Hostage release not a cure for long-damaged US-Pakistan ties

Associated Press

The United States and Pakistan are hailing the release of a Taliban-held U.S.-Canadian family as a cautious sign of improved ties for a deeply troubled relationship that has endured years of rancor. For the good will to last, Pakistan will need to convince a skeptical Washington that it has cut ties to militants who are destabilizing neighboring Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump said Friday the freeing of Caitlan Coleman, her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, and their three children after five years of captivity showed Pakistan's new respect for America. For the Islamabad government, keen for better relations with the new U.S. administration, it was proof of its terrorism-fighting bona fides.

U.S. officials have long accused Pakistan of turning a blind eye or even assisting the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, which held the family.

In August, when Trump laid out his strategy for ending the 16-year war in Afghanistan, he said the U.S. has provided billions in aid to Pakistan, yet that country was "housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately."

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center think tank, said the release, however positive, did little to address Washington's core demand that Pakistan crack down on terrorists sanctuaries on its soil.

For Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, "the challenge lies in keeping up the pressure long enough to see signs of deeper change on Pakistan's part." He added, "As far as I can tell, we're not remotely there yet."

Just last week, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing that it was clear to him that Pakistan's intelligence service had connections to militant groups.

Tom Bossert, Trump's homeland security adviser, appeared to reflect those concerns as he discussed the captives' release.

"We thank the Pakistani government and recognize this was a positive step," he said Friday. "One action, though, does not constitute a reversal of a trend of unfortunate behaviors. However, we're hopeful that it portends that trend."

A national security official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss U.S.-Pakistan relations and spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the Trump administration believes Pakistan will offer the U.S. better cooperation on such things as counter-terrorism operations and securing the release of other American hostages held in the region.

The governments' statements after the family's release Thursday hinted at the broader dispute on whether the source of terrorism lies on the Pakistan or Afghanistan side of the border.

The White House said the family was freed "from captivity in Pakistan." Pakistan's ambassador in Washington said the family had been kept as hostages in Afghanistan and were rescued as they shifted across to Pakistan.

Trump, eager to trumpet the release of American hostages, offered fulsome praise to Pakistan for its willingness to "do more to provide security in the region." He portrayed it as a sign of wider international respect for the nation he leads.

"I have openly said Pakistan took tremendous advantage of our country for many years, but we're starting to have a real relationship with Pakistan and they're starting to respect us as a nation again and so are other nations," Trump said Friday.

Pakistan has mounted massive military operations against Pakistani Taliban that launch attacks on home soil, claiming thousands of lives. But Pakistan has struggled to shake off suspicion that it wields a malign and strategic interest in Afghanistan, on its western border. It has ties to the Taliban dating to the extremist movement's genesis in the 1990s.

Pakistani foreign minister, during a visit to Washington last week, said Pakistan was willing to cooperate fully with the Trump administration. Khawaja Asif insisted Pakistan had wiped out militant hideouts with little help from the U.S., which has restricted hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Pakistan in recent years. The official said Pakistan cannot be blamed for the violence in Afghanistan, which he said is the source of attacks inside Pakistan.

Pakistan said the family's release was the result of information provided by U.S. intelligence that led to a dramatic rescue mission by Pakistani security forces. The exact circumstances of the operation remain unclear.

It occurred just as a senior delegation of White House, State Department and Pentagon officials arrived in Islamabad. They were expected to deliver strongly worded warnings about cracking down on terrorism.

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Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

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