U.S. Forces Increasingly Drawn Back Into Afghanistan's Battles : Parallels The president said the U.S. combat mission is over, but a Green Beret died Tuesday during an assault on Taliban forces. "Americans are very much in the thick of these fights," says a retired general.
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U.S. Forces Increasingly Drawn Back Into Afghanistan's Battles

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U.S. Forces Increasingly Drawn Back Into Afghanistan's Battles

U.S. Forces Increasingly Drawn Back Into Afghanistan's Battles

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

An American Green Beret died in Afghanistan this week. Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock was 30. He leaves behind a wife and infant son. McClintock was there to train and advise, but he died fighting the Taliban alongside Afghan troops. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, American forces are increasingly being drawn into the fight.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: McClintock and his fellow Green Berets went to Marjah Helmand province, a town grimly familiar to American troops. Dozens of Marines were killed there five years ago. And since then, the Taliban have slipped back in. So the Americans once again came to help. In the gun battle that killed McClintock on Tuesday, two other Americans were wounded, along with three Afghan troops.

DAVE BARNO: They are forward deployed with commando units, and they're very much in the thick of these fights.

BOWMAN: That's retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who once led U.S. forces in Afghanistan and now teaches at American University.

BARNO: Special operations forces are going to be very much in the thick of this coming battle, whether we want to talk about it that way or not.

BOWMAN: But administration officials choose their words carefully when they talk about it. That's because, back in October, President Obama insisted America's combat mission was over, and Afghan troops were now in the lead.

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BARACK OBAMA: Our forces, therefore, remain engaged in two narrow but critical missions - training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaida.

BOWMAN: Al-Qaida, not the Taliban. But it appears that training mission is becoming more of a partnering effort with Afghan forces battling Taliban fighters. And that makes things more difficult for officials like Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. He was asked this question by a reporter - does the combat mission continue for American troops? He said they were in harm's way. Two days later, he was asked again.

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PETER COOK: This was clearly a combat situation. They are - their mission is to assist the Afghan forces, to train, advise and assist. They play a support role, but they are - they're able to defend themselves and at risk, as we have seen, painfully, in this particular instance.

BOWMAN: This week's firefight by American and Afghan commandos in Marjah was not the first. Back in October, American special operators headed to Kunduz after the Taliban seized the northern city and scattered the police force. The Afghan troops needed American help once more. The top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell, described what happened next. It wasn't a narrow mission. Afghan commandos streamed into a police compound in Kunduz with American special operations forces, known as SOF.

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JOHN CAMPBELL: By the early morning hours of October 3, U.S. SOF at the compound had been engaged in heavy fighting for nearly five consecutive days and nights.

BOWMAN: Heavy fighting for five days and nights - that's not unusual. Throughout the country, the Taliban are gaining ground. Casualties are increasing by double digits among Afghan forces. Dave Barno, the retired general, said it's likely more American troops will be drawn into such battles.

BARNO: So I think the American people are grown up enough to accept this if we're willing to talk about it honestly by our political leadership. And that's, unfortunately, not entirely been the case so far.

BOWMAN: There's still time for that talk. The traditional fighting season doesn't even begin for another three months. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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