Is Trump Helping to Free American Hostages Worldwide?

October 19, 2017 12:20 am
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Last week, veering off script in a speech ostensibly about his tax plan, President Donald Trump touted yet another new accomplishment by his Administration. “America is being respected again,” Trump proclaimed at a campaign-style rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “Something happened today where a country that totally disrespected us called with some very, very important news. And one of my generals came in, they said, ‘You know, I have to tell you, a year ago they would have never done that.’ ”

“It was a great sign of respect,” Trump added. “You’ll probably be hearing about it over the next few days.”

The “very, very important news” was that Pakistan’s military had freed a Canadian man, his American wife, and their three young children, who had been held hostage for five years by a Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network. The sudden raid by the Pakistani military—which, for more than a decade, has permitted the Haqqanis to operate a safe haven and hold captives in Pakistan—sparked surprise, conspiracy theories, and hope among current and former U.S. officials.

“Pakistan stepped up in this case,” a U.S. intelligence official told me. “The question is whether this will be the beginning of a change in attitude or just a one-off gesture.”

On Tuesday, the Times reported a version of events that contradicted several of Trump’s boasts. Last month, an American drone spotted a young woman playing with her children in a Haqqani encampment in Kurram Valley, sources told the Times. American officials initially considered a raid by U.S. Special Forces soldiers, but called it off over concerns that the family might not, in fact, be captives. Days later, U.S. officials grew alarmed when they saw the family placed in a car and driven deeper into Pakistan, and they drew up a plan to pressure the Pakistanis. Trump was briefed; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis agreed that U.S. diplomats and military officials would tell Pakistani officials that, if Pakistan did not intercept the vehicle, U.S. forces would carry out a rescue operation themselves. Within hours, Pakistani forces stopped the vehicle and found Joshua Boyle, his wife, Caitlan Coleman, and their three children, ages four, two, and six months, stuffed in the car’s trunk. Pakistani officials initially claimed that the captors riding in the car were killed or captured. A Pakistani journalist told me that the Pakistanis fired at the car’s tires and allowed the kidnappers to flee.

After the family was freed, Trump and his aides claimed that the Pakistanis acted because of Trump’s recent public demands for Islamabad to do more to counter terrorism. They also said that the case was an example of the personal investment Trump and Tillerson have made in bringing imprisoned Americans home. A White House spokesperson told me that Trump has “made it clear to his national-security team that the safe recovery of our citizens is one of his highest priorities,” and that Trump had been “highly engaged in monitoring the status and progress of” the Boyle case since taking office. R. C. Hammond, a spokesman for Tillerson, said that the Secretary of State keeps a list of all Americans currently imprisoned abroad, and regularly raises the cases with foreign leaders.

Current and former U.S. officials praise the release of the Boyles but tell a different story about the Administration’s role in it. According to them, Trump’s hostage policy has largely followed the same pattern as his other policy initiatives: he has exaggerated his achievements, played to his political base, failed to fill a key appointment, and limited his impact by taking an ad-hoc approach that focusses on his own personal intervention.

After James Foley and three other Americans were murdered in Syria by ISIS, in 2014 and 2015, the Obama Administration enacted sweeping reforms designed to integrate the freeing of hostages into the U.S. government’s foreign-policymaking process.

James O’Brien, a veteran diplomat who was named the first U.S. Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, as part of the Obama reforms, credited Trump with raising the cases of individual captives with foreign leaders. But he said that Trump’s limited understanding of how government works curtails the impact of these personal efforts. The centralized nature of decision-making around Trump and a handful of his key aides means that hostage cases aren’t fully integrated into foreign-policymaking, O’Brien said; Trump’s speech last week confronting Iran, for example, could have linked sanctions to the safe return of the seven Americans currently missing or imprisoned in the country.

“I would give Trump credit for raising the cases he raises, but I think every President does that,” O’Brien said. “Obama made the whole government work on this. Trump is willing to intervene where he can, and that is always going to be a narrower approach.”

The families of current and former captives say that the U.S. must do more to aid captives. “I want Americans who are taken captive hostage to become a national priority,” Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, told me.

Since 2001, American Presidents have struggled with how to respond to Islamic militants’ increased use of kidnapping as a source of publicity and ransom. Government officials declined to give the exact number of Americans currently held overseas in what are considered to be “political” kidnappings, saying that the information is classified. The cases range from abductions by extremist groups to the jailing of Americans on false charges by foreign governments that then use the captives as bargaining chips. Current and former officials said that the number fluctuates between roughly a dozen and twenty.

Kidnapping emerged as a tactic for extremist groups after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where insurgents began abducting American contractors and journalists. Over time, the tactic spread to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Haqqanis became leading practitioners. In 2008, the Haqqanis kidnapped me and two Afghan colleagues and held us captive in Pakistan for seven months. In 2009, the Haqqanis abducted a U.S. soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, and held him captive in Pakistan for five years. In 2012, they kidnapped Boyle and Coleman, who were backpacking in Afghanistan and trying to provide aid to rural villagers. Before his abduction, Boyle had been married for a year to the sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was jailed in Guantánamo for more than a decade after being captured fighting alongside the Taliban. After returning to Canada on Friday, Boyle accused the Haqqanis of “stupidity” and “evil,” said that the family had been imprisoned underground for years, and accused guards of raping his wife and murdering his infant daughter—charges the Taliban denied.

With the rise of the Islamic State, the abduction of Americans has grown more brutal. ISIS militants murdered Foley, the journalist Steven Sotloff, and the aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, but freed European captives after their governments reportedly paid large ransoms. As Lawrence Wright wrote in this magazine in 2015, the parents of American captives received conflicting advice from Obama Administration officials before their children were murdered: a National Security Council official told the families that they would be prosecuted if they paid a ransom to ISIS, but F.B.I. officials told them that the government would turn a blind eye to ransom payments. Unable to raise the kinds of vast ransoms paid by European governments, the four families watched their children die, one by one, in Syria in late 2014 and early 2015.

In 2015, in an attempt to improve the U.S. government’s efforts to bring hostages home and coördinate between agencies, Obama created the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell in the F.B.I., a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs in the State Department, and a Hostage Response Group in the National Security Council. O’Brien, the former diplomat, said that, under the new system, he or officials from the Fusion Cell, as well as the most senior N.S.C. staff overseeing hostage-affairs issues, attended policy meetings and argued that the release of hostages be integrated into U.S. foreign policy in countries where captives were held. (The Foleys and other families, including my own, helped establish a nonprofit group to help advise and support families during and after kidnappings, called Hostage US.) Communications and coördination between government officials and families improved during Obama’s final year in office. Left unchanged, however, was the core dynamic haunting the families of American captives: European governments pay ransoms, while the U.S. government does not.

Families and former officials enthusiastically praised the work done under Trump by the Fusion Cell, which is staffed by career civil servants. But the State Department post of Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs has been filled by an acting official, Julia Nesheiwat, a former military-intelligence officer, since O’Brien left, the day before Trump’s Inauguration. As part of a State Department reorganization carried out by Tillerson, the Envoy no longer reports directly to the Secretary of State, weakening the post’s influence inside the government. Hammond, the State Department spokesman, said that the reorganization had an impact on offices across the department and that being only an acting envoy did not limit Nesheiwat’s effectiveness. Diane Foley called for the position to be filled immediately. “We desperately need this envoy,” she told me.

Trump and his aides have tried various methods to bring home the roughly twenty Americans currently imprisoned by militant groups or foreign governments. They’ve had mixed results. In February, the C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, secretly spoke by phone with the director of Syria’s intelligence service to try to win the release of Austin Tice, a journalist who was kidnapped in Syria five years ago, who is believed to be held by loyalists of the Assad regime. Hopes for this back channel ended in April, after a nerve-gas attack by Syrian government forces and retaliatory U.S. cruise-missile strikes by Trump.

That same month, Trump Administration officials won the release of Aya Hijazi, a thirty-year-old American aid worker, and her Egyptian husband and four other aid workers, who had been imprisoned in Egypt for three years. Former U.S. diplomats say that the release of Hijazi was a fig leaf from the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, which gave Trump a “win” weeks after Sisi visited the White House. (The Egyptian military ruler never made such a visit under Obama, whose Administration criticized him for widespread human-rights abuses.) After the release of Hijazi, Sisi intensified a draconian crackdown on journalists and aid groups in Egypt in advance of elections next year.

In late April, Senator Ted Cruz said that Trump had provided “leadership” in the Chinese government’s decision to expel Sandy Phan-Gillis, a businesswoman from Houston, who had been sentenced to three and a half years in prison on espionage charges. U.S. officials declined to say how many American citizens remain imprisoned in China. In May, during a White House meeting with Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump asked three times for the release of the jailed American Andrew Brunson, according to Administration officials. Brunson is an evangelical pastor from North Carolina who was arrested last October; he was accused of being a follower of a Turkish cleric whom Erdoğan blames for a failed military coup. Brunson remains imprisoned in Turkey.

In June, Trump Administration officials negotiated the release from North Korea of Otto Warmbier, a twenty-one-year-old American student who was imprisoned for seventeen months for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster in his hotel. Beaten and tortured in captivity, Warmbier returned home in a coma and died a week later. Three other Americans, Tony Kim, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Dong-chul, remain jailed in North Korea. The country’s continued nuclear- and ballistic-missile tests, and Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, make any future release unlikely.

Last Friday, Trump announced that he would stop certifying that Iran is abiding by the nuclear accord negotiated by the Obama Administration, which is likely to increase tensions with Tehran. Seven American citizens and green-card holders—Robert Levinson, Nizar Zakka, Xiyue Wang, the father and son Baqer and Siamak Namazi, and the husband and wife Karan Vafadari and Afarin Nayssari—are imprisoned or missing in the country. Jason Rezaian, an American journalist who was jailed in Iran for eighteen months, and whose wife, Yeganeh, was detained for two months, tweeted after Trump’s speech, “I hope I’m wrong, but it looks to me as though Americans being held hostage in #Iran were just abandoned by @realDonaldTrump.”

Whether or not the freeing of the Boyles shows that Trump’s approach will work is the subject of debate. Jere Van Dyk, a journalist who was held captive by the Haqqanis in 2008 and the author of “The Trade,” a new book on the spread of political kidnapping, said that Trump’s rhetoric “definitely put pressure on the Pakistanis to find ways to draw closer again to the U.S.” But Peter Bergen, an Afghanistan and Pakistan expert at the New America Foundation, said that he was “not convinced” that the raid was more than a one-off, because the intelligence provided by the U.S. presented an “extraordinary opportunity” to free the hostages while they were being moved.

One measure of the that Trump’s tough talk has had on Islamabad will be what the Pakistani military does regarding American captives still held by the Haqqanis. Paul Overby, a seventy-four-year-old freelance journalist, disappeared three years ago, after entering northwestern Pakistan in the hopes of interviewing Siraj Haqqani, the leader of the network. Kevin King, a sixty-one-year-old American, and Timothy Weeks, a forty-eight-year-old Australian, were abducted fourteen months ago in central Kabul, while teaching at the American University there. In two videos released by the Haqqanis, the professors begged for their lives, wept, and appeared to have been held underground for long periods No video, or message of any kind, has been released showing Overby.

Foley told me that she welcomed the return of the Boyles, but she said that too many American remain in captivity. She believes more research is needed on whether the U.S. government paying ransoms would save lives. An organization that her family established to honor her son, the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, tracks the cases of every American imprisoned or held hostage overseas and advocates for their release. “We must not forget our citizens kidnapped abroad,” she told me. Whether Trump deserves credit or not for doing the right things, the Boyle family’s return is a bright spot in a still bleak landscape for captives and their families.

 
 

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