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Missing soldier complicates mission

U.S. Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, 1st Battalion 5th Marines, temporarily occupy a house after arriving in an overnight air assault near the Taliban stronghold of Nawa in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Thursday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, 1st Battalion 5th Marines, temporarily occupy a house after arriving in an overnight air assault near the Taliban stronghold of Nawa in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Thursday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

KABUL, Afghanistan – The apparent capture of an American soldier by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, believed to be the first such case in nearly eight years of warfare, presents U.S. military officials with potentially agonizing choices just as a major military offensive is under way in one of the most insurgent-filled areas of the south.

The U.S. military said in a terse statement that the soldier had disappeared Tuesday, but disclosed only that he was believed to have been captured. However, an American military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident, said that for unknown reasons the soldier apparently left his base near the Pakistani border. Like most U.S. installations in the country’s rugged eastern sector, the base is surrounded by hostile territory where a number of insurgent groups operate. The soldier was reported to have been in the company of several Afghans.

“We are using all of our available resources to establish his whereabouts and provide for his safe return,” said Army Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a spokeswoman for American forces.

In southern Afghanistan, one Marine was killed in action during the first day of the military assault in a large swath of Helmand province, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan said in a statement, adding that “several” others were injured or wounded. The slain Marine was not immediately identified.

Nearly 4,000 U.S. Marines and more than 600 Afghan troops pushed before dawn Thursday into the lower Helmand River valley, a string of villages and farms where insurgents have long ranged freely. The area is a center of Afghanistan’s flourishing opium trade as well as the insurgency, which uses its share of drug profits to bankroll attacks on Western troops.

The helicopter- and convoy-borne assault, among the largest in the south since the start of the conflict in October 2001, met with little initial resistance from Taliban fighters, who largely slipped away. Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees slowed the movement of some of the troops, who dismounted from convoys to press ahead on foot in body armor, laden with heavy packs.

“There has been sporadic fighting, but so far no heavy engagement,” said Capt. Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, which is based in Camp Lejeune, N.C. “We’ve had individuals or several people fire on our forces, but they broke contact pretty quickly once they gained the Marines’ attention.”

The operation is likely to be a sustained one, involving the taking and holding of territory where until now thinly deployed British troops have mainly engaged in hit-and-run encounters with the insurgents.

The apparent capture of an American soldier in the country’s eastern sector adds a complicating factor to this new phase of the Afghan conflict, which was driven by a fresh counterinsurgency strategy crafted by the Obama administration. The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will reach 68,000 by year’s end, reflecting a shift in priority away from the conflict in Iraq.

The soldier could provide insurgents with a propaganda bonanza and a bargaining chip. There was no immediate public claim of responsibility from any insurgent group, but a number of militant commanders, not all of them affiliated with the Taliban, operate in eastern Afghanistan.

The Reuters news agency quoted a senior Taliban commander, Mullah Sangeen Zadran, as saying the soldier was seized after leaving a base in Paktika province. Sangeen is allied with the Haqqani network, one of the most virulent of the Pakistan-based insurgent groups active in the border zone.

News accounts quoted Sangeen as saying that video of the captive, together with demands for the release of insurgent prisoners, would soon be forthcoming.

Abductions of aid workers, journalists and Afghan nationals are not unusual, but a military official said the U.S. soldier’s apparent capture was believed to be the first of its kind in the course of the Afghan conflict.

In 2007, three American soldiers were captured during an ambush in an area just south of Baghdad then known as the “triangle of death.”

The body of one soldier, Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr. of Torrance, Calif., was found days later in the Euphrates River. Those of his slain comrades were not found until more than a year later. Another U.S. soldier, Staff Sgt. Matt Maupin, was taken in 2004; his remains were found outside Baghdad nearly four years later.

Eastern Afghanistan borders on Pakistan’s tribal areas, and kidnappers have in the past proved able to move captives across the frontier.

New York Times correspondent David Rohde, who was abducted in Afghanistan in November, last month escaped from his captors, who had taken him across the border to the tribal area of Waziristan.

Despite a conflict that involves daily clashes, insurgents rarely have the chance to get close enough to a Western soldier to carry out an abduction. American forces in eastern Afghanistan man a string of bases near the Pakistani border, some of them large installations and some of them small outposts. It would be very difficult for insurgents to penetrate a base and make a capture.