Two U.S. service members were killed and two others wounded Thursday during operations against the Taliban around the northern Afghan city of Kunduz and more than 30 civilians were killed in air strikes called in to protect Afghan and U.S. troops, officials said.
“Unfortunately more than 30 civilians, including women and children, were killed during the fighting. This was a horrible incident,” said Asadullah Amarkhil, the governor of Kunduz, adding that dozens had been wounded.
No group has so far claimed responsibility for the killings, which highlight growing insecurity after the Taliban sought to overrun Kunduz city for the second time last month.
“The service members came under fire during a train, advise and assist mission with our Afghan partners to clear a Taliban position and disrupt the group’s operations in Kunduz district,” U.S. forces said in a brief statement.
“As part of an Afghan operation, friendly forces received direct fire and airstrikes were conducted to defend themselves,” said Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.
“We take all allegations of civilian casualties very seriously.”
John Nicholson, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan said: “On behalf of all of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, today’s loss is heartbreaking and we offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends of our service members who lost their lives today.”
“Despite today’s tragic event, we are steadfast in our commitment to help our Afghan partners defend their nation.”
Nicholson gave no details on the identity of the personnel or what units they served with.
The U.S. military, which leads a NATO mission to train and assist the Afghans after their combat mission ended in 2014, often gives upbeat assessments about Afghan military performance.
But as Afghan military forces near the end of a second year leading security operations without full NATO assistance, they are being killed in horrific numbers.
Afghan police and army units in 2015 succeeded NATO in providing security for Afghanistan. That year an estimated 5,000 were killed and another 15,000 wounded.
The death toll this year is much worse already, with 5,523 Afghan police and troops killed in the first eight months of 2016, according to the U.S. watchdog SIGAR — and the “fighting season” is far from over.
For perspective: Since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001, less than 2,000 American troops have been killed in combat in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s 2016 strategic goal is to seize another provincial capital like they briefly did in Kunduz last year, in a stinging blow to Afghan forces.
They have launched multiple assaults in recent months including in Kunduz, Lashkar Gar in poppy-growing Helmand province and Tarinkot, the capital of Uruzgan province.