Questions about the Haqqani network, the U.S. and Pakistan after Taliban hostage release

Released hostages, American Caitlan Coleman, her Canadian husband Canadian Joshua Boyle, and their two children, on Dec. 19, 2016 (via Reuters)

Pakistani and U.S. officials today confirmed the release of an “American woman, her Canadian husband and their three young children” by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network after “an intelligence-based operation by Pakistan troops,” according to the Pakistani military. This comes after multiple critical statements on Pakistan and its relationship with militant groups by the Trump administration, including in President Trump’s speech in August on his Afghanistan strategy.

It is notable that the recently released hostages were held by the Haqqani network, which could mean that the relationship of Pakistan’s military and its premier intelligence agency, the ISI, to the Haqqani network may have actually been beneficial to U.S. national security and regional interests in this case. This partly depends on which of the conflicting reports on how the hostage release was carried out is more factual — whether they were released through negotiations or kinetic military action. However, a combination of both possibilities could be the most accurate explanation.

President Trump speaking about Afghanistan at Fort Myer in Arlington, VA on Aug. 21 (via Reuters)

Since the beginning of former President Obama’s second term, it has been been worth probing if the Pakistan government’s influence over the network may be conceivably useful to U.S. interests at times, partly in the context of the Taliban peace talks. This was also relevant when a U.S. drone strike (the first known strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province) killed former Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour, as he was returning from a stay in Iran. There, Mansour was seeking Iranian, Russian, and other foreign support in order to reduce Pakistan’s influence in the movement, which it chiefly has through its sway over the Haqqani network. Mansour reportedly feared for his life and of Pakistan’s stance towards him leading up to his death, going as far as writing a will. The Pakistani government may have played a role in Mansour’s killing because it no longer trusted him and sought to maintain its clout in Afghanistan and over the Taliban, and according to some analysts, the Haqqani network’s influence in the Taliban’s leadership was indeed significantly bolstered after his killing.

Thorny questions surrounding Pakistan’s ties to the deadly Haqqani network and how it relates to U.S. interests may prove to be even more pertinent going forward as the Trump administration’s rhetoric on Pakistan’s ties to militant groups has grown more blunt, a timetable for a U.S. exit from Afghanistan remains nonexistent, and while Russia and Iran continue to seek a greater role in Afghanistan and closer ties with the Taliban. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if the recent hostage release is part of a broader effort by the Pakistani military and ISI to strengthen its relationship with the U.S., or if it was just a singular, throwaway concession. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s civilian government, which has been generally much more aligned with stated U.S. interests, is dealing with its own complications with its military, namely with regard to questions of civilian control over it.