22 Navy SEALs among 30 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan as NATO helicopter is shot down

Correction: An earlier version fo this article incorrectly said that most of the 16 Americans killed when a helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in June 2005 were Army Rangers. They were eight Navy SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers, as members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) are known. This version has been corrected.

August 6, 2011

NATO copter downed; Navy SEALs among the 30 U.S. dead

U.S. forces in Afghanistan suffered the deadliest day of the decade-long war Saturday when insurgents shot down an American helicopter, killing 30 U.S. servicemen and eight Afghans in the latest of a series of setbacks for coalition forces whose numbers are set to decline over the coming months.

As U.S. troops have pushed the Taliban from havens in the south, the insurgents have retaliated in recent weeks with high-profile attacks and assassinations of Afghan officials. The incidents have challenged U.S. assertions that the military is making steady progress in preparation for turning control of the country over to its Afghan partners. Insurgents have also stepped up attacks in the mountainous east, the site of Saturday’s incident.

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.

by Kevin Sieff

and Greg Jaffe

KABUL — A NATO helicopter was shot down during an overnight operation against the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan, killing 30 U.S. service members, including about 20 SEALs from the elite SEAL Team 6 counterrorism unit that carried out the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, the coalition said.

The crash, which was the deadliest incident for the coalition in the nearly 10-year-old war, also killed seven Afghan commandos and a civilian interpreter, NATO said, adding that an investigation was underway.

A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter said the aircraft was most likely brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade. The Taliban asserted responsibility for the crash, which occurred in Wardak province, just west of the capital, Kabul.

American and Afghan officials said that the Chinook aircraft had been operating in an area of heavy insurgent activity. A senior U.S. official said that none of the 20 SEALs who died in the crash had participated in the May raid to kill bin Laden, adding that the downed Chinook was piloted by a regular Army crew.

The official said that the loss of the SEALs, while tragic, would not have a major impact on U.S. counterterrorism operations.

“Anytime you lose SEALs it has a tactical impact, but there will be no strategic change,” the official said. “Nothing has changed in our ability to hunt down and kill the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”

SEAL Team 6, known formally as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, consists of about 250 to 300 operators. A former U.S. official who has worked closely with Special Operations forces said the losses would hurt more on “an emotional than an operational level.” The bigger worry voiced by senior U.S. officials was the impact of the loss on the American public’s psyche and support for the increasingly unpopular conflict.

Saturday’s crash comes during a surge of violence across large swaths of Afghanistan, particularly in the east, which has become a flash point in the conflict as American troops prepare for a phased withdrawal from the country. The incident threatened to shake confidence in NATO’s air power — a key asset in the war and a important element of combat support offered to Afghans, who lack an air force of their own.

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.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said an insurgent shot down the helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade after the conclusion of a firefight in which eight Taliban fighters were killed.

The U.S. official who described the downing of the helicopter concurred with that account, saying the aircraft had been on a mission to kill or capture two high-level insurgents known for organizing devastating roadside bomb attacks on American convoys along the volatile road south of Kabul called Highway One. They arrived in the Tangi Valley, in a remote part of Wardak province, about 2 a.m. on Saturday, following a months-long intelligence-gathering effort.

Just as the helicopter was near the target location, an insurgent fired what the official said was likely a rocket-propelled grenade at the Chinook, which went down, killing all of the passengers.

Troops from a second helicopter managed to land safely in the rural location, engaging the insurgents in a firefight, killing about eight of them, the official said. The men then secured the site, letting the wreckage burn, attempting 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. 

Deadly helicopter crashes have not been especially common in Afghanistan, but despite their infrequency, they constitute 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, particularly in mountainous terrain, because they are big targets that fly low to the ground. In the most dangerous areas, the U.S. military will typically fly Chinooks only at night and only when there is little or no illumination from the moon. This has long been true in restive and mountainous areas throughout eastern Afghanistan and has at times made it challenging to resupply units.

The Chinooks have not been the only U.S. helicopters involved in fatal crashes in Afghanistan. In one of the deadliest incidents in recent years, a Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Zabul province last September, killing nine American service members.

The deadliest helicopter crash involving U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan occurred in June 2005, when insurgents shot down a Chinook in Konar province, near the Korengal Valley. Sixteen U.S. 16 troops, most of them Army Rangers, died. The Rangers were flying into the valley to rescue a small team of Navy SEALs that had come under fire.

That incident led U.S. forces to set up outposts in the Korengal, a remote valley that was a hotbed of insurgent activity. From 2006 to 2010 the valley was one of the most violent spots in Afghanistan for U.S. troops; more than 50 Americans were killed there. In the spring of 2010, Americans pulled out of the valley.

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 surged troops into the area.

The insurgency in Wardak and Logar is generally thought to be affiliated with the Haqqani network.

U.S. forces had wanted to make Paktika and Khost provinces their main focus in the east this fighting season. But the increased violence in Wardak and Logar, and their proximity to Kabul, forced the Americans to change plans. Since then, Wardak and Logar have been the main focus of U.S. forces in the east.

Local Afghan officials were quick to point out Saturday that insurgent activity in the volatile Tangi Valley, where the latest helicopter crash occurred, has spiked in recent months, since some NATO troops withdrew from a remote base 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.

All foreign combat forces are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and some withdrawals have already begun, coinciding with the launch of a security transition in seven largely peaceful cities and provinces. But while Afghan forces have assumed formal control of those areas, some of the country’s more volatile regions have shown little sign of progress, leaving many Afghans and Americans wary of the prospects for the war’s endgame.

The crash Saturday brings the total number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan in 2011 to 374, according to the icasualties.org Web site. Two-thirds of them have been American, including 28 Special Forces soldiers.

In a statement, President Obama expressed his condolences to the families and loved ones of those who were killed, saying their deaths were 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.”

“We will draw inspiration from their lives, and continue the work of securing our country and standing up for the values that they embodied,” he said. “We also mourn the Afghans who died alongside our troops in pursuit of a more peaceful and hopeful future for their country.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also issued a statement, saying he was “deeply saddened by the loss of many outstanding Americans in uniform and of their Afghan counterparts.” Their courage, he said, was exemplary.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s office said in a statement, “The president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has expressed his condolences to the U.S. President Barack Obama and to the families of the victims.”

Jaffe reported from Washington. Special correspondents Sayed Salahuddin and Javed Hamdard in Kabul and staff writer Jason Ukman and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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