KABUL, Afghanistan – The 30 U.S. troops killed when their Chinook helicopter was shot down Saturday in western Afghanistan – most of them Navy SEALs – were fighting a war rarely talked about.
They were not battling Afghanistan’s ingrained corruption, or building new roads or crafting nascent local governments. They were part of a group of elite troops that operate stealthily in the night and go after the U.S.’ most wanted targets of the war.
It was the worst single-day toll for American forces in Afghanistan since U.S. troops entered that country nearly 10 years ago, and one of the largest tolls in a single incident of either the Afghan war or the fighting in Iraq. Seven Afghan troops also died in the crash, and an interpreter was killed as well. In all, 38 people and a SEAL dog died in the crash.
The Associated Press reported that some of the 22 SEALs were from SEAL Team 6, the same unit that provided the troops for the May 2 raid that killed al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden, but that could not be verified independently. The Pentagon released no information on the dead as officials worked to notify the troops’ families of their losses.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan provided no details. A senior Pentagon official in Washington confirmed that the helicopter had been shot down, though he said he could not provide details.
Every night, scores of helicopters like the blasted Chinook leave bases and land amid Taliban strongholds in remote areas, chasing local Taliban or terrorist leaders. Their activities rarely get reported, even when they are successful, with the notable exception of the May killing of bin Laden.
But Afghans have come to expect such stealthy operations.
A villager in the area where the helicopter went down told McClatchy he heard rocket fire. He said he later saw the helicopter burning in an orchard about a half-mile from his home.
“Smoke was rising from the helicopter,” Mansour Majab said.
Majab told McClatchy that night raids by U.S.-led forces happen frequently.
“Every night the helicopters are flying over our house,” he said by phone. He said that on Thursday U.S. troops conducting a night raid in another village killed three Taliban fighters.
He said Taliban forces fired a rocket at the helicopter that later went down.
“I was in the house and taking some food for the guests who were in our house. I heard the sound of a rocket firing,” Majab said. “Later we saw a helicopter downed in an apple and apricot orchard about a kilometer away. There is a river between our house and the place where the helicopter was downed. Smoke was rising from the helicopter till morning.”
Majab said that “most people are awake during night because of night raids” and that the region is dominated by the Taliban. “From each house at least one person is with the Taliban,” he said.
In a conflict defined by U.S. troops who spend as much time nation-building as destroying the enemy, those killed Saturday were among the few forces that focus strictly on capturing and killing an enemy.
That so many of the military’s most elite forces were killed will have a marked impact on special operations in Afghanistan. It takes years to train a Navy SEAL unit, and the deaths of those SEALs killed on the Chinook will reverberate across the force.
Indeed, in a military that has been fighting this war for a decade, the news was met with shock at military installations across the world. At U.S. Special Operations Command, for example, where officials plan to welcome a new commander, the ceremony is being revamped to a more intimate tone in light of Saturday’s losses.
The work of Navy SEALs in Afghanistan is the nexus of the U.S. effort to win the battle over terrorist groups. Perhaps as a reflection of that, in 2008, then-President George W. Bush awarded a Navy SEAL, Lt. Michael Murphy, a Medal of Honor posthumously. He was the first Medal of Honor recipient from the war in Afghanistan.
The crash renewed questions about U.S. claims that the security in Afghanistan is gradually improving, in part, because the Taliban is allegedly weaker.
The Taliban claimed credit for the attack in a statement.
“Last night at 11 p.m. in the Joye Zarin area of Tangi Saybabad district, the invader forces conducted a night raid and faced hard resistance from the Islamic Emirate fighters,” according to the statement, attributed to Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid and posted on the group’s website.
Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman for the provincial governor, largely confirmed the Taliban statement, saying the crash had taken place after an operation by the International Security Assistance Force, as the U.S.-led coalition is known, killed eight insurgents.
“After the operation the ISAF helicopter crashed, and there are casualties,” Shahid said. “The area has been surrounded by U.S.-led NATO forces.”
The site was in Maidan Wardak, a volatile province about 25 miles west of Kabul. It shares a border with Logar, another insecure province.
The Afghan defense ministry confirmed the death of seven Afghan commandos in the crash. Gen. Zahir Azimy, the Afghan army spokesman, placed the crash in Logar province, however.
The crash raised questions about administration claims that the United States can leave by the end of 2014 without fears of Taliban retaking control of the country.
Often the U.S. military has noted that the Taliban is on the run from areas in the south and east they once firmly controlled because of an aggressive U.S. campaign in Taliban strongholds over the last year. But a string of successful assassinations and high-profile attacks has some asking whether losing such ground has in fact made the Taliban weaker.
Since April, the Taliban has claimed to have assassinated Kandahar’s police chief and mayor and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother and power governor of Kandahar. In addition, the Taliban claimed last month to have killed a top presidential aide.
In June, insurgents attacked the seemingly secure Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing 18 and rattling residents in Kabul about their security.
As recently as Thursday, top military officials said that they expect the Taliban to continue targeted attacks in response to their lost ground. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that the Taliban is moving to “spectacular assassinations” but “we’re working hard to protect certainly our forces and also provide enhanced security for the – for the senior Afghan officials which are targeted here.”
Regardless, U.S. military officials have said they can safely, albeit gradually, draw down troops. The U.S. is planning to withdraw 10,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year, citing security gains and a more capable Afghan army and police. There are roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed his condolences for the deaths to President Barack Obama and the families of the American dead.
Obama issued a statement from the White House. It read, in part:
“My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the Americans who were lost earlier today in Afghanistan. Their deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families, including all who have served in Afghanistan.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Mullen issued similar statements.
The last time the U.S. military suffered such catastrophic losses was in January 2005, when 30 U.S. Marines and a sailor were killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq’s Anbar province; throughout the country, another six U.S. troops died on the ground that same day.
The U.S. military will conduct at least two investigations into Saturday’s crash.
The Army, which was flying the Chinook, will conduct an internal investigation and ISAF will conduct another, said Col. Tim Nye, a U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman.