Is Trump Helping to Free American Hostages Worldwide?

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 impact 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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