A North Atlantic Treaty Organization CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down in an eastern province of Afghanistan, killing 30 U.S. special operations forces, seven Afghan commandos and a civilian interpreter.
Twenty-two of the Americans killed were members of the U.S. Navy SEAL commando force, some from the elite unit once known as SEAL Team Six that carried out the May raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, said two U.S. officials today on condition of anonymity.
None of those killed were from the specific SEAL Team Six squadron involved in the raid, they said. The SEAL team today is formally known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. The officials spoke on condition they not be identified to discuss confidential details. One said the Pentagon will likely release the list of the U.S. dead tomorrow.
The helicopter, belonging to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, went down in the Maidan Wardak province, according to a statement from the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The helicopter was completely destroyed, shot down by the Taliban, Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Maidan Wardak province, said in a phone interview.
The loss marks the most U.S. troops killed at one time since the 2001 start of the war to oust the Taliban, who harbored al-Qaeda before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. President Barack Obama said in June the U.S. is beginning this year to withdraw forces from the conflict and to turn over control in some areas to the Afghan army and police.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai called President Barack Obama today to offer his condolences for the loss of U.S. soldiers in the helicopter attack, the White House said in a statement. Obama, in turn, expressed his condolences for the Afghans who died, and the two leaders agreed to keep in touch, the statement said.
The U.S.-led coalition has begun a renewed military push into the mountainous terrain of eastern Afghanistan to target Taliban forces there after the addition of 30,000 American troops last year halted their gains in the country’s south.
“We have stepped up operations very sharply with the surge and we are entering areas with high concentrations of Taliban,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies policy group in Washington. “It’s inevitable that you are with the gains going to have incidents like this.”
Establishing the type of weapon used in the attack is necessary to gauge whether a more sophisticated threat has emerged in Afghanistan, Mark Pritchard, a U.K. Member of Parliament and vice-chairman of the Conservative Parliamentary Defence Committee, said by phone.
“Most NATO aircraft are fitted with effective defensive suites counter-measures,” said Pritchard. “The investigation will also need to examine what on-board and stand-off counter-measures, if any, were deployed in support of this particular mission.”
NATO, in an initial statement, said that the helicopter had crashed and that recovery operations were under way.
“An investigation is underway to determine the exact cause of the crash,” according to a statement from General John Allen, commander of the international force in Afghanistan.
A Taliban rocket downed the helicopter after a two-hour operation by U.S. forces, Zabihullah Mujahed, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a phone interview from an undisclosed location. Eight Taliban also died in the clash, Mujahed said.
Iran has been training Taliban fighters in the use of surface-to-air missiles and investigators will need to determine whether that training has now been matched with updated weaponry, British MP Pritchard said.
Obama, in a message yesterday that extended his condolences to the families and friends of soldiers killed, said the “work of securing our country and standing up for the values that they embodied” will continue.
The incident isn’t likely to change declining American public or congressional support for the war, said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, which leads the 48-nation coalition.
“The big trend line is already set -- troops withdrawals on a schedule, linked to beefing up Afghanistan’s own security capabilities,” said Volker, who now is managing director, international, for BGR Group consulting firm in Washington, formerly known as Barbour, Griffith & Rogers Inc.
“A loss of life like this is tragic, but I don’t think it will have any new impact on Afghan debate here,” he said.