National Security

Friendly fire may have killed 2 U.S. Army Rangers in Afghanistan

An Afghan commando in Pandola village April 14, 2017. Two U.S. troops killed this week in combat in Afghanistan were victims of friendly fire, the Pentagon said Friday.
An Afghan commando in Pandola village April 14, 2017. Two U.S. troops killed this week in combat in Afghanistan were victims of friendly fire, the Pentagon said Friday. AP

The U.S. military is investigating whether friendly fire killed two Army Rangers during an operation this week to seize an Islamic State leader in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Friday.

There are “some initial indications” that either fellow U.S. troops or Afghan forces fighting with them may have struck the two soldiers by accident in the midst of a three-hour firefight with Islamic State militants early Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis told reporters. He said there were “no indications it was (an) intentional” attack by Afghan partners – a frequent cause in recent years of casualties among Western forces.

“War is a very difficult thing. In the heat of battle, in the fog of war, the possibility always exists for friendly fire, and that may have been what happened here,” he said, adding that the families of the two Rangers had been notified that they may have died from friendly fire.

In the heat of battle, in the fog of war, the possibility always exists for friendly fire, and that may have been what happened here.

Capt. Jeff Davis, Pentagon spokesman

The Pentagon on Friday released the names of the two Rangers who died from their wounds: Sgts. Cameron Thomas, 23, of Kettering, Ohio, and Joshua Rodgers, 22, of Bloomington, Illinois. A third U.S. service member sustained a head wound. Earlier this month, Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, 37, of Edgewood, Maryland, was killed by small-arms fire in the same province.

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The mission focused on Afghan emir Abdul Haseeb, the leader of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. The operation targeted the terrorist group’s compound about a mile from where the U.S. dropped its most powerful non-nuclear bomb earlier this month on a tunnel complex used by militants.

Several senior leaders of ISIS in Afghanistan and 35 of the group’s operatives were killed in the raid, but as of Friday the Pentagon could not confirm that Haseeb was among them.

“We did know going in that this was going to be a very tough fight,” Davis told reporters at the Pentagon. “We were going after the leader of ISIS in Afghanistan, and doing it in a way that required us to put a large number of people on the ground as part of this mission.”

We did know going in that this was going to be a very tough fight.

Capt. Jeff Davis, Pentagon spokesman

Fifty Army rangers, along with 40 Afghan commandos, were dropped into the area by helicopter for the operation, according to Pentagon officials. Within a few minutes of landing, they “came under intense fire from multiple directions and well-prepared fighting positions,” according to a statement from U.S. Forces Afghanistan. They called in support from an AC-130 gunship, F-16 fighter jets, drones and Apache helicopters, Davis said.

“Fighting alongside their Afghan partners, Josh and Cameron proved themselves willing to go into danger and impose a brutal cost on enemies in their path,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in a statement Friday. “They carried out their operation against (ISIS) in Afghanistan before making the ultimate sacrifice. . . . Our nation owes them an irredeemable debt.”

There are about 1,000 ISIS militants in Afghanistan, most in Nangarhar province. Some military analysts are questioning the decision of the U.S. military to focus on the group while the much more numerous Taliban are retaking parts of the country.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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