The United States (US) had allegedly readied a team of Navy SEALs to launch a raid in Pakistan ─ much like the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad ─ after a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drone picked up footage of American hostage Caitlan Coleman and her children moving in a militant camp, the New York Times reported.
The Pakistan Army's recovery of the hostages "within hours of receiving actionable intelligence" from the United States (US) has so far been seen as an indicator of an uptick in the strained Pakistan-US relationship post the announcement of Donald Trump's new South Asia and Afghan strategy. Trump himself had reacted saying Pakistan was "starting to respect the United States again".
The NYT report, which does not contain any named sources, offers a very different narrative. It goes as far as to claim that the US government had, in fact, pressured Pakistan into rescuing the hostages — with a SEAL team raid in the cards as a backup option in case Islamabad failed to comply.
The report claims that a CIA drone had last month picked up grainy footage of a young woman and children as it circled an alleged Haqqani network encampment in a remote valley in the Kurram Agency.
The woman was identified as Coleman by intelligence analysts, a backpacker who was kidnapped by the Haqqani network in Afghanistan in October 2012, along with her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle.
SEAL Team 6 was subsequently mobilised to mount a rescue mission which would have violated Pakistani airspace, the publication cited senior American officials as saying. They even began rehearsing for the raid, which was to take place close to where the CIA had originally spotted the family, according to a military official quoted by the NYT.
However, the operation was called off as some US government officials were not sure that the people spotted by the drones were in fact the abducted hostages, the NYT said. There were also concerns regarding the terrain and the moon, which was reportedly too bright for a nighttime airborne raid, the report said.
On October 11, 2017, the militants headed to Kohat by road, hostages in tow, upon which US intelligence officials decided to spring into action, the NYT said. A plan to pressure Islamabad was formed by US officials, which President Donald Trump was later briefed on.
If the Pakistani government declined to act on the information, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both advocated the idea of a rescue mission by the team of elite Navy SEAL commandos, the NYT said.
As the militants drove the family out of the camp, United States Ambassador David Hale allegedly delivered "an urgent message" to the government in Islamabad: resolve the issue or the US would.
According to the NYT, the implication behind the message was that the US would set aside any concerns and launch a raid in Pakistan to free the hostages.
As Hale conveyed the Trump administration's demands, other senior US officials, including Centcom chief Gen Joseph Votel, were also applying pressure on Islamabad.
The Pakistan Army acted within hours to intercept the vehicle in a dramatic encounter near Kohat.
Residents in Kohat and adjacent tribal areas had told Dawn earlier that drones had been seen flying over the areas for 10 days leading up to the recovery. The drones were also spotted over the Hangu district and Kurram and North Waziristan agencies, according to locals.
However, according to an Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) statement released upon the recovery of Coleman, Boyle and their three children last week, US intelligence agencies had "shared their shifting across to Pakistan on October 11, 2017, through the Kurram Agency border".
The Dawn report cited officials saying that the vehicle carrying the hostages had entered through the Kurram tribal region and then moved to Kohat district. It was intercepted near Nawe Kali, a remote area about 15 kilometres southwest of Kohat.
Speaking to NBC News earlier, the Director General ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had said: "The vehicle was immobilised with sharp shooting. We destroyed their tires. The hostages remained inside the vehicle. Theand an accomplice managed to escape to a nearby refugee camp […] We moved the hostages via helicopter to Islamabad. They were then handed over to US authorities."
Officials who spoke to Dawn on condition of anonymity, however, had said that one of the kidnappers had been taken into custody, one was injured, and two accomplices had fled.
One of the hostages, Boyle, described a scene in which gunshots had rang out as he, his wife and their children were intercepted by security forces while being transported in the trunk of their captors' car.
Boyle told his parents there was a shootout in which some of his captors were killed and said the last words he'd heard from the kidnappers were, "kill the hostages". His father, Patrick, had conveyed this information to reporters after speaking to his son.
The CIA declined to comment on the recovery of the hostages, the NYT said, while the Trump administration spun the rescue mission as a win for Pakistan without acknowledging that Islamabad had to be pressured into conducting the operation, the publication alleged.