WASHINGTON — U.S. Central Command on Friday disputed allegations that an AC-130 gunship was “waived off” during a firefight with Taliban in southern Afghanistan that killed Green Beret Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock.
McClintock, 30, was killed and two other U.S. soldiers were wounded Tuesday as they assisted the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps in an effort to clear known Taliban compounds in the town of Marjah in the Helmand Province.
The rescue operation has come under question by members of Congress about whether a Quick Reaction Force was allowed to respond as effectively as the Pentagon said it did and whether the U.S. forces had adequate overhead protection from an AC-130 gunship that was dispatched to the firefight.
Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., a former Navy SEAL commander, said Thursday he has been in touch with special forces soldiers close to the operation and the Quick Reaction Force was delayed by hours along with close air support sent to help the beleaguered troops.
Zinke said the AC-130 gunship was deployed to support the special forces troops, but was not allowed to fire on the enemy because of concerns of collateral damage. Instead, he said, the aircraft was only allowed to fire into a field.
Col. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for Central Command, disputed Zinke’s claims.
The AC-130 “absolutely did fire,” he said Friday. “I have seen reports that suggest somehow that they were prevented from responding quickly – and that’s just not accurate. The AC-130 was able to respond very quickly and provide that support.”
Ryder said there were more than 100 joint forces involved in the firefight “supported by a variety of close air support platforms,” including the AC-130.
“Those aircraft conducted 12 airstrikes in support of that joint force, which reportedly killed dozens of Taliban,” he said.
During a news briefing Friday, Ryder provided additional details on the incident. He said the firefight started with a U.S. soldier getting wounded during the initial clearing operations of Tuesday’s mission, though he could not provide details on how the soldier was wounded or how close the soldier was to the operations, which were to be led and conducted by Afghans.
After the first soldier was wounded, two medevac HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters responded, but a hard landing for one of the helicopters further complicated the mission.
“While landing the helicopter, a rotor blade struck a wall, causing mechanical damage to the aircraft,” Ryder said.
As U.S. forces responded to the damaged helicopter, they came in contact with Taliban, he said.
“As U.S. and Afghan forces began to establish an alternate landing zone, this combined element came in contact with enemy forces and one U.S. soldier was killed,” Ryder said.
Another U.S. servicemember and four Afghans also were injured during the fighting, he said.
At that point, U.S. and Afghan forces requested a Quick Reaction Force to provide overhead support. Ryder said the Quick Reaction Force “facilitated the successful medical evacuation of all casualties.”
Ryder was not able to provide a general timeline as to how long it took between the initial contact that led to the first wounded servicemember and the final evacuation of the wounded and deceased from the compound.
The Pentagon has stated repeatedly that U.S. forces are conducting a “train, advise and assist” mission in Afghanistan, though members of Congress also questioned whether they are back in a combat role there.
On Friday, Ryder said U.S. forces are not conducting combat operations.
U.S. forces assisting Afghan operations, in general, do “not go onto an objective with Afghan forces. They’ll be in the area but not in the actual troops in contact,” he said. “But even in an overwatch position, you are still in a dangerous environment.”