US forces on Thursday were frantically hunting for a soldier believed to have been kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the first to be taken since the US began operations in the country in 2001.
The soldier, whose unit is based in eastern Paktika Province, was not involved in the ongoing operation in the south of the country. He was found to be missing during a roster check on Tuesday morning and is believed to be held by a Taliban faction linked to a string of attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We understand him to have been captured by militant forces. We have all available resources out there looking for him and hopefully providing for his safe return,” Captain Elizabeth Mathias, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said on Thursday. “We are not providing further details to protect the soldier’s well-being.”
But Afghan police General Nabi Mullakheil disclosed the location of the kidnap as Mullakheil area in Paktika, where there is a US base. The Pentagon has requested the help of Pakistani forces to seal the border. Pakistani officials have also asked villagers along the border to provide information if the soldier’s captors pass through their area or ask for help. It is highly unusual for the US military to disclose that one of its soldiers has been kidnapped, especially when operations are still under way to try to get him back.
Unconfirmed reports said the soldier had been based at a small combat outpost and had apparently gone with three Afghan soldiers into a dangerous area. The soldier’s family has been informed of his disappearance.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujaheed, said he had no information about the soldier being held. But another Taliban spokesman said he was being held by an insurgent faction linked to Sirajuddin Haqqani, a powerful figure based in Pakistan who controls large parts of Afghanistan along the border.
Haqqani has been blamed for a string of attacks including the suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul last year, which killed more than 50 people.
Military commanders are desperate to prevent the soldier’s captors taking him across the border into Pakistan, where al-Qaeda is still a presence in the border areas and in cities such as Peshawar.
The kidnapping could provide the Taliban with a major media coup: While individual fatalities from Afghanistan or Iraq have become almost routine and are largely ignored by the US media, the fate of a single soldier in Taliban hands could attract enormous attention.
Previous high-profile kidnappings in Iraq, in which videos of abductees were posted on the Internet, have had a big emotional impact on the US public. Those victims were mostly civilians and contractors, while those soldiers taken in Iraq were usually killed soon afterward.
Previous kidnappings have had a huge resonance in the US. One of the reasons for the still poor relationship between the US and Iran is the embassy hostage siege in Tehran after the 1979 revolution, when Americans across the country tied yellow ribbons to trees as a symbol of solidarity.
Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East program at the Institute of World Affairs, said she thought the US cared especially about hostages.
“The Iranian hostage siege was hideous but it was not a matter of national security, and look how revved up we got about that,” Kipper said.