Tuesday, January 05, 2016

U.S. Soldier Killed While Fighting Taliban in Afghanistan
New York Times
JAN. 5, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — An American soldier was killed and two others were wounded Tuesday in fighting at the heart of a Taliban offensive in southern Afghanistan, the United States military said.

The death took place in Marja, Helmand Province, where American Special Operations forces have been trying to help the Afghan military fend off a fierce Taliban offensive that has claimed several districts over the past few months. The American casualties came during a push by Afghan and American soldiers to clear territory between Marja and the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, according to Afghan military officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the press.

Later, Afghan and American officials said that an American helicopter suffered a mishap in the area, but they differed on the details. In Washington, American officials said a medical evacuation helicopter that had been sent to Marja to help the wounded soldiers was damaged when its rotors struck the wall of a compound there. It was unclear whether the wounded soldiers had yet been evacuated.

But one Afghan military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, said that an American Black Hawk transport helicopter went down in enemy territory because of a mechanical problem, and that the casualties came afterward. There were no further details or confirming accounts.

“We are deeply saddened by this loss,” said Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, the spokesman for United States military forces here. “On behalf of General Campbell and all of USFORA, our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of those involved.” The statement referred to the American military commander, Gen. John F. Campbell, who is both head of NATO forces and United States Forces – Afghanistan, which includes Special Operations troops.

The United States and NATO pulled all combat forces from Helmand in the spring of 2014, and combat operations by the coalition throughout Afghanistan were scheduled to end by Dec. 31 that year. The mission of American forces in Afghanistan was to remain in a training and advising role, for the most part.

But as the Taliban have gained ground over the past year, Special Operations troops have been directly involved in the fighting, particularly in Helmand, according to senior Afghan officials and Western diplomats. Marja had been a longtime Taliban stronghold until a surge of United States Marines took it back beginning in 2010, and until recently it was relatively quiet, even as northern parts of Helmand were besieged by the Taliban. In the past month, the Taliban have increased their activities in the area despite the onset of winter weather.

Afghan officials in Marja and Helmand Province praised the Afghan and American operation, which they said began late Monday and by Tuesday had succeeded in reopening the highway between Lashkar Gah and Marja for the first time in a month.

“The coalition forces helped a lot today,” said Umar Jan, the police chief of Nad Ali District, next to Marja. “Some five to six helicopters participated in the ongoing operation and they dropped soldiers in some three to four locations last night, and continued to be engaged until late evening today.” He was speaking on Tuesday.

In addition, Mr. Jan said, coalition warplanes carried out airstrikes against the Taliban to support Afghan and American ground forces. “Before, the district was besieged and the Taliban were next to the police headquarters, but today the siege is broken.”

Gul Shah Khan Dutani, a tribal elder in Marja, also described a combination of warplanes carrying out airstrikes on Taliban positions, attack helicopters engaging insurgents, and joint ground forces including both coalition and Afghan forces, which succeeded in pushing the Taliban out of the center of the district. “They have made 70 percent progress in forcing them out of Marja,” he said, although fighting continued into Tuesday night.

Afghan officials in the area did not know how many coalition soldiers were involved in the fighting. Nearly all are believed to be American, since most NATO allies only allow their forces to participate in training and advising, not in combat operations. Several hundred Afghan forces were involved, according to Afghan officials.

The death of the soldier Tuesday was believed to be the first confirmed American fatality in southern Afghanistan since the official end of combat operations in 2014, and the first confirmed fatality of 2016.

Shortly after the announcement of the American casualties, a loud explosion was heard in central Kabul, in or near the city’s diplomatic quarter. It was the fourth bombing in the capital since New Year’s Day — including two bombings near the airport on Monday — continuing an unusually high tempo of attacks in the capital and elsewhere.

One of the blasts on Monday came from 3,000 pounds of explosives that were detonated near the gates of Camp Sullivan, a housing facility for American Embassy contractors and other international staff near the Kabul International Airport, according to a spokesman for the embassy, who did not want to be identified as a matter of official policy. He said that two Afghan civilians were killed in the explosion, but that there were no fatalities inside the camp. An unspecified number of camp personnel were wounded and evacuated for medical treatment.

Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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