WASHINGTON - An Army special forces soldier was killed yesterday during a firefight in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, the first member of the U.S. military to die from hostile fire in the 3-month-old conflict, defense officials said.
A CIA officer, who was among those accompanying the special forces soldiers, was wounded by the small-arms fire but is expected to survive, officials said.
No other U.S. personnel were hurt, officials said.
Some Pentagon officials say the hazards might be even greater now because U.S. soldiers are trying to root out the final few enemy holdouts, who can more easily conceal themselves.
The dead soldier was identified as Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman, 31, of San Antonio, Texas. He was based at Fort Lewis, Washington, with the 1st Special Forces Group.
Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the military operation in Afghanistan, said the soldier was part of a team working with Afghan tribes around Gardeyz-Khowst, where some members of the al-Qaida network fled after the U.S. bombardment of the mountainous Tora Bora area to the north.
The Army special forces, also known as Green Berets, have in some cases been working with CIA officers and Afghan fighters to gather intelligence.
"There was an exchange of small-arms fire," Franks said at a news conference in Tampa, Fla., where the U.S. Central Command is based.
"This American serviceman was doing his job. He was out for the purpose of working with and coordinating with tribal leaders in that area."
"Much very dangerous work remains to be done," Franks said, noting that soldiers and Afghan fighters will continue to hunt down the remaining pockets of al-Qaida terrorists and Taliban fighters.
"I am thankful every day that we have not lost more people than we have lost in this fight.
"But I will tell you, in each case when we have lost someone, I think it touches our command and touches all of us very deeply."
The killing of the soldier comes after the deaths of three other Green Berets, who were hit by friendly fire Dec. 5 after they called in a U.S. airstrike and the bomb fell too close to their position outside the southern city of Kandahar.
In addition, Johnny Micheal Spann, a CIA officer, was killed in November during a prison uprising outside the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
Meeting with tribal leaders
In the latest incident, Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said "a small number" of U.S. soldiers were finishing a meeting with local tribal leaders to "develop a closer working relationship," one of the prime roles of the U.S. special forces in Afghanistan.
Just after the meeting ended, the soldiers and the Afghan fighters came under small-arms fire.
The soldier died of his wounds as he was being evacuated by helicopter to a medical facility outside Afghanistan, Quigley said.
There was no indication, he said, that any anti-Taliban Afghan fighters were wounded.
A U.S. special forces quick-reaction force arrived within 15 to 20 minutes, Quigley said, but the firefight had ended and the enemy fighters were gone. It was not clear whether they were Taliban or al-Qaida forces.
That area of Paktia province, a few miles from the Pakistan border and south of the capital, Kabul, has become the main focus of U.S. military action as the search for Osama bin Laden goes on, Franks said.
For a second day, U.S. warplanes attacked an al-Qaida compound outside Khowst that included a training site, buildings and caves. Franks said the attack was unrelated to the Green Beret's death yesterday.
That the first combat death of a U.S. soldier has come three months into the conflict reflects how smoothly the operation has gone.
But officials note that it also shows U.S. forces have entered a perilous phase as they root out the remaining pockets of fighters.
Some of them, military officials believe, are guarding Taliban and al-Qaida leaders and could be among the most loyal and battle-hardened enemy forces.
On Thursday, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that in light of the continued enemy resistance, Afghanistan "is still a very dangerous place."
Green Berets' critical role
The soldier's death also highlights the important role being played by the U.S. special forces in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said they are "critical" to the U.S. campaign, because they carry out such crucial tasks as linking up with local tribes and calling in airstrikes.
Most of the special forces have come from the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., which has responsibility for the region that includes Afghanistan. The soldiers are not only highly trained for combat but are also well-versed in the local languages and cultures.
The ability of special forces to call in precise bombing turned the tide of the conflict and allowed the Northern Alliance to capture Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul.
Moreover, the three special forces soldiers who were killed by friendly fire at Tirin Kowt, a village just outside Kandahar, were part of a 12-member team that joined with the forces of Hamid Karzai - now the country's interim leader - to rout a larger Taliban force of 500 soldiers.
Some defense officials now see that battle as a pivotal development in the fall of Kandahar.
Capt. Jason Amerine, who led the team and was wounded in the incident, called the battle "our greatest victory."
He said the surviving members would mourn the dead, care for the families and then rebuild.
"We'll hope that we get another mission quickly and we can get back into the war," Amerine said.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a former NATO supreme commander who led the military campaign in Kosovo, agreed that the special forces soldiers have played "a huge role."
And he suggested that their collaboration with Afghan tribes to hunt down remaining Taliban and al-Qaida forces could help maintain a peaceful future.
"They're going to keep the country together," Clark said.