Friendly Fire In Afghanistan Kills 5 U.S. Soldiers, Just Days Before The Election

On Monday night, five American service members were killed in southern Afghanistan, in what's being investigated as a case of friendly fire. The five troops were conducting a security operation ahead of Afghanistan's presidential runoff election, scheduled Saturday, when a coalition jet mistakenly bombed five U.S. soldiers, along with Taliban insurgents.

The American soldiers had been patrolling the Arghandab District, along with Afghan troops, to secure a safe area for the upcoming vote. As they were preparing to leave the area by helicopter, they came under attack from Taliban militants firing small arms and rockets. This prompted the U.S. troops to call for air support from a B-1 bomber. Sadly, the airstrikes ended up hitting the joint troops, killing five Americans and one Afghan soldier.

In a statement Tuesday, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said:

The casualties occurred during a security operation when their unit came into contact with enemy forces. Tragically, there is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved. The incident is under investigation. Our thoughts are with the families of those killed during this difficult time

If confirmed that the airstrike did indeed involve fratricide, it would be one of the deadliest case of friendly fire in the 13 years that the U.S. has led the war in Afghanistan. As Afghanistan prepares for its upcoming election and major period of transition, let's break down the context of the attack, from the start of the war to the present day...

Why the Attack Happened in the First Place

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Insurgent violence against Afghan and foreign coalition forces has escalated in the weeks leading up to Saturday's vote, which many see as a possible turning point in the war. The election will be Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power, and will see the new leader guiding the country through a period of transition as foreign troops withdraw by the end of the year.

The Taliban has called the election a Western-designed charade, and has announced that they will continue to launch attacks in an effort to derail it. The insurgent attacks that led to the tragic coalition airstrike were likely part of these plans to unhinge the election, and the Taliban has already claimed credit for it.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, claimed a "huge number" of NATO soldiers were killed or wounded in the insurgent attacks on Monday night. However, the Taliban are often known to exaggerate their claims.

How Often Does Friendly Fire Happen?

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In Afghanistan alone, there have been 24 recorded incidents of friendly fire involving coalition forces. One of the most newsworthy incidents claimed the life of Pat Tillman, who gave up his promising career in the NFL to join the U.S. Army and fight in Afghanistan. On April 22, 2004, Tillman was shot and killed by fellow American soldiers when a U.S. platoon leader mistook a U.S.-trained Afghan militia fighter for the enemy and triggered a spray of gunfire that killed Tillman, who had been accompanying the militia fighter.

Another prominent case left relations between the U.S. and Pakistan severely strained. In November 2011, NATO helicopters attacked a checkpoint in northwest Pakistan, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers and wounding 13 in Mohmand Agency, a volatile region bordering Afghanistan. The attack prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to reevaluate his country's relations with NATO and the ISAF, seriously shaking the U.S.'s partnership with Pakistan.

Consequences of the Airstrike

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This latest case of friendly fire will likely see even tighter security measures being implemented surrounding Saturday's election. Just days before the friendly-fire airstrike, election front-runner Abdullah Abdullah dodged an assassination attempt when two bombs hit his convoy as he was traveling between campaign events in Kabul. Abdullah was luckily unharmed and vowed to continue with his campaign efforts, but 12 people were killed in the attacks.

As a result, the Interior Ministry is heightening security measures, like more security forces at rallies and increased number of bodyguards for both candidates. However, they are optimistic that the violence will not deter voters from participating in the landmark election.

"We strongly believe nothing will discourage people from voting on Saturday," Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told Reuters.