Taliban Downing of NATO Chopper Not a ‘Watershed,’ Pentagon Says

The Aug. 6 downing of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization CH-47 Chinook helicopter in eastern Afghanistan, killing 30 U.S. special operations troops, isn’t a “watershed” implying new Taliban momentum, a Pentagon spokesman said today.

“It’s a ‘combat’ incident,” said the spokesman, Marine Colonel David Lapan. “We take casualties. This one incident does not represent any kind of watershed or trend.”

“As we have said, the Taliban was going to come back hard. They were not going to take the losses they have suffered over the last year lightly. They are going to try and inflict casualties,” he said. “We still have the Taliban on the run.”

The U.S. special operations community will absorb the loss and knows how to “soldier on,” Lapan said.

The retiring head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Admiral Eric Olson, struck a similar theme today at his change-of-command ceremony, where he said that personnel will “press on.”

The 30 dead included 22 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, two U.S. officials said Sunday on condition of anonymity.

None of those killed were from the SEAL Team Six squadron involved in that raid, they said. The SEAL team today is formally known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. The officials spoke on condition that they not be identified to discuss confidential details.

‘Catastrophic’ Crash

Lapan said the Pentagon will release the casualty list 24 hours after the final notification of next of kin. In a statement released after Lapan’s briefing, a Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Capt. Jane Campbell, said that due to the “catastrophic” nature of the crash, individual bodies will not be formally identified until they are returned to the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

“Because the remains are unidentified at this point, next-of-kin are not in a position to grant approval for media access to the dignified transfer,” Campbell said. “Therefore, in accordance with DoD policy, no media coverage of the arrival and dignified transfer is permitted. Families will however, be given the opportunity to be present for the arrival.”

‘American Resolve’

Speaking at Olson’s change-of-command ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, the home of the Special Operations Command, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the attack would not “derail” U.S. attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

“We will send a strong message of American resolve,” Panetta said. “From the tragedy we will draw inspiration to carry on the fight and continue to hunt down those who would do us harm,” he said.

Olson, a SEAL, will be succeeded as Special Operations Command leader by another SEAL, Admiral William McRaven, who commanded the raid that killed bin Laden.

In a statement today, NATO said the helicopter carrying the special operations troops was destroyed as it was flying into an ongoing firefight in the Tangi Valley that targeted a Taliban leader.

“The operation began as a security search for a Taliban leader responsible for insurgent operations in the nearby Tangi Valley,” the NATO statement said. “After commencing the search, the initial security force on the ground observed several insurgents, armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47 assault rifles, moving through the area.”

“The security force and insurgents exchanged small arms fire, resulting in several enemies killed,” NATO said.

Additional Forces Needed

“As the insurgents continued to fire, the combined force on the ground requested additional forces,” NATO said. “Those additional personnel were inbound to the scene when the CH-47 carrying them crashed, killing all on board.”

Lapan said NATO suspected that the CH-47 was downed by an unguided rocket-propelled grenade, not a more advanced heat-seeking shoulder-fired missile that might have indicated a new level of Taliban capability.

Rocket-propelled grenades, designed to attack ground vehicles, are sometimes used against helicopters. The two UH-60 Black Hawks downed during the October 1993 U.S. “Black Hawk Down” raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, were hit by RPGs.

In a 2009 Joint Aircraft Survivability Report to the House defense appropriations subcommittee, the Army examined helicopter losses in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2008. The Army lost 327 aircraft, with 469 fatalities.

Sixty-five of the aircraft and 100 personnel killed were downed by hostile action; of those, 28 deaths were caused by attacks from RPGs, according to the study.

Helicopter Destroyed

The helicopter, belonging to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, went down in Maidan Wardak province, according to a statement from the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The helicopter was destroyed, shot down by the Taliban, Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the province, said in a phone interview.

The loss marks the largest number of U.S. troops killed at one time since the October 2001 start of the war to oust the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan and harbored al-Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

President Barack Obama said in June that 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.

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