By Thomas Gibbons-Neff
The Washington Post
A U.S. service member was killed in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand province Tuesday after his patrol triggered a roadside bomb. The blast also wounded another American and six Afghan soldiers.
According to a statement released by the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, U.S. troops were accompanying their Afghan counterparts near the province’s capital, Lashkar Gah, when their unit came under attack.
“On behalf of all of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, as well as Resolute Support, our deepest sympathies go out to the families and friends of those involved,” Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
The incident is under investigation, and the identity of the deceased service member will be released following notification of next of kin.
Helmand province has been the site of heavy fighting in recent weeks as Taliban forces have used the summer months to launch multiple offensives across the country. The group is estimated to control well over 50 percent of Helmand, and its pressure on the provincial capital has forced U.S. and NATO troops to shuttle resources to help prop up the embattled Afghan security forces. Despite its gains around the periphery of Lashkar Gah, the Taliban has been unable to enter the city limits in the face of near-constant U.S. and coalition airstrikes.
On Monday, the NATO-led mission announced that 100 U.S. troops had been moved to Lashkar Gah, primarily to advise Afghan police in the area.
Col. Mike Lawhorn, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the U.S. service member who was killed Tuesday was not part of the 100-troop detachment. While it is unclear what unit the wounded and killed American troops belong to, U.S. Special Operations forces have been operating in and around the city since the Taliban began its offensive in the province earlier this summer.
Tuesday’s death marks the second U.S. combat death in Afghanistan this year. In January, Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock was killed in a pitched firefight alongside Afghan commandos in Marja, a city in a fertile area just west of Lashkar Gah.
Helmand province, known as the birthplace of the Taliban and nicknamed Marine-istan after President Obama’s 2009 surge into the country, is an opium-rich area that has been the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the nearly 15-year-old war.
While conflict continues unabated in Helmand province, Taliban forces have also recently made gains in the northern part of the country. In the past few days, Kunduz – a city that briefly fell to the Taliban in October 2015 – has been the site of combat between Afghan security forces and the insurgents.
U.S. helicopter gunships and the small prop-driven aircraft of the fledgling Afghan air force have helped repulse attacks on the city, and officials from the NATO-led mission are optimistic that the Afghan forces will be able to hold their ground.