(CNSNews.com) – A U.S. Special Operations service member was killed and two others were injured after coming under enemy fire in Afghanistan’s Helmand province Tuesday, but asked whether this meant U.S. troops were engaged in combat, a Pentagon spokesman said repeatedly that they were there in their mandated mission to “train, advise, assist” Afghan forces.
Defense officials said two HH-60 Pavehawk medevac helicopters were sent in to provide help, but one was “waved off” after coming under fire and returned safely to base. The other landed, but sustained rotor blade damage after apparently striking a wall.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook, briefing reporters even as hostilities in Marjah were still reported to be underway, said he could not comment on claims by the Taliban that it had brought down the helicopter, or that it had been hit by a mortar while on the ground.
Cook was asked several times, in different ways, whether U.S. forces were in fact engaged in combat in Afghanistan, but did not answer directly.
“Could you explain the context of what’s going on in Marjah that required U.S. combat presence given that combat mission is over?” Cook was asked.
“Well as you know, we’re conducting ‘train, advise and assist’ in Helmand province,” he replied.
Cook was unable to clarify the mission involving the U.S. special operations troops and their Afghan counterparts.
“I cannot tell you with specificity at this point exactly what they were doing there at this particular time, other than this was an operation that was consistent with that ‘train, advise and assist’ mission.”
He went to on stress that “Afghanistan is a dangerous place” and that the “fight” was still underway in Helmand and other parts of the country.
“The U.S. forces that are there are doing what they can to provide support – training, advice, assistance to the Afghan forces as they take the lead in this fight.”
Asked again what type of mission was underway when the firefight broke out, Cook said he did not want to jump the gun while awaiting more details.
“But these U.S. special operators are, as we’ve discussed before, allowed to engage, and train, advise and assist their special operations counterparts–”
“In active combat?” a reporter interjected.
“--they’ve been in Helmand province, providing this kind of support in the past,” Cook continued.
“Is it safe to say that the combat mission continues in Afghanistan?” a reporter asked.
“It is safe to say that Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and that the U.S. forces that are providing assistance to the Afghans are in harm’s way when they’re there. We’ve seen that, it’s been a painful reminder the last few weeks,” he said.
“But the Afghans are leading this fight,” Cook continued. “They’re doing it with the support of the United States and the support of other international partners.”
“One dead special operator,” the reporter pressed. “How can you not say the combat mission endures in Afghanistan today?”
Cook repeated that U.S. forces in Afghanistan were in harm’s way, and stressed the Pentagon was not dismissing the risk facing both U.S. and Afghan forces there.
“They are there and can defend themselves as they should be able to, but again, this is the Afghans in the lead. That mission has not changed for the U.S. troops on the ground – providing training and assistance to those Afghan forces.”
‘It’s a constant fighting season in Afghanistan now’
Cook said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was confident in the ability of the Afghan government and forces to move forward, and that the U.S. support was helping improve their capabilities and resiliency.
He disputed a reporter’s assertion that Afghan forces were “losing ground” to the Taliban.
“I would not concede that they’re losing ground across the country. What we’re talking about is a difficult situation. We’ve always said that the fighting season – uh, it’s a constant fighting season in Afghanistan now,” he said.
“And the Afghan security forces have demonstrated their skills, their capabilities, their improvements.”
Traditionally the fighting season in Afghanistan has run roughly from April to October.
On Sunday, former CIA acting director Michael Morell said the Taliban had “made major gains over the last year.”
“I would expect similar gains going forward,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “They control more territory now than they have in a number of years.”
Shortly before Christmas, six U.S. airmen were killed in a Taliban attack near Bagram base, the deadliest such incident in Afghanistan in more than three years.
Around the same time, the Taliban captured a key district in Helmand province, Sangin. According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal the Taliban now controls at least five of Helmand’s 13 districts, while a further five are “heavily contested.”
Cook said Tuesday the situation in Helmand and throughout Afghanistan remains challenging, but he added that the U.S. was confident Afghan forces were “continuing to develop the capabilities and capacity to secure the country against a persistent insurgent threat.”
President Obama originally planned to reduce the 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by half by the end of 2015, and then have all of them leave by the end of 2016, apart from a “security assistance component” attached to the U.S. Embassy.
Last October he adjusted that timetable, saying 9,800 would remain through most of 2016, and then be reduced to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017.
Asked whether there was any consideration to change the operational status of U.S. forces given recent setbacks, Cook said no changes were planned, although he added that Carter and his commanders were engaged in an “ongoing conversation” and “constant review.”
As far as the drawdown timetable goes, Cook said that Carter “is confident that the current plan in place is adequate to deal with the situation in Afghanistan.”
“It’s always a process of review and hearing directly from the commanders on the ground as to whether or not there need to be adjustments to that,” he added. “But he feels confident that the decision the president made to adjust those troop levels was the right decision at the time – it’s the right decision for the moment.”