KABUL, Afghanistan – Five American troops with a special operations unit were killed by a U.S. airstrike called in to help them after they were ambushed by the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. It marks one of the deadliest friendly-fire attacks in nearly 14 years of war, officials said Tuesday.
The deaths were a fresh reminder that the conflict is nowhere near over for some U.S. troops, who will keep fighting for at least two more years.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the five American troops were killed Monday during a security operation in southern Afghanistan.
Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen, Kirby said in a statement.
In Washington, U.S. defense officials said the five Americans were with a special operations unit that they did not identify. Earlier, officials had said all five were special operations-qualified troops, but later an official said one or more may have been a conventional soldier working with the special operations unit.
The deaths occurred during a joint operation of Afghan and NATO forces in the Arghandab district of southern Zabul province ahead of Saturday’s presidential runoff election, provincial police chief Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Rooghlawanay said. After the operation was over, the troops came under attack from the Taliban and called in air support, he said.
Unfortunately, five NATO soldiers and one Afghan army officer were killed mistakenly by NATO airstrike, Rooghlawanay said.
There was no way to independently confirm Rooghlawanay’s comments. The coalition would not comment, and NATO headquarters in Brussels also declined to comment.
However, special operations forces often come under fire on joint operations and are responsible for calling in air support when needed.
Because of constraints placed by President Hamid Karzai, such airstrikes are usually called in extremis, when troops fear they are about to be killed.
Relatives identified two of the five troops killed Monday, one from Illinois and the other from Ohio.
Aaron Toppen, 19, of Mokena, Illinois, had deployed to Afghanistan in March, a month after his father died, according to a family spokeswoman, Jennie Swartz. His family was suffering a double hit of grief, Toppen’s sister, Amanda Gralewski, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
A cousin said military representatives went to the home of Justin Helton’s parents in Beaver, Ohio, early Tuesday to inform them of their son’s death. Mindy Helton said her cousin specialized in dealing with explosives and was based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She said the 25-year-old Helton had been in Afghanistan for about two months and was engaged to be married.