Taliban-linked militants in eastern Afghanistan probably chose the wrong group of villages to pick on. When they kidnapped three workers connected with a U.S.-based aid group on Dec. 5, some 30 village elders from the surrounding area gathered within hours and devised a scheme to demand the group’s release.
The tribal leaders packed into four vehicles and headed across dry river beds and into rocky hills toward the Pakistan border, hoping to meet with the local outlaws they believed responsible for the kidnapping of Dilip Joseph, an American doctor, and his two Afghan co-workers.
Joseph is a medical adviser for Morning Star Development, a private aid group with over two decades of experience working in rural Afghanistan. News of the kidnapping had by that time travelled to Colorado Springs, the aid group’s headquarters, where its leadership and Crisis Consulting International, a security and crisis management ministry out of California, began devising a strategy to gain release of those abducted.
Morning Star had opened a community center several years ago in Jegdalek, a remote area of eastern Afghanistan only 50 miles outside the capital, Kabul—but it’s a three-hour, camelpassing drive over rocky riverbeds. When I visited the center in October 2011, its health clinic was seeing over 2,000 patients per month, and vocational training and English classes were underway—in an area where insurgency had until then kept medical care and education services out of reach for the nearby villages (see “Their future is now,” Nov. 5, 2011).
Daniel Batchelder, president of Morning Star, told me then the area was “on the knife edge” of insurgency and “more familiar to the Taliban” than to Afghanistan’s government. When news of the kidnappings came, Batchelder knew U.S. military personnel could be taking steps to secure the release of the three, but he counted on the local elders—and they came through: “We did not know the levels the local people would go to to protect us or advocate for us. It was nothing short of revolutionary the way these people stood up and took off , moving from their own safety into the territory of bad guys to rescue our people.”
On Saturday evening, Dec. 8, primarily through the work of the local elders, militants released the two Afghan workers for Morning Star (who are not identified for security reasons) three days after their abduction. On Sunday morning, Dec. 9, U.S. special forces launched a successful raid that freed Joseph as well. Navy SEAL Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas D. Checque, 28, of Monroeville, Pa., died as a result of injuries sustained during that rescue. About six Taliban-linked militants also died in the gun battle. Joseph, who was uninjured, remained in Afghanistan for several days under medical observation but planned to return to his home in Colorado Springs.
Batchelder told me the ordeal has strengthened rather than weakened his organization’s resolve to continue working in a war zone. “Everyone who goes there understands the danger, but we hope and pray to avoid anything like this happening.” He said the group also is very aware that freedom for the aid workers came at the cost of another American: “We grieve the loss of the young hero who gave his life.” Already, he said, Morning Star is receiving donations for work in Afghanistan designated in the memory of Checque.