An American Special Forces soldier was severely wounded Thursday when his base was attacked in Afghanistan's Helmand province, raising to at least six the number of U.S. troops injured in combat nationwide so far this year.
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. John Nicholson indicated the unidentified soldier was wounded in Sangin, an endlessly violent district within Afghanistan's poppy heartland. Cultivated in abundance there, the lucrative crop used to make heroin has come to represent a tragic irony about America's longest war: Poppy not only props up Afghanistan's economy, it finances the insurgency ruthlessly seeking to undermine it.
"We have suffered casualties in Helmand in our advising capacity this year," Nicholson said in response to questions from Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who served in Iraq with the Army National Guard. "... Overall, we're going to work hard to keep those potential for casualties to an absolute minimum. Sadly, there's been some recent fighting in Sangin, and we had another American Special Forces soldier severely wounded in Sangin this morning, just before I walked into the hearing."
The wounded soldier was part of an advisory force partnered with Afghan troops, said Navy Capt. William Salvin, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. "We don't yet have all of the details," he told Military Times. "They were not on a patrol. Rather, initial information is that they were at a small base that took fire. The soldier is currently in surgery."
Nicholson indicated an unspecified number of the other American casualties this year also involved Special Forces soldiers, occurring on combat patrols while teamed with elite Afghan commandos. Prior to Thursday, at least three U.S. troops — all Army personnel — had been wounded in February, according to the Pentagon's open-source casualty database. At least two soldiers were wounded in January.
No Americans have been reported killed in action there so far this year.
About 8,400 U.S. troops remain deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Resolute Support, the mission to advise and assist Afghan security forces, and a smaller counter-terrorism effort called Operation Freedom's Sentinel. Nicholson told lawmakers that several thousand additional personnel would be needed to regain momentum after the 15-year war has become what the general characterized as a "stalemate."
Security in Helmand valley is a particular concern, Nicholson said. Though mostly driven out by U.S. forces during the war's peak, the Taliban have fought like hell to reclaim their foothold there. And they appear to be succeeding.
With hopes of reversing those gains, the U.S. Marines will deploy a 300-person task forcethere in the spring. They'll work alongside the Afghan National Army's 215th Corps and the 505th Zone National Police, marking the first in what's expected to become a series of rotations to Helmand, where tens of thousands of Marines were deployed throughout the past decade.
Task Force Southwest, as the Marine advisory force will be known, is in the midst of a months-long workup. Last month, senior Marine Corps officials told Military Times that they consider the assignment to be "high-risk." A video posted to the unit's Facebook page this week shows a Marine practicing how to quickly transition from firing his M4 carbine to a holstered sidearm.
Helmand province — and Sangin especially — holds a unique place in recent Marine Corps history. Fighting there through the years claimed the lives of nearly 50 U.S. Marines and another 100 British troops.
"Helmand, as you pointed out, is important to the Taliban because as a narco-insurgency, this is where they get their money," Nicholson told Ernst on Thursday. "In the last year, it became apparent that, instead of advising on an ad hoc basis, we needed to go in there with a permanent structure. ... The Marine Corps has deep experience in Helmand. They have a lot of skin in the game."
Afghan security forces responsible for Sangin took heavy losses in 2015, Nicholson said, requiring a "significant regeneration effort," he added. Corruption within the local police force also remains a concern.
Enter the Marines.
In many ways, history appears to be repeating.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent, wanted to know why U.S. warplanes don't simply "eliminate" Afghanistan's poppy fields, which are concentrated primarily in three provinces: Helmand, Kandahar and Farah. Such questions have been debated for years. Citing the deadly heroin epidemic plaguing many American communities, King reasoned that "if the fields in Afghanistan were terrorist camps, killing four people an hour in the United States, they'd be gone."
The Pentagon alone can't make that call, Nicholson replied. Other federal agencies, including the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, have a heavy stake in determining counter-narcotics policy, he noted. And there are other practical considerations. Namely, what would become of Afghanistan's economy?
"That's extremely important to the outcome in Afghanistan," the general agreed. It's just not that simple.
The truth is, in Afghanistan, nothing is.
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre.
With additional reporting by Military Times' staff writer Shawn Snow. On Twitter: