The kidnapped sons of two important and wealthy Pakistani politicians were freed in Afghanistan one after the other in a two-month period much to the joy of their distraught families, but their dramatic recovery raised eyebrows as well as questions.
First, it was Shahbaz Taseer who became a free man 54 months after his abduction on March 8 and it was Ali Haider Gilani’s turn on May 10 to win his freedom after spending exactly three years in captivity.
Both were recovered when it was least expected from remote areas of Afghanistan. Everyone, including their families, was caught by surprise. Questions are being asked due to the circumstances of their recovery. Many believe it could not have happened without striking a deal with the kidnappers.
However, evidence available until now shows that no deal was struck to secure their release. It was a stroke of good fortune that the young men gained freedom unharmed and the kidnappers in both cases lost precious hostages without forcing the Taseer and Gilani families and the Pakistan government to accept any of their outrageous demands. The turn of events from their kidnapping in broad daylight in Lahore and Multan and their long suffering in captivity to happy homecoming is no less than a miracle.
It would be an understatement to say that Shahbaz Taseer and Ali Haider Gilani were very lucky to have survived in the custody of dangerous men and in difficult places for such a long period. The climax of their recovery, fit for a thriller if ever a movie was made on their kidnapping, woes and release, had a happy ending as happens so often in movies.
Shahbaz Taseer was sent home calmly seated on a motorcycle driven by an Afghan Taliban fighter via unfrequented routes from Zabul in southern Afghanistan to Kuchlak near Quetta in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
And in Ali Haider Gilani’s case, one moment he was a helpless hostage in a compound unknown to the world and soon after the joint raid by the Afghan and US Special Forces he began receiving special treatment when his identity became known. He was flown in helicopter to Bagram airbase for medical checkup and later delivered to the Pakistan embassy. The next morning Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s special plane flew him from Kabul to Lahore to a joyful reunion with his family.
Though they were kidnapped by different militant groups, there were many similarities in the two cases. Both were kidnapped in Punjab where the security situation is better than other provinces. Also, the kidnappings took place in major cities like Lahore in case of Shahbaz Taseer and Multan from where Ali Haider Gilani was seized and driven away. Both were kidnapped because they were scions of well-known, rich and politically influential families. Their fathers had held high public positions. Salmaan Taseer had served as governor of Punjab and was shot dead while still in office by his fanatic police bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Ali Haider Gilani’s father Yousaf Raza Gilani had served as the prime minister of Pakistan. Also, both belonged to families that have remained loyal to the Pakistan People’s Party and the Bhuttos.
Both were kidnapped in Pakistan and recovered in Afghanistan. The Pakistani authorities couldn’t recover them even though they were kept in urban areas for sometime after being kidnapped and then held in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), particularly in North Waziristan for a long duration.
The helplessness of the government in such situations should be a cause of real concern as it has to strike deals with the militants-turned-kidnappers and pay them ransom money and release their men to secure freedom for the kidnapped persons, more so if they happen to be state employees or important figures.
Interestingly, the militants seized Shahbaz Taseer and Ali Haider Gilani in joint operations carried out by more than one group. The former was kidnapped by members of a sectarian outfit led by Usman Basra in coordination with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The kind of demands made initially by the kidnappers seeking Rs3 billion in ransom and release of 22 Pakistani militants, later reduced to six, made it clear that both the groups were involved in the kidnapping and were hoping to benefit from a deal.
The younger Gilani was seized by an al Qaeda-linked faction of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by Shahryar Mehsud. It was a joint operation by TTP and al Qaeda elements with the former keen to pocket Rs3 billion that was demanded as ransom and the latter anxious to seek release of six members of an al Qaeda-linked Arab family reportedly in custody of Pakistan. His recovery was also the result of a joint operation by the Afghan and US commandoes in Gayan district of Afghanistan’s Paktika province.
In both cases, there was no intelligence information that Shahbaz Taseer and Ali Haider Gilani were being held at the particular places where they were found. The Americans have conceded that they didn’t have this kind of information and that the joint raid had targeted a suspected compound where the son of the former Prime Minister of Pakistan was held hostage.
There were reports initially that seven other hostages were also recovered from this compound and hopes were raised that they could be the seven employees of the Fata Development Authority (FDA) who were kidnapped several months ago from South Waziristan. As time passed, their families began losing hope as these unfortunate Pakistan government employees would have come home by now if they had been recovered.
In Shahbaz Taseer’s case, the rift between the IMU and the Afghan Taliban created an opportunity for him to become a free man again as the latter attacked the Uzbeks and their ally, dissident Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah, in Afghanistan’s Zabul province and seized him along with the Uzbek fighters. He was freed three months later once the Taliban made sure he wasn’t an Uzbek and was instead a Pakistani hostage.
He would probably still be in the custody of the IMU if it had not refused to pledge allegiance to the new Afghan Taliban leader Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor and refrained from declaring loyalty to the Islamic State’s ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This enraged the Taliban who decided to punish the IMU, which suffered so many losses that it ceased to exist as an effective armed group in the Af-Pak region.
Ali Haider Gilani’s recovery earned praise for the Afghan and US forces in Pakistan and raised hopes that this could lead to some improvement in the normally frosty relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was talk of cooperation between Kabul, Islamabad and Washington in undertaking such operations against the militants, kidnappers and other criminals on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.
However, the goodwill generated by the younger Gilani’s recovery was short-lived as soon afterwards Afghanistan and Pakistan were locked in a fresh dispute over the fencing of the border at Torkham by Pakistani authorities and the aggressive reaction by the Afghans who deployed tanks and armoured personnel carriers and reinforced their forces to stop Pakistan from erecting the fence.
The border was closed and several rounds of talks over three days failed to resolve the dispute as thousands of people stranded on both sides of Torkham endured hardships and trade came to a halt. Islamabad and Kabul were back to their familiar pattern of distrustful relations.