WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 (UPI) — A tactical group of U.S. Navy SEALs backed by Army Rangers made an attempt last month to rescue an American and an Australian being held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan — but were a little too late, officials said Thursday.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook said the August rescue mission was authorized by President Barack Obama on a recommendation from Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The goal of the daring nighttime raid was to secure the release of U.S. citizen Kevin King and Australian national Timothy Weeks, both professors at the American University of Afghanistan who were abducted at gunpoint while riding in a vehicle near the Kabul campus on Aug. 7.
By the time the special forces teams arrived at the compound where it was believed the men were being held, they were gone, officials said. The New York Times reported that it is believed the rescuers missed the men by just hours.
The U.S. teams, however, did find a group of insurgents at the location and became engaged in a firefight there, officials noted. At least seven militants were killed but none of the American special operatives were even injured, the sources said.
The Pentagon confirmed the raid on Thursday but did not disclose the targets of the operation in order to protect the hostages’ safety and operational security. Sources close to the matter told various news media Thursday that the mission’s objective was King and Weeks.
“Military hostage rescue operations are inherently sensitive and dangerous, and careful deliberation went into this mission,” Cook said in a statement Thursday. “The United States military remains fully prepared to take extraordinary steps to protect American citizens anywhere in the world.”
Operational sources reportedly said the SEAL and Ranger teams had a very narrow window of opportunity to conduct the raid — in the darkness of the early morning hours before dawn.
“The president authorized this mission when it was presented to him, with the careful review and recommendation of his national-security team, soon after the Pentagon submitted their request,” a senior administration official said, according to The Washington Post.
In fact, one source said, the operational window was so small that the SEAL team put the mission in motion before it had even received Obama’s approval — expecting his green light to come as they were in the air. When that didn’t happen, they had to turn back and relaunch the following night after the plan was studied by the president’s advisers and White House authorization was made.
Some intelligence officials believe it’s possible King and Weeks were present at the compound on the first night, but had been moved by the time SEALs finally arrived on the second night, the Post’s report said.
It’s unclear whether U.S. intelligence officials know the men’s present whereabouts.
The operation wasn’t the United States military’s first failed hostage rescue attempt in a Middle Eastern nation.
Eight members of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force were killed and four were injured on April 25, 1980, when Operation Eagle Claw — a mission to rescue 52 American embassy workers abducted during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis — met with catastrophic failure.
After the team decided at the last-minute to abort the mission in the Iranian desert, a helicopter crashed into a transport plane and sparked a massive fire that destroyed both aircraft. An Iranian citizen who’d been assisting U.S. forces was also killed.