Mr. President, don't forget other Americans held unjustly overseas

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Story highlights

  • Easterly and Geltzer: Tuesday's release of US detainee Otto Warmbier is a major victory
  • But the Trump administration should not stop there; it must continue to prioritize the return of other detained Americans

Jennie M. Easterly served as special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Joshua A. Geltzer served as senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and, before that, as deputy legal adviser to the National Security Council. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.

(CNN)Tuesday's news that North Korea has released Cincinnati native Otto Warmbier after more than a year of detention -- coupled with the fact that Warmbier is suffering from botulism and is in a coma -- underscores just how hard it is to secure the release of Americans held unjustly worldwide.

It can be easy for busy policymakers, when grappling with major foreign policy challenges, to lose sight of individual ones such as Warmbier's. But we are glad to see that the Trump administration, with the help of the State Department, maintained focus on securing Warmbier's freedom, and we urge the administration to do the same as it increasingly bears down on the challenges faced by the United States in Afghanistan.
Jennie M. Easterly
Joshua Geltzer
CNN reports that the Trump administration may be on the verge of sending thousands more US troops to Afghanistan. As the White House considers whether to deploy more Americans to fight and die in Afghanistan, Americans held against their will in that part of the world should be a part of the administration's calculus.
    From 2013 to early 2017, we helped oversee the American government's efforts to safely recover Americans held hostage abroad, including Americans held hostage in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region by the Haqqani Taliban network. The government tried a range of approaches, some of which appeared promising, but none ultimately delivered.
    As a result, a number of Americans are still waiting to come home.
    Caitlan Coleman was 31 years old and backpacking with her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, when she was abducted in Afghanistan in October 2012. In over four years in captivity, she has given birth to two children who've never known freedom. The family can be seen pleading for their lives in a video released by their Taliban captors in December 2016.
    Kevin King was 59 years old and a professor at the American University of Afghanistan when he was taken hostage along with an Australian colleague, Timothy Weeks, in August 2016. Both professors beg for their lives in a separate video released by the Taliban in January 2017. They appear in agony from exposure to normal daylight, suggesting they may be forced to endure constant darkness.
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    No video has emerged to confirm that Paul Overby remains alive. But his wife, Jane Larson, stated publicly in January 2017 that Overby, an American writer, then 71 years old, disappeared in May 2014 as he traveled from Afghanistan to Pakistan. He has not been heard from since.
    The potentially imminent introduction of additional US troops to Afghanistan should refocus and re-energize efforts to bring those hostages home. The increase in American troops could also be a tool to pressure the Afghan government, which desperately wants this additional military help, to help us.
    Sadly, these hostages are not the only Americans held unjustly and unlawfully around the globe, as the continued detention of at least three other Americans in North Korea underscores. Redoubling our efforts to bring home our citizens held hostage in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region must be part of a broader recommitment to unite all such Americans, including Austin Tice, who was taken captive in Syria nearly five years ago, with their families.
    We learned firsthand how difficult it can be to get this done. Indeed, we recall all too painfully the deaths of US hostages at the hands of ISIS terrorists in Syria and the outrage on the part of hostages' families who felt threatened and uninformed by US officials.
    But, at President Barack Obama's direction, we learned how to do better. We helped update US government policies and introduced the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, created to improve how hostage recovery efforts are pursued and coordinated and how hostages and their families are supported and informed. (The expertise and resources of the cell are also available for efforts to secure the freedom of those unjustly detained by foreign governments like North Korea.)
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    Consequently, government officials began treating families as partners in an effort to bring home their loved ones. Families received an unprecedented amount of information, including sensitive intelligence. They recommended leads for the government to pursue. And they participated in developing strategies to bring captives home, including whether the family supported military rescue operations.
    A new special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Jim O'Brien, stepped up efforts to enlist the help of foreign governments. Cabinet-level officials consistently raised the fate of US hostages with foreign counterparts and asked for specific help. And the US government shared key information with foreign partners.
    The new efforts made a difference in several cases, including difficult ones. For example, even amid the continuing turmoil of the conflict in Yemen, a number of Americans held hostage there made it home, such as Wallead Yusuf Pitts Luqman, a former US Marine held against his will for more than a year. Their families were also better supported and informed along the way.
    To its credit, the Trump administration has retained and sustained these improvements, but it can do more. The position of special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department is now vacant. We urge the administration to fill it.
    Bringing home Americans held hostage is difficult for any administration. In our experience, the government can accomplish even the hardest of objectives -- but only when there is priority placed on doing so. And, at the end of the day, priority comes from only one place: the White House.
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    That's why we urge the Trump administration to ensure that leadership on hostage issues comes from the very highest levels of the government and are included in every policy discussion, such as the ones being considered for Afghanistan.
    It's easy for momentum on hostage recovery to wane as months of captivity turn into years and as hard cases appear intractable. That's where unwavering White House attention to these issues of the type that appeared to make the difference in Warmbier's case can, quite literally, be the difference between life and death.