The dead in Saturday’s attack included 22 Navy SEALs, most of them members of SEAL Team 6, the counterterrorism unit that carried out the mission to find Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials said. They added that none of the commandos who died Saturday were involved in the cross-border mission that killed the al-Qaeda leader.
In a statement, President Obama expressed his condolences to the families of those who were killed, saying their deaths were a “reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices” made by U.S. troops over the past decade.
He also vowed that U.S. troops would press ahead with the war. “We will draw inspiration from their lives, and continue the work of securing our country and standing up for the values that they embodied.”
The SEALs killed Saturday were on a nighttime mission to kill or capture two high-level insurgents known for organizing devastating roadside bomb attacks on American convoys, officials said.
The attack on the Chinook helicopter near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan underscored a dilemma for the Obama administration as it seeks to reduce the American presence: Even as U.S. and Afghan forces have weakened the Taliban in its southern heartland, the insurgents have been able to hold on to and expand some of their havens in the east.
U.S. forces flew into the Tangi Valley, in a remote part of Wardak province, about 2 a.m. Saturday, following a months-long intelligence-gathering effort, said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations. U.S. troops had recently turned over the sole combat outpost in the valley to Afghans.
Early accounts of the crash suggested that the helicopter was near the target location when an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Chinook and it went down, killing all of the passengers.
The Taliban asserted responsibility for the attack and the deaths of the 30 U.S. service members and eight Afghans on board. In addition to the 22 SEALs, there were eight U.S. troops from the Army and the Air Force.
U.S. officials confirmed that there was enemy activity in the area at the time of the crash, but cautioned that it could take weeks before investigators would be able to say definitively what brought the helicopter down.
Shortly after the crash, troops from a second helicopter managed to land safely nearby, engaging the insurgents in a firefight and killing about eight of them, a U.S. official said. The men then attempted to recover the bodies of the Americans and the Afghans, as well as the remnants of the Chinook. Several hours later, they left the scene, the charred Chinook slung below the undamaged helicopter as it flew away.
SEAL Team 6, which has about 250 to 300 operators, is known formally as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. Senior U.S. military officials said the loss of the SEALs would have little impact on the U.S. military’s ability to conduct strikes on senior and mid-level Taliban officials, which have become increasingly effective and lethal over the past 12 months, according to military officials.
“This will hurt more emotionally than operationally,” said one former official, who has worked closely with special operations forces and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But these are tough people and strong units.”
A larger concern to U.S. officials was the potential impact of the attack on the American public, which has grown increasingly wary about the costs of the war at a time of soaring national debt.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor called the crash a “tragic incident” but warned not to “overread” its significance in terms of administration strategy in Afghanistan.
Saying that “the tide of war is receding,” Obama announced in June that by next summer, all 33,000 troops sent to Afghanistan during the “surge” that began last year would be withdrawn, beginning with 10,000 this year.
U.S. commanders have repeatedly said they are making significant progress as they attempt to transfer control to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. In addition to the political imperatives of winding down the war, deficit-reduction agreements depend on major cuts in military spending. Some of those savings will have to come from U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan, which will help lower the $120 billion annual cost of the war.
In seeking to bring down U.S. troop levels, Obama has pursued a middle ground between officials within his own administration who favored a more rapid withdrawal and generals who argued for higher troop levels through one more fighting season. But events on the ground have complicated his strategy.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, vowed in a statement after the crash Saturday that U.S. troops in Afghanistan would “keep fighting.”
“I am certain that is what our fallen would have wanted, and it is certainly what we are going to do,” he said.
The remote Tangi Valley, which sits near the border between Wardak and Logar provinces, has long been a problem area for U.S. troops and the Afghan government. U.S. forces had for years kept a small presence in those provinces, but in 2009 troops surged into the area in response to a spike in violence along Highway 1, a key route into Kabul.
The additional American forces helped drive down violence initially, but in recent months insurgents have begun to step up attacks in the area. The steep mountains and heavy insurgent activity in the valley have made it one of the most difficult places for U.S. troops to operate.
Afghan officials from the area said Saturday that insurgent activity spiked after NATO troops withdrew from a remote outpost in the area.
“The Americans left because they were getting casualties with each operation . . . and since then, the insurgents have increased their activity,” said Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Wardak governor.
On Saturday, residents of Sayedabad district in Wardak who were awake for an early-morning Ramadan prayer reported hearing a rocket-propelled grenade being fired and then a loud explosion. Flames lit the night sky, they said.
“Then American forces began searching houses and blocked the roads of the village,” said Sana Gal, 35, a resident of Tangi, a village a few hundred yards from the crash site.
Although deadly helicopter crashes have not been common in Afghanistan, they have constituted some of the bloodiest incidents in the war’s history. Before Saturday’s crash, 96 coalition troops had been killed in eight separate crashes since 2005 — products of both mechanical problems and insurgent attacks.
Chinook helicopters are vulnerable to attack from rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns when taking off and landing.
In the most dangerous areas, the U.S. military typically flies helicopters only at night and only when there is little or no illumination from the moon. This has long been true in eastern Afghanistan, where the steep mountains along the border with Pakistan limit where the helicopters can fly and allow insurgents to lie in wait.
Prior to Saturday’s attack, the deadliest helicopter crash involving U.S. troops in Afghanistan occurred in June 2005, when insurgents shot down a Chinook in Konar province, near the Korengal Valley. Sixteen U.S. 16 troops died. The eight Navy SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers were flying into the valley to rescue a small team of Navy SEALs who had come under fire.
The crash Saturday brings the total number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 274.
Overall, the summer fighting season has been less deadly this year for American troops than last year. Last month, 37 U.S. service members were killed, compared with 65 in July 2010, according to iCasualties, which tracks fatalities. In June, 47 were killed, compared with 60 in June 2010.
“No words describe the sorrow we feel in the wake of this tragic loss,” Gen. John R. Allen, the top general in Afghanistan, said in the aftermath of Saturday’s deaths. “All of those killed in this operation were true heroes who had already given so much in the defense of freedom.”
Jaffe reported from Washington. Staff writers Jason Ukman and Karen DeYoung and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report from Washington. Special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Sayed Salahuddin contributed from Kabul.