31 U.S. Soldiers Killed in NATO Helicopter Crash in Afghanistan

A military helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan late Friday, killing all 31 Americans and seven Afghan commands on board, making the incident the single biggest loss of life for U.S. forces since the war began in 2001.

Taliban insurgents and local officials said the helicopter had been downed by a rocket-propelled grenade moments after taking off after its passengers had stormed a house where Taliban fighters had gathered. Photo: Tim Hetherington/Outpost Films via Flickr

In the deadliest single loss for American forces in the decade-old war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, insurgents shot down a U.S. military helicopter during fighting in eastern Afghanistan, killing 31 Americans, most of them belonging to the same elite unit as the Navy SEALs who killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, as well as seven Afghan commandos, U.S. officials said Saturday.

The helicopter, on a night-raid mission in the Tangi Valley of Wardak Province, to the west of Kabul, was most likely brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade, one coalition official said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and they could hardly have found a more valuable target: American officials said that 22 of the dead were Navy Seal commandos, including members of Seal Team 6. Other commandos from that team conducted the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Bin Laden in May. The officials said that those who were killed Saturday were not involved in the Pakistan mission.

It was widely reported Saturday that the craft was believed to have been brought down by insurgent fire. The Taliban claimed they downed the Chinook transport helicopter with rocket fire while it was taking part in a raid on a house in the province of Wardak.

In a statement, NATO would not confirm the cause of the crash, but did indicate that there was “enemy activity” in the area: “An International Security Assistance Force helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan today, and recovery operations are underway. ISAF is still in the process of assessing the circumstances to determine the facts of the incident, reporting indicates there was enemy activity in the area.”

President Barack Obama offered his condolences to the families of the Americans and Afghans who died in the attack. “Their death is a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifice made by the men and women of our military and their families,” Mr. Obama said. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan also offered his condolences to the victims’ families.

The incident handed a propaganda coup to the insurgents as violence in much of Afghanistan remains at record levels.  The Taliban have no air power of their own and helicopters and gunships are some of the most potent weapons in the Nato arsenal.

Saturday’s attack came during a surge of violence that has accompanied the beginning of a drawdown of American and NATO troops, and it showed how deeply entrenched the insurgency remains even far from its main strongholds in southern Afghanistan and along the Afghan-Pakistani border in the east. American soldiers had recently turned over the sole combat outpost in the Tangi Valley to Afghans.

Gen. Abdul Qayum Baqizoy, the police chief of Wardak, said the attack occurred around 1 a.m. Saturday after an assault on a Taliban compound in the village of Jaw-e-Mekh Zareen in the Tangi Valley. The fighting lasted at least two hours, the general said.

The Tangi Valley traverses the border between Wardak and Logar Province, an area where security has worsened over the past two years, bringing the insurgency closer to the capital, Kabul. It is one of several inaccessible areas that have become havens for insurgents, according to operations and intelligence officers with the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, which patrols the area.

The mountainous region, with its steeply pitched hillsides and arid shale, laced by small footpaths and byways, has long been an area that the Taliban have used to move between Logar and Wardak, local government officials said.

The redoubts in these areas pose the kind of problems the military faced last year in similarly remote areas of Kunar Province, forcing commanders to weigh the mission’s value given the cost in soldiers’ lives and dollars spent in places where the vast majority of the insurgents are local residents who resent both the NATO presence and the Afghan government.

The dilemma is that if NATO military forces do not stay, the areas often quickly slip back under Taliban influence, if not outright control, and the Afghan National Security Forces do not have the ability yet to rout them.

When the Fourth Brigade Combat Team handed over its only combat outpost in the Tangi Valley to Afghan security forces in April, the American commander for the area said that as troops began to withdraw, he wanted to focus his forces on troubled areas that had larger populations. But he pledged that coalition forces would continue to carry out raids there to stem insurgent activity.

Within days of the transition, the Taliban raised their flag near the outpost, said a NATO official familiar with the situation. Afghan security forces remained in the area but were no match for the Taliban, the official said. Local officials in Wardak said that residents of the Tangi Valley disliked the fighting in the area, and that though they had fallen under the Taliban’s sway, the residents were not willing allies.

Helicopters are critical to Nato operations in Afghanistan where roads are often non-existent, impassable or heavily mined. The aircraft make up the backbone of military transport and supply in remote and hostile areas. Sandstorms and extreme temperatures add to the risks and there have been at least 17 coalition and Afghan aircraft crashes in Afghanistan in 2011. Most were attributed to pilot error, weather conditions or mechanical failures.

This was the second helicopter to be shot down by insurgents in the past two weeks. On July 25, a Chinook was shot down in Kunar Province, injuring two people on board. Of 15 crashes or forced landings this year, those two were the only confirmed cases where hostile fire was involved.

Before Saturday, the biggest single-day loss of life for the American military in Afghanistan came on June 28, 2005, during an operation in Kunar Province when a Chinook helicopter carrying Special Operations troops was shot down as it tried to provide reinforcements to forces trapped in heavy fighting. Sixteen members of a Special Operations unit were killed in the crash, and three more were killed in fighting on the ground.

Although the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan has steadily risen in the past year, with a 15 percent increase in the first half of 2011 over the same period last year, NATO deaths had been declining — decreasing 20 percent in the first six months of 2011 compared with 2010. [Header photo via Jon Soucy/Flickr; Story via NY Times, The Telegraph (UK) and The Huff Post]

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