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Death of U.S. soldier in Afghanistan highlights the evolving role of conventional combat troops there

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The death of a 19-year-old U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan on Monday highlights the U.S. military’s evolving role in the war there under President Trump’s administration, after years of President Barack Obama restricting the use of conventional combat troops on the battlefield.

Army Pfc. Hansen B. Kirkpatrick, a mortarman with the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, was killed by indirect fire while outside his base on a partnered operation with Afghan troops, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. The attack, presumably by Taliban fighters, occurred in Helmand province’s Nawa district, and also caused injuries to two other U.S. soldiers who are expected to survive, Davis added.

Kirkpatrick’s death is the fourth combat fatality this year of a conventional U.S. soldier in an operation outside a base. Obama relied nearly exclusively on Special Operations troops to advise Afghan troops outside bases in Afghanistan after tens of thousands of U.S. troops were withdrawn in 2014, but U.S. military officials have said that is unsustainable and that conventional forces are needed to carry out more missions.

Kirkpatrick, of Wasilla, Alaska, was described by his executive officer, Maj. James C. Bithorn, in a statement as a “caring, disciplined, and intelligent young soldier” who daily lived by his unit’s motto: “Deeds Not Words.” He had been in the unit about a year, Bithorn said.

“At a time when we remember the patriots who founded our nation in freedom, we are saddened by the loss of one of our comrades who was here protecting our freedom at home,” said Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. “We will keep his family in our thoughts and prayers as we reflect on the sacrifice he and others have made to secure our freedoms and help make Afghanistan a better place.”

The death comes as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis prepares a strategy in Afghanistan that is expected to call for the U.S. military to return to a war footing with the Taliban and lift Obama-era restrictions that limited the mobility of U.S. military advisers on the battlefield. The Pentagon could add 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops to the 8,400 currently deployed and allow them to be closer to combat operations.

U.S. poised to expand military effort against Taliban in Afghanistan

In Helmand province, considered the birthplace of the Taliban and the center of Afghanistan’s opium trade, nearly all U.S. forces were withdrawn in fall 2014 after years of fierce fighting led by U.S. Marines. The rapid deterioration of security in Helmand prompted U.S. commanders in February 2015 to rush a small, “expeditionary advising package” including U.S. troops to stop the downward spiral, and it has since expanded to include hundreds of conventional U.S. soldiers and Marines.

The previous U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan this year included three conventional U.S. soldiers — Sgt. Eric M. Houck, 25; Sgt. William M. Bays, 29; and Cpl. Dillon C. Baldridge, 22 — who were members of the 101st Airborne Division. They were ambushed June 10 by an Afghan soldier that they were advising in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangahar district.

Two soldiers with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, a Special Operations unit, were killed in a raid April 26. They were Sgt. Joshua Rodgers, 22, and Sgt. Cameron Thomas, 23.

The other U.S. service member killed in Afghanistan this year was Army Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, 37, a member of the 7th Special Forces Group. He died April 8 after his unit engaged in a firefight during an operation to counter the Islamic State’s faction based in Nangahar, U.S. military officials have said.

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