When anyone gets rescued — whether they be the victim of a disaster or they were being held hostage — there is reason to celebrate. Even so, the story of the Navy Seals operation that resulted in the release of Jessica Buchanan resonates in other ways as well.
I imagine the Danish aid worker, Poul Hagen Thisted, realized that the odds of him being rescued in a dramatic military operation were boosted by the fact that he was being held alongside a blond young American woman. And it’s hard to imagine that the White House and the Pentagon did not take into consideration any applicable lessons learned from the Jessica Lynch episode. And it’s hard not to think that in an election year President Obama has a political investment in burnishing his image as a president who more than any other has championed the use of special operations forces around the globe.
What the celebrations obscure is that the United States has had an instrumental role in allowing Somalia to fester as an ungoverned state and U.S. counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations will do little to aid that abandoned country’s political recovery. Neither will one rescue operation do anything to improve the chances for other hostages being released. Indeed, their chances may have significantly turned worse.
Around 2 a.m. Wednesday, elders in the Somali village of Galkayo said they began hearing an unusual sound: the whir of helicopters.
It was the culmination of a daring and risky mission by about two dozen members of the Navy Seals to rescue two hostages — an American aid worker and her Danish colleague — held by Somali pirates since October. The commandos had dropped down in parachutes under a cloak of darkness while 8,000 miles away President Obama was preparing to deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The commandos hiked two miles from where they landed, grabbed the hostages and flew them to safety.
For the American military, the mission was characterized by the same ruthless efficiency — and possibly good luck — as the raid on Osama bin Laden in May, which was carried out by commandos from the same elite unit. Nine Somali gunmen were killed; not a single member of the Seals was hurt.
One pirate from the area who seemed to have especially detailed information about the Seal raid said it involved “an electrical net-trap, flattened into the land,” which presumably was the parachute. “Then they started launching missiles,” said the pirate, who spoke by telephone and asked not to be identified.
Pirates operate with total impunity in many parts of lawless Somalia, which has languished without a functioning government for more than 20 years. As naval efforts have intensified on the high seas, stymieing hijackings, Somali pirates seem to be increasingly snatching foreigners on land. Just last week, pirates grabbed another American hostage not far from where the Seal raid took place.
American officials said they were moved to strike in this case because they had received “actionable intelligence” that the health of Jessica Buchanan, the American aid worker, was rapidly deteriorating. The gunmen had just refused $1.5 million to let the two hostages go, Somali elders said, and ransom negotiations had ground to a halt.
Somali pirates have held hostages for months, often in punishing conditions with little food, water or shelter, and past ransoms have topped more than $10 million. One British couple sailing around the world on a little sailboat was kidnapped by pirates from this same patch of central Somalia and held in captivity for more than a year.
President Obama, who Pentagon officials said personally approved the rescue plan and raid, had called several high-level meetings on the case since the two aid workers were kidnapped by gunmen who Somali elders said were part of a well-established pirate gang. “As commander in chief, I could not be prouder of the troops who carried out this mission,” Mr. Obama said in a statement on Wednesday. “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people.”