MAN DOWN

01.06.16 3:53 AM ET

Afghan War Returns to Blood and Shadows

The death of a U.S. service member and injuries to two more Tuesday are shrouded in mystery—with the Pentagon refusing to explain their mission in an increasingly secretive conflict.

On Tuesday, one U.S. service member was killed and another two were injured while fighting in the city of Marja, in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand province. But the Pentagon could not say why those troops were there, or what their mission was. It’s all part of an increasingly dangerous Afghan war that’s being fought more and more in the shadows.

Two HH60 Pave Hawk helicopters sought to rescue the injured troops. According to Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook, one was turned away, while the other landed. Initial reports from the Pentagon said it did not leave the site because it was under mortar fire; Cook then said helicopter hit a wall, damaging its rotary.

Either way, the helicopter could not take off and the U.S. troops were engaged in an hours-long firefight, whose resolution is still unclear. At press time, the battle, which began 12 hours earlier, had not ended, defense officials acknowledged. Fox News reported late Tuesday that more than a dozen troops were surrounded by a “sea” of Taliban and awaiting an AC-130 gunship to provide air cover.

At a Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Cook said he could not say why those U.S. troops were fighting in Marja, whether their mission was a counterterrorism or combat one, why one helicopter was waved off but another was allowed to land, how many Afghan soldiers were injured along with their American counterparts, or even if the injured had been evacuated from the active battlefield.

In part, the secrecy stems from the kind of American forces now battling in Marja. In Helmand province, as in other parts of Afghanistan, special operations forces have stepped in where the Obama administration has withdrawn more-traditional troops.

These forces are traditionally shrouded in secrecy. Their missions are given additional layers of “operational security,” a catchall term that allows the Pentagon to share little about what are often deadly duties. And because of that, an unseen force is now leading battles once fought by traditional forces, just as the Taliban appears to be resurging. Such dependency on special operations forces makes it difficult to independently assess the U.S. war effort, and the costs of it.

In some ways, the Afghan war has come full circle; it was special operations forces who originally fought to dislodge the Taliban there after 9/11. But today’s increased dependency on special operations forces has some defense officials asking how thin the U.S. military can stretch such an exclusive force through its seemingly endless battles with jihadists and insurgents. These specialized troops are a major part of the U.S. effort in Iraq and Syria, as well. A senior administration source tells The Daily Beast that there are reviews ongoing about the use of such forces; there are simply not enough of them to go around to all the world’s hotspots.

That’s coupled with a second concern: Some at the Pentagon privately fret that Afghanistan, not Iraq or Syria, will be the conflict that consumes their attention in 2016.

The fallen service member in Marja marks the first U.S. combat death in Afghanistan this year, and the seventh in two weeks. On Dec. 21, six airmen were killed just outside Bagram Air Base, 30 miles north of Kabul.

Often the Pentagon does not acknowledge that special operators are back on the frontlines unless it has to—because someone was injured or killed. Casualties have become the grim window into where the U.S. effort against the Taliban has moved and the level of fighting involved.

Marja—once the site of a massive offensive by the U.S. Marines and victory celebrations by the Obama administration—is just the latest example.

In October, special forces, alongside their Afghan counterparts, sought to take back the northern city of Kunduz, which had fallen into Taliban hands just days earlier. The forces ordered strikes on a building that turned out to be a hospital run by Doctors without Borders, killing 22.

No one in the U.S. military mentioned that these elite troops had moved north to fight the Taliban in Kunduz until after the hospital was hit. And the lack of understanding of the area, which once was secured largely by German forces and was relatively quiet, appeared to be a factor in the mistaken attack.

As U.S. forces have drawn down their presence in Afghanistan over the past two years, the Taliban has made gains in areas left to Afghan control. In the last three months alone, in addition to Kunduz and Marja, the Taliban has moved toward Kabul.

But the U.S. plan to withdraw most of its 9,800 troops by the end of this year remains intact. Tuesday’s attack did not change that plan. Indeed, the Pentagon refused even to acknowledge a change in Afghanistan’s landscape, despite undisputed Taliban gains.

“I would not concede [the Afghan security forces] are losing ground across the country,” Cook said.

—with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier