An hours-long gun battle in southern has left one elite US service member dead and two others injured, although the Pentagon insisted that its personnel were not involved in a “combat” mission.
Details remained uncertain about the Monday battle in Marja, in the southern province of Helmand, which has re-emerged as a battleground between Taliban forces and the US-backed military.
But the Pentagon said the fighting continued more than three hours after it confirmed the death of the service member, whose name the military is withholding until the next of kin are informed.
“There is still a fight going on,” the Pentagon press secretary, Peter Cook, said on Monday afternoon.
Cook said the service member, believed to be a member of special operations forces, “came under fire while conducting a train, advise and assist mission with their Afghan special operations counterparts”.
Two HH-60 Pavehawk helicopters were sent to the scene to evacuate casualties, but neither completed their mission. One sustained damage to a rotorblade after it “apparently struck a wall”, Cook said, and the other was waved off the scene after taking fire.
“It was not shot down,” said Col Michael Lawson, a spokesman for the command in Kabul, citing “mechanical failure” instead.
Cook said it was unclear if the wounded US troops remained at the scene of the fighting.
In 2015 the Taliban intensified its efforts to seize control of Helmand, long the scene of bitter fighting between insurgents, US-backed Afghan forces, US marines and British troops. The Taliban launched more attacks in Helmand in 2015 than any other province. The Washington Post reported last month that since 4 November.
Despite the casualties in an ongoing battle, Cook resisted characterizing the operation as “combat”, a description that would contradict Barack Obama’s claim to have ended US fighting in America’s longest war for all but residual counter-terrorism missions. The US president a has retained a force of 10,000 troops and will pass off a war he inherited from George W Bush to his own successor next year.
“Afghanistan is a dangerous place,” Cook said, referring to a “constant fighting season”, which would represent a shift for insurgent forces that have typically fought in warmer weather.
“We are deeply saddened by this loss,” said Brig Gen Wilson A Shoffner, another spokesman for US Forces-Afghanistan.
“On behalf of General [John] Campbell and all of USFOR-A, our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of those involved.”
An independent account of the incident was unavailable. An early report from NBC claimed US forces were involved in a in Helmand.
US and British forces fought for years to wrest Helmand from the Taliban. Marja was the epicenter of a high-profile 2010 campaign, Operation Moshtarek, during which the then commander US Gen Stanley McChrystal claimed to have a “” prepared to cement a durable Afghan government hold on the area.
Cook insisted that the Pentagon retained confidence in its Afghanistan strategy.
“There is no change right now. We believe we’re on the right course. But this is a constant review,” Cook said.