Although US President Donald Trump has appreciated Pakistan's efforts in securing the release of a US-Canadian couple, experts say it is yet to be seen whether Islamabad is serious about defeating Islamists.
Canadian Joshua Boyle and his wife Caitlan Coleman, who is from the United States, were kidnapped by the Taliban-linked Haqqani Network in October 2012 while they were on a backpacking trip that took them to Russia, some Central Asian states and then to Afghanistan.
Boyle was previously married to the sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian man who spent 10 years at the Guantanamo Bay prison after being captured in 2002 in a battle in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's military said Thursday that the family had been freed in "an intelligence-based operation by Pakistani troops." Officials said they launched the rescue after a tip off from US intelligence that the family had been moved into Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas from across the border in Afghanistan. They were recovered from Nawe Kali, a remote town in Pakistan's northwest, on Wednesday night.
"US intelligence agencies had been tracking them and shared their shifting across to Pakistan on October 11, 2017, through the Kurram Agency border," said a statement by the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department.
They returned to Canada on Friday with three of their children where the husband said one of his children had been murdered and his wife had been raped. "Obviously, it will be of incredible importance to my family that we are able to build a secure sanctuary for our three surviving children to call a home," Boyle told reporters after arriving at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
"The stupidity and the evil of the Haqqani Network in the kidnapping of a pilgrim ... was eclipsed only by the stupidity and evil of authorizing the murder of my infant daughter," Boyle said, reading from a statement. The Haqqanis are a Taliban-allied militant group who share the goals of forcing out foreign troops and removing the US-backed government in Kabul.
Trump's carrot and stick policy
President Trump commended Pakistan on its role in the release of the North American family and dubbed it a "positive moment" in US-Pakistani relations.
"The Pakistani government's cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America's wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region," the White House said in a statement.
"They worked very hard on this, and I believe they're starting to respect the United States again," Trump told reporters. "I think right now a lot of countries are starting to respect the United States of America once again."
But experts say it is too early to shower praise on Pakistan as the couple's release could only be a one-off affair.
"The rescue of hostages comes at a time when Pakistan is facing massive criticism from the international community over its relationship with terrorist organizations and ambiguities in its counterterrorism measures," Siegfried O. Wolf, the director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), told DW.
A 'bargaining chip'
Trump has definitely upped the ante for Pakistan. While many security and foreign policy analysts criticized the US president's Afghanistan policy for lacking a clear-cut strategy, it is nonetheless unequivocal about Islamabad's "lack of cooperation" with Washington over the alleged Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan.
Trump's predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, were also skeptical of Pakistan's "double game" regarding its "Islamist support" and alliance with the West, but analysts say that none of them had turned it into a policy cornerstone the way Trump has done. Trump could order unilateral airstrikes on militant targets inside Pakistan and cut Islamabad's military aid or even impose sanctions on government and military officials for "backing" US-designated terrorist groups.
Pakistan has repeatedly refuted Trump's claims that it harbors terrorists who make it difficult for the US to succeed in Afghanistan. The government and opposition parties initially slammed the US president and even threatened that their country could choose to break ties with Washington.
But after the initial knee-jerk reaction to US criticism, Islamabad sent high-ranking government officials to Washington to clear "misunderstandings."
In a surprising coincidence, a high-level US delegation was visiting Islamabad when the rescue operation for Boyle and Coleman was underway. The US delegation included the acting assistant secretary of state, Ambassador Alice Wells; acting assistant secretary of defense, David Helvey; and other senior officials from the US State and Defense Departments.
Pakistani and US officials reportedly agreed Thursday to reinvigorate relations in order to defeat terrorism.
But does the "reinvigoration of relations" also mean that the Pakistan's military establishment is ready to relinquish its alleged support to the Haqqani Network? The US has long demanded that Pakistan act decisively against the militant group, which operates from Pakistan to launch attacks on NATO and Afghan troops inside Afghanistan.
Baseer Naveed, a senior researcher at the Hong-Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission, says Pakistan, as usual, is playing a "double game" with the US.
"The North American family was in custody of the Haqqani militant group that operates from Pakistan. Knowing that the Haqqani Network and Pakistan's security establishment have close ties, why couldn't Pakistan secure their release earlier?" Naveed questioned, adding that he believed the Pakistani army was using the kidnapping as a bargaining chip with the US.
The human rights activist even cast doubts over the logistics of the rescue operation.
"After coming under tremendous pressure from President Trump, Pakistan had to somehow prove it was serious in defeating Islamist militants. My question is where are the abductors? How many of them were arrested or killed? The ISPR's information is ambiguous," Naveed told DW.
It must be noted that the Pakistani military's public relations department, ISPR, did not mention the Haqqani Network as abductors of the couple; it merely said "a terrorist outfit" was involved in kidnapping.
But Aijaz Awan, a retired military official, said critics of the Pakistani army both within and outside the country should refrain from speculating over the incident.
"US intelligence agencies failed to recover the abductees when they were in Afghanistan. People should be thankful to Pakistan for rescuing them. It clearly shows that if the US provides valuable intelligence, Pakistan takes prompt action. The kidnappers have been arrested and all facts would come out very soon," Awan told DW.
On Friday, ISPR's Director General Asif Ghafoor said the militants "fled on foot," leaving the North American family in the car.
Pakistan and the Haqqanis
Experts say the best way to find out whether Islamabad is serious in backing international efforts against terrorism, and that the Wednesday rescue operation was not another gimmick, is to see if Pakistani authorities will actually go after the Haqqani Network.
Islamabad continues to deny it is backing the Haqqani group, which is largely based in its Waziristan region close to the Afghan border.
"The North American family was held hostage in Afghanistan and their release took place inside Pakistan. It means that militants on either side of the border are interconnected," Ahsan Raza, a Lahore-based analyst of militancy and extremism, told DW.
"US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that the couple was taken hostage by the Haqqani Network; this statement has implications for the Pakistan army as Pakistan is often accused of having strong links with the outfit," Raza said.
"Donald Trump's policy for South Asia has several veiled and obvious threats for Pakistan. The release of the couple implies that the threats are working. After the release of the North American couple, Pakistan will come under pressure to do more," Raza added.
Pakistan's main regional backer, China, too has expressed concern about Pakistan-based militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network. It is a diplomatic defeat for Islamabad, which heavily depends on Beijing's support amid a global isolation.
"The Wednesday operation by Pakistani authorities should be seen in a larger picture beyond US-Pakistan relations. Pakistan has to prove to China also that it is serious about the eradication of terrorists in the region. Beijing is increasingly worried about its large-scale investments in Pakistan and a potential spillover of militants to its own territory," analyst Wolf underlined.
Additional reporting by Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent.