RELATED STORY: Marines suffer casualties in new Afghan campaign (AP)
KHOST, Afghanistan – U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan are conducting an intense search for a soldier who wandered off his post and is now presumed captured by the Taliban, a spokeswoman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan confirmed Thursday.
For reasons not disclosed, the soldier walked away from his unit on Tuesday, and the military has information from local Afghans that he was captured, said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias.
“We have basically been trying to find him in every way possible,” Mathias told Stars and Stripes.
Col. Greg Julian, the chief spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said the soldier was captured in the Paktika province, where he was deployed in a small outpost. He said an investigation was under way to determine what led to the soldier’s disappearance on Tuesday.
Julian said there has not yet been any direct communication with the kidnappers, but U.S. forces had reason to believe the soldier was still alive. He would not elaborate.
The Department of Defense has yet to release the soldier’s identity, but his family has already been notified and his identity was likely to be released later on Thursday, Julian said.
Among the units deployed to help search for the missing soldier was a unit from Camp Clark in Khost province, just north of Paktika, where the search is under way.
U.S. forces from the region have been diverted to the area where the soldier went missing. The region borders the South Waziristan tribal areas , where the Pakistani military has launched an offensive to capture top Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud.
Maj. Jose Aymat, the executive officer at Camp Clark, said reports from Paktika indicate that the soldier was captured by two individuals in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. He said battalions deployed across eastern Afghanistan have each committed one or two platoons to join the search effort and they have cordoned off the area where they think the soldier is being held.
“All the roads (in and out of the area) are pretty much under the control of U.S. forces and the ANA (Afghan National Army),” Aymat said. “All activities in the region other than force protection have ceased because the effort now is to find our soldier.”
Information heard over radio communciations indicate that the Taliban is considering whether to negotiate a deal or ransom in exchange for the soldier’s release, Aymat said.
At Clark, there was a sense of frustration at the situation created by the soldier’s capture. Troops wondered not only why a soldier would take such a risk, if his disappearance happened as reported, but also whether he’d indicated to his fellow soldiers his plans. Many questioned why the soldier’s leadership was not aware that he was in distress.
Other soldiers said they were concerned that the concerted effort to find the soldier was putting so many forces at risk, while leaving other areas with less forces to carry out their own missions. Several missions were canceled because so much air power was diverted to Paktika.
By midday Thursday, CBS News posted a story on its Web site saying a Taliban commander had called one of their reporters to claim they were holding the soldier, along with three Afghans, near the Pakistani border.
The Taliban commander, who spoke to CBS by satellite telephone, said the soldier’s fate would be decided by Taliban leaders, but that the militant group “would not mind an exchange of prisoners in this case,” CBS reported.
The last high-profile incidence of a servicemember going missing in Afghanistan was under much different circumstances.
In June 2005, a SEAL team tracking a high-ranking Taliban commander was ambushed in eastern Afghanistan.
Three of the team members were killed in the initial battle, but a fourth, Marcus Luttrell, was able to walk and crawl seven miles after being badly wounded to avoid capture. He was given shelter in a village and was eventually rescued by U.S. forces six days after the original battle.
At the time, the U.S. military for several days listed all four members of the SEAL team as missing, until details of the fight and confirmation of the deaths were later released.