An American soldier was killed and two others were wounded Tuesday during a joint U.S.-Afghan Special Operations mission near the town of Marja in Helmand province, Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
The U.S. casualties came amid an uptick in fighting in the restive province in recent weeks as Taliban forces have attempted to regain control of key towns such as Sangin, Marja and the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. In December, Afghan army troops and police were surrounded by Taliban forces in the town of Sangin in a move that prompted a deputy governor in Helmand to use social media to plead for help from the government in Kabul.
According to a U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters, some Afghans were wounded in the operation as well. The official said two helicopters were sent in to evacuate the wounded, but after landing, one helicopter struck a wall and was disabled. It is still stuck on the ground, while another helicopter was waved off because of heavy ground fire. The helicopters involved were two HH-60 Pavehawks, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.
“This is an ongoing situation, there is still a fight going on in the immediate surroundings,” Cook told reporters Tuesday afternoon. Cook added that because of the fighting the Pentagon doesn’t “have all the details surrounding what’s taking place.”
In Afghanistan, Pavehawks operate predominately with U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumpers, an elite special operations group trained in combat search and rescue.
“We are deeply saddened by this loss,” Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of those involved.”
In the wake of heavy fighting and steep Afghan casualties, the United States deployed Special Operations troops to assist their beleaguered Afghan counterparts, though the extent of their operations has not been publicized. In addition to the U.S. troops, the British government also dispatched a small team of advisers to the province — a place that bore the brunt of Britain’s casualties in the years prior to the British withdrawal in 2014.
The town of Marja was in Taliban control for most of the war until a U.S.-led operation retook it from the insurgent group in 2010 at a steep cost for the Marines who spearheaded the assault. The mission was the first major operation following a 30,000-strong troop surge authorized by President Obama in late 2009.
The Taliban overran Marja in November. When reporters from The Washington Post visited the city in early December, locals said the Taliban controlled 90 percent of the city. Tuesday’s offensive appears to have been an effort to push the Taliban back out of the city.
The fighting comes just days before the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China are set to meet in Islamabad to try to lay the groundwork for peace talks.
Last month, six U.S. airmen were killed near Bagram air base north of Kabul when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in the middle of their patrol, marking the single largest loss of U.S. life in the country in 2015. According to the website iCasualties.org, 22 Americans died in Afghanistan last year. Tuesday’s incident marks the first U.S. casualties of 2016.
Michael Miller, Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad Sharif in Kabul contributed to this report.