(CNSNews.com) – As diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending America’s longest war edge ahead, a decorated U.S. Special Forces soldier was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday, as a result of “enemy small arms fire,” the Pentagon reported. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Sgt. Maj. James “Ryan” Sartor, 40, of Teague, Texas, died in Faryab, a province in the north bordering Turkmenistan. He had been assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Fort Carson, Colo.
The U.S. Army said Sartor had deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan since joining the army in 2001, had received numerous awards and decorations, and would be posthumously awarded with the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
His death, which came days after further talks between the U.S. and the Taliban and separate intra-Afghan dialogue, brings to 2,425 the number of U.S. personnel killed in the conflict since October 2001, 1,902 of them in combat, according to tally of official data.
Of those, 74 U.S. personnel have died – 55 of them in combat – since the beginning of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, which succeeded Operation Enduring Freedom in Jan. 2015.
This year alone has seen 12 U.S. military personnel fatalities in Afghanistan, ten of them in combat circumstances.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for Sartor’s death, saying the group had killed “two foreign invaders” in a clash the Ghorchich district of Badghis province, which borders Faryab. The statement said the “mujahedeen” sustained no casualties in the clash. (The reference to a second fatality is unclear, but the terrorist group regularly inflates U.S. and Afghan casualty figures.)
Sartor was the third U.S. soldier to die in hostilities in the country in less than three weeks.
Master Sgt. Micheal Riley, 32, of Heilbronn, Germany – also a Special Forces operator assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group – and ordnance disposal specialist Sgt. James Johnston, 24, of Trumansburg, N.Y., died in Uruzgan province on June 25 of wounds sustained in combat from small arms fire. The Taliban claimed responsibility for their deaths as well.
Saturday’s fatality came a day after U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad met with Russian and Chinese counterparts in Beijing and agreed to push on with intra-Afghan negotiations, following two days of preliminary talks in Qatar earlier in the week.
After the three-way meeting Khalilzad said the three sides had “agreed to the need to reduce the level of violence during the current time.”
The intra-Afghan talks on July 7-8 saw dozens of delegates from Kabul sit down with 17 Taliban officials in Doha, and the military group reportedly pledged to stop attacks on civilian targets.
On Saturday, however – the same day as Sartor was killed – the Taliban attacked a hotel in Badghis province, killing at least eight people during a five-hour siege. (The Taliban claimed the attack targeted a police headquarters.)
President Ashraf Ghani in a statement afterwards accused the Taliban of breaking its promise not to attack civilian places.
On a separate track, U.S. and Taliban negotiators have held seven rounds of talks, also in Doha, aimed at finding a resolution to the 18-year conflict.
Those talks aim to produce an agreement providing for a U.S. troop withdrawal, a nationwide ceasefire, and commitments to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists again.
According to the latest Pentagon report to Congress on Afghanistan, released on Friday, Iran continues to provide the Taliban with “weapons, explosives, training, financing, and political support,” through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force.
The report says the Iranian regime has been maneuvering to increase its influence in Afghanistan following indications of a U.S. troop drawdown.
“Iran reportedly provides funding to political candidates in Afghanistan. This is to cultivate allies in an attempt to support an Iran-friendly candidate in the upcoming Afghan presidential election,” it says. “Members of Parliament and security officials also report that Iran bribes local and central government officials to advance Iranian interests.”
U.S. forces intervened to topple the Taliban after it refused to expel its al-Qaeda allies after the group’s 9/11 attack on America.
By the time Operation Enduring Freedom ended at the end of 2014, 2,351 U.S. military personnel had been killed, 1,847 of them in combat.
Enduring Freedom at the end of 2014 gave way to Freedom’s Sentinel, which comprises both counterterrorism operations and the U.S. contribution to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission to “train, advise and assist” Afghan forces.
Today there are some 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, almost 8,500 of them attached to Resolute Support.
The NATO-led mission includes another 8,600 troops from 38 partner countries, with the largest contingents from Germany (1,300 troops), Britain (1,100), Italy (895), and Georgia (870), which is not a NATO member.