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, in one of the deadliest friendly-fire incidents 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.
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, said provincial police chief Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Rooghlawanay. 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.
Relatives identified two of the five American troops killed Monday.
One of those killed was 19-year-old Aaron Toppen of Mokena, Ill., who 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, N.C. She said the 25-year-old Helton had been in Afghanistan for about two months and was engaged to be married. Beaver is in southern Ohio.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Monday’s ambush in Zabul.
The insurgents have intensified attacks on Afghan and foreign forces ahead of Saturday’s presidential runoff, and officials are concerned there could be more violence around the time of the vote.