From CNS NEWS
(CNSNews.com) – A U.S. Special Operations service member was killed and two others were injured after coming under enemy fire in Afghanistan’s Helmand province Tuesday, but asked whether this meant U.S. troops were engaged in combat, a Pentagon spokesman said repeatedly that they were there in their mandated mission to “train, advise, assist” Afghan forces.
Defense officials said two HH-60 Pavehawk medevac helicopters were sent in to provide help, but one was “waved off” after coming under fire and returned safely to base. The other landed, but sustained rotor blade damage after apparently striking a wall.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook, briefing reporters even as hostilities in Marjah were still reported to be underway, said he could not comment on claims by the Taliban that it had brought down the helicopter, or that it had been hit by a mortar while on the ground.
Cook was asked several times, in different ways, whether U.S. forces were in fact engaged in combat in Afghanistan, but did not answer directly.
“Could you explain the context of what’s going on in Marjah that required U.S. combat presence given that combat mission is over?” Cook was asked.
“Well as you know, we’re conducting ‘train, advise and assist’ in Helmand province,” he replied.
Cook was unable to clarify the mission involving the U.S. special operations troops and their Afghan counterparts.
“I cannot tell you with specificity at this point exactly what they were doing there at this particular time, other than this was an operation that was consistent with that ‘train, advise and assist’ mission.”
He went to on stress that “Afghanistan is a dangerous place” and that the “fight” was still underway in Helmand and other parts of the country.
“The U.S. forces that are there are doing what they can to provide support – training, advice, assistance to the Afghan forces as they take the lead in this fight.”
Asked again what type of mission was underway when the firefight broke out, Cook said he did not want to jump the gun while awaiting more details.
“But these U.S. special operators are, as we’ve discussed before, allowed to engage, and train, advise and assist their special operations counterparts–”
“In active combat?” a reporter interjected.
“–they’ve been in Helmand province, providing this kind of support in the past,” Cook continued.
“Is it safe to say that the combat mission continues in Afghanistan?” a reporter asked.
“It is safe to say that Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and that the U.S. forces that are providing assistance to the Afghans are in harm’s way when they’re there. We’ve seen that, it’s been a painful reminder the last few weeks,” he said.
“But the Afghans are leading this fight,” Cook continued. “They’re doing it with the support of the United States and the support of other international partners.”
“One dead special operator,” the reporter pressed. “How can you not say the combat mission endures in Afghanistan today?”
Cook repeated that U.S. forces in Afghanistan were in harm’s way, and stressed the Pentagon was not dismissing the risk facing both U.S. and Afghan forces there.
“They are there and can defend themselves as they should be able to, but again, this is the Afghans in the lead. That mission has not changed for the U.S. troops on the ground – providing training and assistance to those Afghan forces.”
‘It’s a constant fighting season in Afghanistan now’
Cook said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was confident in the ability of the Afghan government and forces to move forward, and that the U.S. support was helping improve their capabilities and resiliency.
He disputed a reporter’s assertion that Afghan forces were “losing ground” to the Taliban.
“I would not concede that they’re losing ground across the country. What we’re talking about is a difficult situation. We’ve always said that the fighting season – uh, it’s a constant fighting season in Afghanistan now,” he said.
“And the Afghan security forces have demonstrated their skills, their capabilities, their improvements.”