WASHINGTON — A Republican congressman who previously served as a Navy SEAL commander said Thursday that bureaucratic red tape might have delayed a rescue force and prevented close air support from adequately helping an Army Special Forces team during a firefight in southern Afghanistan this week in which one American was killed.
Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., questioned if the the rules of engagement in Afghanistan played a role in limiting the support troops on the ground received. They remain "so restrictive that when a unit is pinned down available assets are not given the latitude to respond in a timely manner and it appears in this case that it cost lives," Zinke said in an interview.
Army Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock, 30, of Des Moines, Washington, was killed Tuesday when his team, along with a detachment of Afghan commandos came under small arms fire. In the ensuing battle, an Army HH-60 helicopter was damaged, forcing it to the ground, while another was waved off because of heavy enemy fire. Two other U.S. soldiers were wounded as were an unknown number of Afghan troops.
Zinke, who said he has been in touch with Special Forces soldiers close to the operation, said that the quick-reaction force was delayed by hours along with close air support sent to help the beleaguered troops. Zinke said that an 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.
In light of these reports Zinke has called for a hearing for the Pentagon to explain the exact circumstances of what happened on the ground in Marjah. "There is every indication," he said, that air support and rescue efforts were "arbitrarily delayed."
But a U.S. military official in Afghanistan disputed that the quick-reaction force was delayed. It "responded quickly to facilitate casualty evacuation and to prepare the aircraft for recovery," and included both U.S. and Afghan forces, said Army Col. Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for Operation Resolute Support, the main U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
"We conducted 12 airstrikes in all to support forces in contact - would not characterize the SF advisers and Afghan SOF as 'pinned down,'" he said.
The HH-60 helicopter was damaged when its main rotor hit a wall. That aircraft is operated by Air Force pararescue forces, prompting confusion initially in the media that elite Air Force medics were involved in the operation. In actuality, the HH-60 was an Army aircraft used for medical evacuation, Lawhorn said.
Lawhorn said that the operation was done in support of a larger mission by the Afghan National Army's 215th Corps, the main conventional military unit in Helmand province. Afghan soldiers have been clearing areas around Marjah and Sangin, two districts where U.S. and British troops fought the Taliban for years. Both areas are all or partly controlled by the Taliban now, following a brutal year in which the Afghan military struggled to stave off insurgent attacks after the U.S. military withdrew almost all of its troops from Helmand province.
Lawhorn said the Afghan military's mission to clear areas around Sangin and Marjah continues, and so is the U.S. Special Operations mission to train and advise Afghan commandos. While conventional American units now only advise Afghan troops in headquarters across the country, U.S. Special Operations troops still advise commandos on a tactical level, meaning they are still out in the field on operations and face enemy fire.