WASHINGTON, D.C. — Some U.S. Special Operations forces on the ground in Afghanistan found themselves in a “combat situation” a little over a year after President Obama declared their combat mission over, according to the Pentagon.
While briefing reporters Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook indicated that the Department of Defense (DoD) may not always be aware of what the the U.S. forces are doing in Afghanistan.
“We’ll provide information as we get it, about their role, what they’re doing out there,” said Cook in responding to a reporter telling him, “I just want to kind of put on record that as of now, we don’t know what’s being asked of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”
The spokesman did stress throughout Thursday’s press briefing that the U.S. military has transitioned to a train, advise, and assist (TAA) role.
Earlier this week, Cook avoided using the word “combat” when announcing that an American service member had been killed and two others wounded while participating in a “clearing operation” in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province Tuesday.
Asked whether Tuesday’s incident meant American troops were engaged in combat, Cook repeatedly argued that the U.S. military has transitioned to a TAA role.
President Obama declared the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan over in December 2014, noting that the American troops would assume their new train, advise, and assist role in January 2015.
Today, Cook repeatedly argued that the U.S. Special Operations forces were engaged in a “combat situation” in Helmand province Tuesday when they were providing assistance to their Afghan counterparts, whom he claimed are in the lead of their country’s security for the most part, unless American forces take it from them unintentionally.
“This is a combat situation, but they are not in the lead intentionally,” said Cook, referring to the special operations forces. “They’re in support of these [Afghan] forces that the United States is trying to provide [with] additional support — training. We’re trying to bolster those forces so they can conduct these operations on their own and secure their own country.”
Asked whether he had any reservations about saying that the U.S. troops are in combat in Afghanistan, Cook reiterated that the Helmand operation “was clearly a combat situation in which U.S, forces that were accompanying Afghan forces, who are in the lead, found themselves in a very difficult, dangerous situation.”
Another reporter pressed, “These troops are in combat. You don’t dispute that?”
“This was clearly a combat situation,” emphasized the spokesman. “Their mission … is to assist the Afghan forces – to train, advise, and assist. They can accompany, they play a support role, but they’re there able to defend themselves and are at risk as we have seen painfully in this particular instance.”
The Pentagon press secretary suggested that DOD may not always know what the estimated 10,000 American service members currently deployed to Afghanistan have been tasked with doing.
A reporter told Cook, “I just want to kind of put on record that as of now, we don’t know what’s being asked of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”
The spokesman replied:
There’s a lot being asked of U.S. forces in Afghanistan just to be crystal clear and this is a perfect example of that, it’s a challenging environment, a dangerous environment and we’ve made you and others aware about special operators assisting – training, advising, assisting — these Afghan forces and being out in the field with them in places like Helmand province.
He added, “We’ve disclosed that before and we’ll provide information as we get it, about their role, what they’re doing out there.”
“In this particular instance, it was a clearing operation in which they were with Afghan forces in Helmand province,” he added. “We have disclosed that there are U.S. forces in Helmand province previously and we’ve provided the information as what took place specifically that resulted in the death of Staff Sgt. [Matthew Q.] McClintock.”
The Pentagon identified the U.S. service member who was killed in Helmand Tuesday as Staff Sgt. McClintock of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
He died “in Marjah District, Afghanistan, from wounds suffered when the enemy attacked his unit with small arms fire,” reported the Pentagon, adding, “The incident is under investigation.”
When announcing the most recent changes to the scheduled pace of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in October 2015, President Obama repeated the claim that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan had ended.
“Last December, more than 13 years after our nation was attacked by al-Qaeda on 9/11, America’s combat mission in Afghanistan came to a responsible end,” Obama declared from the White House, flanked by Vice President Biden, Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
“Our forces engage in two missions: training Afghan forces and supporting counterterror operations against remnants of al-Qaeda,” added Obama.
Echoing the president, Carter told Pentagon reporters, “The combat mission has ended and our mission now, on a day-to-day basis, is train, advise, and assist and counterterrorism and only to undertake other kinds of operations, either to protect our own forces or in an extremist situation.”