by Azam Ahmed
New York Times
June 10, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan — Five American Special Operations service members and at least one Afghan soldier were killed when a United States Air Force B-1 bomber unleashed an airstrike on their position in southern Afghanistan, in one of the deadliest instances of friendly fire in more than a decade of war, Afghan and American officials said Tuesday.
Investigators were looking into possible causes, including faulty coordinates, an errant bomb or other human errors.
The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, said in a statement that five American soldiers had been killed “during a security operation in southern Afghanistan.” He added: “Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen.”
While the military had not identified the dead, relatives identified one as Aaron Toppen, 19, of Mokena, Ill., telling The Chicago Sun-Times he was deployed early this year, a month after his father died.
The deaths happened Monday night in the restive Arghandab district of Zabul Province, where troops were conducting security operations connected to the presidential runoff election on Saturday, said Ghulam Sakhi Roghliwanai, the province’s police chief.
As the mission drew to a close, Taliban militants ambushed the troops, Mr. Roghliwanai said. The troops called for air support, but were killed when the airstrike hit them.
Hajji Qudratullah Khan, a resident of the village of Giza, near where the airstrike hit, said the area is a Taliban stronghold, in a valley surrounded by mountains covered in bushes. He said the military had not been based in the area for some time, allowing the Taliban there to operate with impunity.
“Security is not good in the district,” he said. “We have only one school in the district center, it is for boys, and the rest of the area is controlled by Taliban.”
“I don’t think people will come out for election, because only the district center is secure,” he added.
Airstrikes have long been a point of contention between the Afghan government and the coalition forces, most often when they have caused civilian casualties.
Airstrikes that kill coalition soldiers have been less common. Since the war began, there have been more than a dozen cases in which airstrikes mistakenly killed allies, or gunfights erupted among coalition troops unaware they were firing on one another. Among the most highly publicized was the fatal shooting of the former National Football League player Pat Tillman, who was serving in an Army Ranger unit when he was killed by coalition fire in April 2004.
More recently, Afghan security forces have been the victims in such cases, including an airstrike in March that killed five Afghan soldiers in eastern Logar Province. That is in large part because there are fewer coalition soldiers fighting on the ground in Afghanistan other than Special Operations forces…
The Taliban also released a statement about the airstrike, confirming their role in the ambush and claiming that their troops also ambushed a joint patrol in the Mizan district of Zabul.
As in the first round of the presidential election in April, Afghan forces have stepped up security operations ahead of the runoff vote on Saturday. Zabul Province is an especially challenging place to hold an election, with an unforgiving landscape and a heavy insurgent presence. In Arghandab district, just 183 ballots were cast in the first round of voting, the second-smallest number of ballots of any district in the province, according to the National Democratic Institute, an American-financed pro-democracy organization.
With the exception of a recent attack in Kabul on the convoy of the presidential front-runner, Abdullah Abdullah, the insurgents seem to be focusing their efforts to disrupt elections on more rural areas, where security is lighter or absent.
“They know that our security forces are now very capable of controlling the security situation in the cities, so they are targeting areas where it is difficult for the security forces to reach and defeat them right away,” said Hajji Abdullah Barakzai, a member of the Afghan Parliament for Zabul Province.
Perhaps the most devastating example took place last month in a mountainous area of northern Badakhshan Province, where the Taliban overran the district center, capturing 27 police officers and holding the government compound for nearly three days.
In the Charchino District of Oruzgan Province, Afghan officials said the Taliban marshaled hundreds of fighters to mount a coordinated assault on as many as 20 police checkpoints two days ago. After a long firefight, the Afghan forces were reported to have lost five men, while the Taliban lost nearly two dozen, said Dust Mohammad Nayaab, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
In another audacious militant attack in southern Afghanistan, gunmen on Tuesday abducted a busload of 35 teachers and students from Kandahar University who were traveling to visit their families during a school holiday week. The bus was stopped in Ghazni Province, where officials are scrambling to secure the release of the captives.
“We have not yet been contacted by any group who claims the arrests or kidnapping of the teachers,” said Hazrat Mir Totakhail, the chancellor of Kandahar University. “However, whoever is involved, we are asking them to free them, because the teachers are not involved in politics and are not supporting any political group.”
The Taliban also appeared confused about the abduction, with the group’s spokesman saying he did not know about the detentions. “If our mujahedeen did it, we will investigate who they are and what they are doing,” said the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid. “If they prove to be university students and teachers, then we have no problem with them.”
He added: “Afghanistan is full of teachers and students. It is not a crime.”