Launched late Sunday, the operation was aimed at al-Qaeda targets in the Musa Qala district in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. A fierce firefight broke out as U.S. and Afghan ground forces surrounded a compound, according to the U.S. official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release operational details for attribution.
The exchange of fire dragged into the early hours of Monday, and when the ground troops were unable to move into the compound, a U.S. airstrike was called in. The U.S. official said it was possible that civilians were inside the compound at the time of the strike. He added that allegations of civilian deaths are under investigation.
The incident raises questions about a pledge by the Taliban insurgent group that it would cut ties with al-Qaeda in the event of a peace deal with the United States. Before peace talks were abruptly called off earlier this month, that pledge was a key American demand in exchange for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
U.S. forces are stepping up operations in Afghanistan to increase pressure on the Taliban following the failed peace talks and to disrupt militant networks ahead of a presidential election on Saturday. The increased use of airstrikes has been particularly deadly for civilians, according to a United Nations report released in July.
Reports of the Helmand operation began to emerge Monday, with some local Afghan officials claiming that more than 35 civilians were killed as they returned home from a wedding party.
Karim Atal, a member of parliament from Helmand, said it has been impossible to get reliable information on the incident because cellphones are not working in the area. “Some say 14 civilians were killed; others put the number to 60,” he said.
The command overseeing all U.S. forces in Afghanistan said in a statement Monday that the strike was conducted “against barricaded terrorists firing on Afghan and U.S. forces.” The statement added that U.S. forces believe “the majority of those killed in the fighting died from al-Qaeda weapons or in the explosion of the terrorists’ explosives caches or suicide vests.”
Omar Zowak, a spokesman for the Helmand provincial government, said that three civilian vehicles passing by the compound during the operation were hit by an airstrike but that the number of civilian casualties was unclear.
The U.S. official in Kabul said the only vehicle in the area was a motorcycle and that it was fired upon after its riders fired on U.S. and Afghan forces.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement that several people were detained during the operation, including five Pakistani nationals and one person from Bangladesh. The statement described one part of the compound as a “large warehouse of the terrorist’s supplies and equipment.”
Reports of civilian casualties are under investigation, the Defense Ministry statement added.
Al-Qaeda used Afghanistan as a base from which to plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. But Taliban leaders have said they would break ties with the group in exchange for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. However, many American defense and intelligence officials are skeptical of that promise and insist that a monitoring “mechanism” must be left in place in the event of a withdrawal.
Earlier this month, a U.S. strike in eastern Afghanistan against Islamic State targets also resulted in wildly differing accounts of civilian casualties. Reports of civilian casualties from local officials ranged from nine to dozens killed. Attaullah Khogyani, the spokesman for the Nangahar provincial governor, said the strike hit farmers harvesting pine nuts.
The spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said the military was working with local officials to determine what happened.
The latest U.N. report on civilian casualties said U.S. and Afghan airstrikes killed 363 civilians and wounded 156 during the first half of this year. It said that “the number of airstrikes increased by 31 percent in the first half of 2019 as compared to 2018, while the number of civilian casualties resulting from this tactic increased by 39 percent.”
Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.