U.S. airstrike misses target in Afghanistan, killing 5 Americans

| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 8:21 p.m.

KABUL — Five American troops were killed in southern Afghanistan in a rare friendly fire airstrike that hit a team of Afghan and U.S. troops conducting a security operation, officials said on Tuesday.

It was one of the deadliest friendly fire incidents in nearly 14 years of war and a fresh reminder that the conflict is nowhere near over for some Americans.

American military officials said they are investigating what happened on Monday as some Special Operations troops were preparing to leave the Arghandab district of southern Zabul province by helicopter when the team came under attack from militants firing rockets and small arms.

Seeking to beat back the assault, the U.S. troops called in an airstrike. Ammunition dropped from a B-1B bomber appears to have killed the Americans, according to an official briefed on the preliminary investigation who was not allowed to speak on the record. The dead included one Afghan soldier.

At least two of the casualties were Special Operations troops, the official told the Washington Post.

Rear Adm. John Kirby said the five Americans were killed “during a security operation in southern Afghanistan.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen,” Kirby said.

Officials said it was too early to conclude whether the incident was the result of aircraft malfunction, pilot error or miscommunication between troops on the ground and those flying the aircraft.

The deaths occurred during a patrol of the area in preparation for Afghanistan's presidential runoff election on Saturday, said the provincial police chief, Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Rooghlawanay.

“There were no Taliban casualties from the airstrike, but we had killed many of them during the day's operation,” he said.

Special Ops often come under fire on joint operations and are responsible for calling in air support when needed. Because of constraints placed by President Hamid Karzai, such airstrikes usually are called “in extremis,” when troops fear they are about to be killed.

Airstrikes have long caused tensions between the Afghan government and coalition forces, especially when they cause civilian casualties.

Airstrikes that kill coalition soldiers are far less common. One of the worst such incidents happened in April 2002, when four Canadian soldiers were killed by an American F-16 jet fighter that dropped a bomb on a group of troops during a night firing exercise in southern Kandahar. In April 2004, former National Football League player Pat Tillman was killed by coalition fire while serving in an Army Ranger unit in one of the most highly publicized cases.

One of the five American troops killed on Monday was identified as 19-year-old Aaron Toppen of Mokena, Ill., who had deployed in March, a month after his father died, according to a family spokeswoman, Jennie Swartz. His family was suffering a “double hit” of grief, Toppen's sister, Amanda Gralewski, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

A relative said a 25-year-old soldier from Ohio also was among those killed.

Military representatives visited the home of Justin Helton's parents in Beaver, Ohio, early Tuesday to inform them of their son's death, the cousin said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the ambush in Zabul.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said a “huge number” of NATO soldiers were killed or wounded in the fighting. The Taliban often exaggerate their claims.

The Washington Post and Associated Press contributed to this story.

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