Daring Special Ops rescue in Afghanistan: Why was kidnapped doc kept secret?

On Sunday, Special Operations Forces rescued a doctor held by the Taliban. Few Americans even knew a doctor had been kidnapped in Afghanistan – and that was by design.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File
US Special Operations Forces search a home during a joint operation with Afghan National Army soldiers in Afghanistan's Farah province in this 2009 file photo. Special Ops troops this weekend freed a doctor kidnapped by the Taliban.

The news that American doctor Dilip Joseph was rescued by US Special Operations Forces in a raid on a Taliban hideout Sunday came as a surprise to many who were unaware that the insurgent group was even holding a US hostage. 

The rescue operation was launched when US military officials gathered intelligence that convinced them that Dr. Joseph was “in imminent danger of injury or death,” according to a US military spokesperson.

A member of the US Special Operations Forces rescue team was injured during the raid and later died. “The special operators who conducted this raid knew they were putting their lives on the line to free a fellow American from the enemy’s grip,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, expressing his condolences.

Because of the danger of these operations, it’s little wonder that the already highly-secretive Special Operations Forces community – including SEAL Team 6 and other groups who conduct these rescue missions – like to keep all of the details under wraps.

But why is it so important to keep even the identity of the kidnapping victim – including the fact that anyone was kidnapped at all – so hush-hush?

First, there is the psychological-warfare aspect, says retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, the first deputy secretary of defense for Special Operations and low-intensity conflict.

Splashing on the front page of US newspapers that an American has been taken hostage offers the kidnappers an important public-relations victory, which the Pentagon would rather deny them.

More important is that complete silence on the subject “will get them even more nervous,” argues Mr. Worthington. “They don’t know whether a rocket is going to come down on their heads, or how close we are to them – they know nothing.”

By contrast, swaggering, threatening messages from the US, such as, “We’re coming to get you” would undermine the effectiveness of psychological warfare, Worthington argues. “They know that we’re coming to get them. The silence is more telling than anything else.” And more unsettling, he adds.

What’s more, if the kidnappers begin to question whether the US government is even aware that an American has been taken, they might feel they have to put out a message in order to publicize the kidnapping, take credit for it, or lay out the terms of the ransom.

These messages can carry valuable intelligence clues.

“It’s very spy-versus-spy stuff,” says Worthington. “The idea is to keep your cards very close – you just don’t show your hand.”

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