with the potential agreement to bring Coleman, Boyle, and their children back home.

Families had also long complained they had no single point of contact within the government to reach out to for updates; Obama responded by creating the first presidential special envoy on hostage affairs, a new position housed within the State Department.

“They really did pretty much everything we and the other families had been asking for,” Diane Foley said. “It was like they were trying to make amends.”

Still, it’s hard to gauge how well the new efforts are paying off. US officials say the fusion cell has helped recover 100 hostages, a quarter of whom were once held by terror groups. That may not be as heartening a statistic as it seems, however. The US won’t break down where those hostages had been held; given past history, it’s reasonable to assume that most came from Latin America or Africa, where criminal gangs have spent decades kidnapping Americans but quickly ransoming them back through intermediaries like Kroll Associates.

Even with the changes, meanwhile, American hostages die in captivity far more often than those from other Western countries. In mid-January, a New America Foundation report found that 41 of the 90 hostages murdered by their kidnappers between 2001 and 2016 were Americans. (British captives made up the next biggest group, with 14 citizens killed by their captors.) In one particularly jarring statistic, 14 of the 15 Americans taken hostage by ISIS or its close allies were murdered or died in captivity. Of the 16 continental European hostages held by the group, by contrast, 14 were released.

Nationalities of murdered Western hostages, 2001–2016

“American hostages have suffered disproportionately bad outcomes compared to other Western hostages,” it found.

The report attributed the disparity, in large part, to Washington’s “strict adherence” to its policy of not making any concessions to groups holding Americans captive. It found that one of the key justifications for that approach -- that paying ransoms would encourage groups to nab more Americans -- doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

“Citizens of countries that make concessions such as ransom payments do not appear to be kidnapped at disproportionately high rates,” the report found.

There’s also the open question of whether Trump supports the Obama administration’s hostage-related policies and will keep them in place. The fusion cell will survive automatically unless the new president actively dismantles it, but Trump would need to appoint a new special envoy for hostage affairs and, more broadly, decide whether to continue subtly encouraging families to try to strike deals with ISIS and other hostage takers on their own.

Then again, the new president — a man who prides himself on dealmaking and will be looking for some early PR wins — could also decide to plunge headlong into the case and pressure the Afghan and Pakistani governments to free whichever prisoners or make whatever other compromises necessary to bring the family back home. Trump could find a willing partner in the Taliban, who closely follow US politics and might decide that the early days of a new and unproven administration offer their best opportunity in years to maximize what they would get in exchange for Coleman, Boyle, and their children.

For her part, Diane Foley told me she’s requested a meeting with Trump or members of his transition team, but hasn’t heard back.

Caitlan Coleman’s parents dream of one day holding their grandchildren. It’s not clear if they’ll get the chance.

Jim and Lynda Coleman live in a modest farmhouse in the small town of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, population 2,130. They broke years of near silence in June 2016 with a videotaped message to the Taliban thanking the militants for keeping their daughter and grandchildren alive and begging for their safe return.

“We desperately want to be with and hold our daughter and grandsons,” James Coleman said in the video, timed to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "As a man, father, and now grandfather, I am asking you to show mercy and release my daughter, her husband, and their beautiful children."

One month later, the couple spoke to the online news service Circa News about the case and shared a letter they’d received from their daughter that detailed the birth of her second child and begged them not to forget her.

"I pray to hear from you again, to hear how everybody is doing," she wrote in a letter dated November 2, 2015, that was also addressed to her sister, Claire. "Give my love to each member of the family, and share this letter with everyone. Claire, as silly as it sounds, I wish you were here with me. Mom, I'd love to hear about all your cooking in delicious detail."

Caitlan Coleman knitting, from around winter 2011.
Caitlan Coleman knitting, from around winter 2011.
Courtesy of Coleman family

There has been no public response from the Taliban, who have never been in direct contact with the Coleman family. More than a month after the release of the most recent video, it’s not clear if Coleman and her children are any closer to being freed. Jim Coleman told me that it was unsettling and jarring to see his grandchildren for the first time on a video released by his family’s captors, but was heartened by the fact that his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren all looked relatively healthy.

"I thought they looked like a couple of normal, healthy little American boys whose faces were dirty because they were messing around like little boys do,” he told me.

The former senior military official has also remained optimistic. He said the Taliban are probably growing weary of having to bear the costs of feeding, housing, and providing medical care to Coleman, Boyle, and their children into the indefinite future. He also believes the militants are so highly attuned to public opinion inside and outside of Afghanistan that they’re acutely aware of how much their image would suffer if either Coleman or her children were to be hurt or killed while in their custody.

The likeliest scenario, he said, is that one of the family gets sick enough that the Taliban announces they’re being released on humanitarian grounds. Alternatively, a group that has for years shown a willingness to deal might finally agree to either a ransom the family could afford to pay or the type of modest political concessions — like the freeing of lower-ranking Taliban prisoners — that the US or Afghan governments would be willing to make.

“This is criminal for them, not political, so they have every incentive to keep the family alive and safe,” he said. “There should be a way to strike a deal, but think of all of the time that’s been wasted. That’s the part that eats at me: It didn’t need to drag on this long. This family should have come home years ago.”

Editors: Jim Tankersley, Lauren Williams
Graphics: Javier Zarracina
Copy editor: Tanya Pai
Video: Yochi Dreazen, Liz Scheltens
Project manager and producer: Susannah Locke

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