NATO officials in Kabul said a ground team of Special Operations forces had been hunting a suspected Taliban leader in Wardak province early Saturday when they became engaged in a firefight with “several” insurgents in Sayyidabad district. Although some of the enemy fighters were killed, the U.S. forces requested reinforcement, NATO said in a statement released Monday.
A commando force of 22 Navy SEALs and three Air Force Special Operations personnel scrambled for a rescue mission and boarded the Chinook, which was operated by five Army aviators. The helicopter also carried eight Afghan soldiers.
The chopper crashed just as it was arriving on the scene, felled by a rocket-propelled grenade, NATO said. It is relatively rare for the Taliban to shoot down U.S. helicopters; nonetheless, the aircraft are prone to coming under small-arms or rocket fire when they take off or land.
Everyone aboard the Chinook perished, but the U.S. commandos on the ground did not suffer any casualties and were able to fend off the insurgents on their own. They also managed to secure the crash site until another helicopter arrived, military officials said, raising questions for investigators about whether the original rescue mission was necessary.
Military officials said the crash would not deter them from deploying Special Operations forces in aggressive night raids against Taliban fighters, a key part of the U.S. strategy in the conflict. They also said that the setback did not represent a broader Taliban resurgence.
“At this point, it’s a one-off incident,” said Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. “It’s the danger of operating aircraft in combat.”
In Tampa, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who was attending a change-of-command ceremony for the leadership of the U.S. Special Operations Command, praised the fallen troops and said the military would not back off in the fight.
“As heavy a loss as this was, it would even be more tragic if we allowed it to derail us from our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan,” Panetta said.
Remote areas such as the Tangi Valley, where the Chinook crashed, have long posed a dilemma for U.S. and Afghan forces. From 2006 to 2009, the United States established outposts in these enemy havens with the goal of driving off insurgents and winning the support of Afghans with jobs, roads and development.