Two U.S. service members were killed during operations against the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Thursday.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the deaths occurred overnight in Afghanistan’s Nangahar province, where a small but virulent Islamic State cell poses a threat to Afghan and U.S. coalition forces.
An Afghan military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss current operations, said that there had been a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in a village near Nangahar’s Achin district Wednesday but was not aware of any casualties. He noted, however, that it had been a long day of fighting.
Navy Lt. Chris Donlon, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan confirmed that the incident happened close to Achin and near where U.S. aircraft dropped a massive 22,000 pound bomb, called a GBU-43, two weeks ago. The bomb targeted a sprawling Islamic State tunnel complex, and although Afghan officials said between 36 and about 100 Islamic State fighters were killed in the strike, the U.S. military has not announced what exactly the massive bomb accomplished.
The deaths mark the third time this year that a member of the U.S. military has died in combat in Afghanistan. On April 8, Army Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, 37, of Edgewood, Md., was killed by small-arms fire, also in Nangahar.
A third service member was wounded during this week’s incident, which occurred on Wednesday evening during a U.S.-Afghan raid on the Islamic State, the U.S. military command in Afghanistan said in a statement.
“The fight against ISIS-K is important for the world, but sadly, it is not without sacrifice,” said Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, referring to the Islamic State cell in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State-Khorasan Province.
The deaths come just days after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Afghanistan to assess the security situation and advance deliberations about the Trump administration’s strategy for the United States’ longest war.
Nicholson has called for thousands of additional troops to help prop up the Afghan military, which is struggling to hold off the Taliban and an array of other militant groups.
A local branch of the Islamic State, mainly composed of militants pulled from other groups, has emerged as an increasing counterterrorism focus for United States in Afghanistan.
Although military officials say the group is far smaller than it was at its height in 2015, an estimated 600 to 800 militants located mainly in remote mountainous areas have proven to be a deadly adversary. Fighting has been fierce as U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces, backed by hundreds of airstrikes, have sought to advance against militant strongholds in recent months.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Missy Ryan, Thomas Gibbons-Neff