WASHINGTON – Two Army Rangers killed during a raid on an Islamic State compound in eastern Afghanistan may have died as a result of friendly fire during the opening minutes of the fierce, three-hour firefight, the Pentagon said Friday.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the U.S. military is investigating to see if they were accidentally killed by ground fire from Afghan commandos or other American forces. He said the deaths did not appear deliberate.
According to Davis, the head of the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, Abdul Haseeb Logari, was the target of the Wednesday raid. He said officials suspect that Logari, the emir of what's called the Islamic State Khorasan group, was among several key leaders killed, but haven't confirmed that. Logari was in charge of the Afghanistan affiliate's command and control and it's connections with the broader Islamic State group and it's leaders.
About 35 other enemy fighters were killed and one other Army Ranger received a minor head wound during the battle, but was able to stay with the assault force.
"This was a dangerous mission and we knew this going in," Davis told Pentagon reporters. "This was the leader of ISIS in Afghanistan. We knew that he was going to be well protected and that they were going to fight very hard to prevent him from being captured or killed. And that is indeed what happened."
About 50 Army Rangers and 40 Afghan commandos were dropped off by helicopter around 10:30 p.m. local time on Wednesday, for the raid in Nangarhar Province's, Mohmand Valley. They were on the ground for about four-and-a-half hours.
"Within minutes of the insertion the combined force came under intense fire from multiple directions. It was during these initial moments of the raid that the two Rangers were mortally wounded," Davis said. He added that the U.S. and Afghan troops were being fired on from prepared positions on all sides, and that the compound was heavily fortified and contained a network of tunnels.
Davis said manned and unmanned aircraft, including AC-130 gunships, Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets, were used to support the raid and provide airstrikes to defend the force on the ground and evacuate the wounded.
The military headquarters in Kabul said in a statement that the U.S. and Afghan forces were able to accomplish the mission without civilian casualties, including women and children in the compound.
The compound is located about one or two kilometers (roughly one mile) from the site where the U.S., two weeks ago, dropped what is called the "mother of all bombs" on an IS complex.
The bombing came just days after a U.S. Army special forces soldier was killed in the region. The bomb is the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used in combat by the U.S., and it killed several dozen militants.
Asked whether the friendly fire came from Afghan troops, Davis said, "we were there in a partnered raid with Afghan forces and some of the initial indications led us to believe that that's a possibility." He said it could have been either Afghans or U.S. forces, and a formal investigation is underway.
Killed in the firefight were Army Sgts. Joshua P. Rodgers, 22, of Bloomington, Illinois, and Cameron H. Thomas, 23, of Kettering, Ohio, both assigned to 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Georgia. The families of the two Rangers have been told it was possible they died from friendly fire.
The U.S. has been battling the Islamic State group in Afghanistan for months and estimates that the group now includes about some 800 to 1,000 fighters there.