A CIA drone was circling a remote valley in northwest Pakistan last month when it picked up an unusual sight: a young woman and children in a militant camp. To intelligence analysts, she appeared to be an American abducted five years earlier while backpacking in Afghanistan with her Canadian husband.
The commandos of SEAL Team 6, tapped to rescue the family, started rehearsing. The raid was to take place not far from where the CIA had originally spotted the family, according to one military official.
But the risky operation planned on Pakistani soil was called off because some in the United States government were not certain that the people spotted by the drones were Coleman, Boyle and their children, according to the officials. Others voiced worries about the difficult terrain and the moon — it was too bright for a nighttime airborne raid.
The grainy images were a breakthrough. Military planners mobilised members of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, an elite group of commandos, to mount a rescue, according to senior American officials. But the operation was called off amid concerns, and days later, the CIA watched in alarm as militants drove the family out of the camp and across Pakistan’s lawless tribal lands.
The top American diplomat in Pakistan, Ambassador David Hale, turned to his host country, one of the officials said, delivering an urgent message to the Pakistani government: Resolve this, or the United States will, The New York Times reported on Wednesday
The implication was clear. If the Pakistanis did not act decisively, the United States would set aside its unease and launch a raid deep inside the country to free the family. It would be another humiliating episode for the Pakistani government, reminiscent of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, conducted by the same elite Navy SEAL commandos well into Pakistan without its government’s knowledge. And a failure to act would underscore American officials’ belief that the Pakistani government gives safe haven to the Taliban-linked Haqqani network that had kidnapped the family.
Pakistani officials said they acted within hours. With assistance from the American intelligence, they located the vehicle and rescued the family last week in a dramatic confrontation with its captors. Inside the car were Caitlan Coleman, 31; Joshua Boyle, 34, her Canadian husband; and their three children.
The CIA declined to comment. Trump administration officials cast the rescue as a win for Pakistan without publicly acknowledging that officials there had to be pressured into conducting the operation.
“This is a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan,” President Trump said in a statement.
Why the Haqqanis decided to move the family is not clear. But on October 11, as they headed toward Kohat, a city farther inside Pakistan, American intelligence officials realised they could not let the opportunity to save the family slip by — the United States had to act.
American officials formed a plan to press the Pakistani government. Trump was briefed, and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W Tillerson both backed the idea that should the Pakistani government decline to try to rescue the family, the Navy SEALs would go in.
Officials said that as Hale, the ambassador, conveyed the Trump administration’s demands, other senior officials, including General Joseph L Votel, who oversees American military operations in the Middle East and southwest Asia as head of the United States Central Command, were also applying pressure.
The push worked. American officials said the Pakistanis acted quickly, intercepting the vehicle with Coleman and her family. According to Pakistani security officials, they were able to shoot out the tires of the vehicle, but the captors manage to flee.
Boyle has said a gun battle ensued before he and his family were freed, but American officials remained sceptical and a Pakistani military spokesman has said only that the vehicle’s tires were blown out.
In an interview after he was freed, Boyle praised the Pakistanis: “Our gratitude is boundless.”