U.S. forces are accompanying Afghan special operations forces on about 10 percent of their missions, the spokesman for the U.S. military effort there said Thursday.
"On average, we probably have somebody out every night or every other night, some place in the country," said Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland.
Cleveland said on those missions, NATO forces — including U.S. troops — leave their bases and accompany Afghan forces as they move toward their planned destination.
"We don't put NATO forces on the objective. What they do is they stop at the last safe location," he said.
Cleveland said Army Staff Sgt. Matthew V. Thompson, 28, was on that type of mission when he was killed earlier this week by a bomb. Another U.S. service member was wounded, and six Afghan troops were killed.
Thompson's death underscored the risk that U.S. troops still face in Afghanistan, almost two years after President Obama declared the U.S. combat mission there over.
Since then, Taliban insurgents have tried to stage a comeback in the country, particularly its heartland in Helmand Province. Obama has twice revised his troop drawdown schedule, announcing earlier this year he will leave 8,400 troops in the country by the time he leaves office.
U.S. troops are working to train, advise and assist Afghan forces, as well as engaging in a separate counterterrorism mission to go after al Qaeda and encroaching fighters loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Cleveland said 80 percent of operations by the Afghan special operations forces, who lead the fight, are conducted without NATO help.
Ten percent are "enabled operations" in which NATO forces don't leave their base but help the Afghans with planning, intelligence and logistics. But the remaining 10 percent are cases in which NATO members do accompany Afghan forces to the fight.
Cleveland said the Taliban continue to pose a challenge in the provinces of Kunduz in the north, and Helmand and Nangarhar in the south. Last week, the U.S. sent about 100 advisers to Lashkar Gah in Helmand.
"Helmand has always been the Taliban's main effort. It is their prime focus. It is where they invest the most energy," Cleveland said.
The Taliban are conducting raids there in groups of about 15 to 20 on checkpoints and district centers to loot them and withdraw.
Cleveland said U.S. military help was still necessary after Afghan forces suffered setbacks last year, particularly in the south where they were too spread out, had "a number of very poor leaders," and required more training.
He said since then, the Afghan military has replaced more than 100 leaders, including at the highest levels, and have had some success in preventing the Taliban from retaking a strategic highway in the south, and Marjah, where the U.S. staged a troop surge in 2009.
"And so, really what we see is the Taliban are not able to hold any specific terrain. And most important is, they are not able to hold any of the population centers," he said.
"As we know, it's not perfect. As we know, there is certainly still violence down there. But when we look at what the Taliban has accomplished, by and large they have been very local successes, and they've been temporary because in most instances, the ANDSF has been able to move back out, reclaim the area, and then finally protect their population centers."