By Brian Kates
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
American forces were "using all our resources" Thursday to rescue a U.S. soldier captured by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, military officials said.
The soldier, who was not identified, went missing Tuesday in the Mullakheil area of eastern Paktika province, where American troops have a base.
Word of the capture came as 4,000 U.S. Marines poured from helicopters and armored vehicles into Taliban-controlled villages in southern Afghanistan under the cover of darkness.
The missing soldier was not part of that offensive.
"We are using all of our resources to find him and provide for his safe return," said military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias. "We are not providing further details to protect the soldier's well-being."
The U.S. soldier was kidnapped after he got drunk during a visit to a military post in the Yousaf Khel district, Taliban commander Mulvi Sangeen told CNN. He was ambushed while returning to his car and was taken to a safe place, Sangeen said. Three Afghan soldiers also were captured, he said.
A U.S. military source denied the claim that the soldier was drunk.
"The Taliban are known for lying and what they are claiming is not true," the source said.
Zabiullah Mujaheed, a spokesman for the Taliban, could not confirm that the soldier was with any of their forces. A myriad of insurgent groups operate in eastern Afghanistan, and the Taliban is only one of them.
Dubbed Khanjar or "Strike of the Sword," the fast-moving operation in southern Afghanistan is the biggest Marine offensive since the one in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
Some 650 Afghan forces also are involved.
The troops' mission is to clear insurgents from the hotly contested Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the world's largest producer of opium poppies, before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election.
"Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said in a statement.
A roadside bomb early in the mission wounded one Marine, but he was able to continue, spokesman Capt. Bill Pelletier said.
The troops took many insurgents by surprise as they dropped dropped behind Taliban lines.
"We are kind of forging new ground here," said Capt. Drew Schoenmaker, of Greene, N.Y., commander of Bravo Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. "We are going to a place nobody has been before."
Pakistan said it moved troops to the area opposite Helmand to try to stop any militants from fleeing the offensive.
The mission also includes supporting provincial officials.
"We do not want people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy. We want to protect them from the enemy," Pelletier said, adding that American commanders would meet with local leaders and address their needs.
The governor of Helmand province welcomed Operation Khanjar.
"The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favorable background and take their lives forward in peace," Gov. Gulab Mangal said in a Pentagon news release.
The U.S. is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end. That's double the number of troops in Afghanistan last year but half as many as are now in Iraq.