KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. and Afghan forces came under fire on Thursday while targeting senior Taliban commanders during a joint operation in northern Kunduz province, calling in airstrikes during an assault that killed 26 civilians, three local troops and two American service members, NATO and local officials said.
NATO described the Americans killed and two other Americans wounded as being part of "a train, advise and assist mission," rare combat casualties for Western forces who handed over the task of securing Afghanistan to local troops some two years ago.
Meanwhile, Afghan officials said they were still investigating the attack and its civilian casualties, some of which may have been caused by the airstrikes. Residents later carried over a dozen corpses of the dead, including children, toward the local governor's office in a show of rage a year after American forces attacked an area hospital.
NATO declined to identify the Americans killed, pending notification of their next of kin. NATO and the Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press to further clarify the American troops' mission in the area.
"Today's loss is heartbreaking and we offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends of our service members who lost their lives today," Gen. John W. Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said in a statement.
The target of the raid were two senior Taliban commanders, who were killed in the fighting along with 63 other insurgents, Kunduz police chief Gen. Qasim Jangalbagh said. He said Afghan special forces carried out the raid and that he did not have any information about NATO involvement in the assault.
Jangalbagh said 26 civilians, including members of the Taliban fighters' families, were killed in the assault.
Kunduz official Mohammad Yousf Ayoubi and parliament member Malim Chari both also told the AP that civilians were killed in the fighting, though they had few details. Dr. Mohammad Naim Mangal, the director of a Kunduz hospital, said his facility received the bodies of a dead man and a child and treated 30 people, including children, wounded in the fighting.
NATO only said it was "aware of the allegations," while the Pentagon did not immediately respond.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, briefing journalists in Brussels during a teleconference, said three Afghan troops were killed in the assault. Mohammad Radmanish, a deputy spokesman at the Afghan Defense Ministry, offered the same figure.
In a later statement, Cleveland said that "friendly forces received direct fire and airstrikes were conducted to defend themselves" and an investigation was underway.
He earlier described the assault as "not a common event," without elaborating.
A Taliban statement also said there were civilian casualties while claiming its fighters killed 16 U.S. troops. The insurgents often exaggerate their battlefield successes.
Taliban fighters briefly overran the city of Kunduz, the provincial capital with the same name, in early October, a show of strength by the insurgents that also highlighted the troubles facing local Afghan forces 15 years after the U.S.-led invasion of the country. The Taliban captured and held parts of Kunduz a year earlier as well before the city was fully liberated weeks later with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
Those 2015 airstrikes also saw a U.S. Air Force special operations AC-130 gunship attack a Kunduz hospital run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, killing 42 people. Sixteen U.S. military personnel, including a two-star general, later were disciplined for what American officials described as mistakes that led the strike. Doctors Without Borders has called the attack a war crime and demanded an independent investigation.
Yet another airstrike killing civilians could stoke anger among Afghans, and the country's former President Hamid Karzai repeatedly clashed with NATO over them, straining relations.
On Thursday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement criticizing the Taliban for using women and children as "a shield" during the raid. He also announced a local investigation had been started.
NATO's combat operations ended in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, a move that put Afghan forces in charge of the country's security. Since then, Afghan forces have suffered heavy casualties battling the Taliban, who have at times overrun provincial capitals before being pushed back. Meanwhile, NATO and U.S. casualties have been few.
There have been at least other four combat deaths among American forces in Afghanistan in 2016. In October, a U.S. soldier was killed by a bomb in Nangarhar province while another was shot dead by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform in Kabul. In August, an American soldier was killed and another wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan' southern Helmand province. In January, a U.S. soldier was killed by small arms fire in Helmand.
The fight in Afghanistan — American's longest war — began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as the Taliban harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The Taliban and Afghan government recently held secret talks to see if they could start peace negotiations to end the fighting, though questions remain over which faction of the insurgency is doing the talking.
Associated Press writer Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.