Recently declassified military report details ongoing combat role for troops despite official end to mission.
They were shot at “tens upon tens of thousands” of times, took part in multiple firefights—and escaped death thanks only to an “absolute miracle.”
Testimony in a recently declassified military report provides a glimpse into the role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where despite an official end to their combat mission, they ended up in a fierce battle against a resurgent Taliban. The accounts are detailed in a probe into the failings that led to the U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz that killed 42 people.
The document primarily describes events around the Oct. 3 disaster, but it also highlights broader frustrations with the “political expedience” of U.S. policy and problems dogging local Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, who assumed responsibility for their country’s security in 2015.
Since the Afghans took over, U.S. troop numbers have dipped to 9,800, and are currently set to fall to 5,500 next year, though Afghan forces are struggling and that number could change based on recommendations from the new U.S. commander, General John Nicholson.
President Barack Obama was elected on a pledge to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has stressed remaining troops are no longer in combat roles. He has also ruled out a “boots-on-the-ground” combat deployment to Syria.
Officially, U.S. troops remain in an advisory capacity to support and train local partners. “They’re performing a challenging, difficult responsibility that oftentimes can put them in harm’s way,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Monday. “We are asking a lot of U.S. forces right now.”
When the Taliban briefly captured Kunduz in late September, Afghan forces were in disarray and U.S. Green Beret special operations troops ended up helping with the combat over several grueling days. “There was a level of sophistication and coordination that none of us had ever come up against,” one service-member, whose name was redacted, said in a sworn statement. “There numerous—now confirmed—reports of significant foreign involvement from several different countries. Ten upon tens upon tens of thousands of rounds were fired against us during our effort to retake the city. How no one was killed, or even wounded, is an absolute miracle.”
He goes on to lambast the “moral cowardice” and “profound lack of strategy” in Afghanistan, saying his unit asked commanders three times for clarification about their role. “Sadly, the only sounds audible were the sounds of crickets… though those were hard to hear over the gunfire,” the soldier wrote. “‘How far do you want to go?’ is not a proper response to ‘How far do you want us to go?’”
On Oct. 3, 2015, U.S. Special Forces were deployed to Kunduz alongside Afghan forces in order to recapture the northern city from the Taliban, who had overrun it in one of their dramatic successes of the war. At the time of the attack on the hospital, a joint U.S. and Afghan force had been engaged in a fierce street battle for four days and was tired and running low on supplies.
Coming under fire once again, the troops called for air support from an AC-130 gunship, a powerful war plane based on the airframe of a transport aircraft but equipped with cannons and a howitzer. In what the U.S. military has called a series of mistakes during a frenetic battle, the crew misidentified what they thought was a Taliban-occupied building, instead striking the MSF hospital and civilians outside it.
The crew will not face war crimes charges, their commander announced April 29, though 16 personnel found to have failed in their duties will face administrative suspensions or reprimands. Special operations troops have recently seen increasing combat in Iraq too. A Navy SEAL was killed near Mosul last week during an unexpected firefight with the Islamic State group.