The Pentagon rejected Thursday charges from former SEAL commander and now Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, that ground and air support may have been delayed for hours in the firefight in Afghanistan Tuesday in which Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Staff Matthew Q. McClintock was killed.
"We don't have any indication there was any delay here" or "that there was any delay whatsoever," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in response to Zinke's allegations.
"Every effort was made by the commanders to try to address this situation" in which McClintock, his team, and Afghan Special Forces were engaged in a firefight with the Taliban in Marjah in Afghanistan's southwestern Helmand province, Cook said at a Pentagon news conference.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Zinke, an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, said that the rules of engagement in Afghanistan were "so restrictive that when a unit is pinned down available assets are not given the latitude to respond in a timely manner and it appears in this case that it cost lives."
Zinke, who was a SEAL from 1985 to 2008 and retired as a commander, said he learned from Special Operations troops familiar with the Marjah operation that a quick reaction ground force was "arbitrarily delayed" in reaching the scene. He also said that an AC-130 gunship was warned to avoid firing on the enemy to avoid collateral damage.
In response to Cook, Zinke's office issued a statement: "While we appreciate the quick reaction from the press office to defend the administration's over-restrictive rules of engagement, the Congressman is committed to discovering the facts of what exactly happened in Marjah and why exactly our forces were pinned down in a compound under enemy fire for hours without support."
Two other Special Forces troops were wounded in the firefight in which McClintock, 30, originally of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was killed. Cook said the two wounded troops were taken to Kandahar in neighboring Kandahar province for treatment but he did not immediately have additional information on their conditions.
Two Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters sent to the scene for the initial medical evacuation were unable to carry out the mission.
One was waved off because of enemy ground fire while the other was disabled when a rotor hit the wall of an Afghan compound. Cook said that the second helicopter has since been helo-lifted back to Kandahar.
McClintock, who had a wife and an infant son, "lost his life doing something important" in fighting for America's security and a better future for Afghanistan, Cook said.
The Special Forces team was in Marjah in the train, advise and assist role to which U.S. troops have been limited since the end of 2014 but Cook said, "This was clearly a combat satiation. They found themselves in a very difficult, dangerous situation. That is crystal clear. Obviously there can be some terrible consequences."
He said of the firefight, "This is a combat situation but they are not in the lead intentionally. The Special Forces team was there "in a back-up role" to the Afghans but became involved in actual combat as the operation progressed, Cook said.
McClintock's death came as the U.S. has increased the involvement of Special Forces teams with the Afghans and also stepped up airstrikes to counter Taliban offensives and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in Afghanistan.
An Afghan military official, Maj. Mohammad Rassoul Zazai, told the independent Pajhwok news agency that at least 34 Taliban fighters had been killed in the joint operation by Afghan and U.S. forces in the Marjah district.
McClintock was assigned to 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, in Buckley, Washington. He joined the Army in 2006 had deployed to Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion in July.
McClintock joined the Washington National Guard in 2014 after several years as an active duty soldier.
"Staff Sgt. McClintock was one of the best of the best," Washington National Guard Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty said. "He was a Green Beret who sacrificed time away from his loved ones to train for and carry out these dangerous missions. This is a tough loss for our organization, and a harsh reminder that ensuring freedom is not free."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.