U.S. forces in Afghanistan suffered the deadliest day of the decadelong war Saturday when insurgents shot down an American helicopter, killing 30 service members — including Navy SEAL commandos from the broader unit that killed Osama bin Laden — and eight Afghans, officials said.
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 they are making steady progress in preparation for turning control of the country over to their Afghan partners. Insurgents have also stepped up attacks in the east, the area of Saturday's incident in the Tangi Valley.
The dead in the attack included 22 Navy SEALs, most of them members of SEAL Team 6, the counterterrorism unit that carried out the mission to find bin Laden, U.S. officials said. They added that none of the commandos who died Saturday were involved in the mission in Pakistan that killed the leader of al-Qaida in May.
In a statement, President Barack 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, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed officials.
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 monthslong intelligence-gathering effort, the Post reported, citing an unnamed U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations. American soldiers had recently turned over the sole combat outpost in the valley to Afghans.
Early accounts of the crash suggested that the helicopter was hovering 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 took 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 landed safely nearby, engaged the insurgents in a firefight and killed about eight of them, the Post reported, citing an unnamed U.S. official. 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.
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 claimed 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.
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.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan offered his condolences to the victims' families.
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 they surged troops into the area as violence spiked on Highway One, a key route into Kabul.
The additional American forces helped drive down violence initially, but in recent months the 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.
Afghanistan has more U.S. special operations troops, about 10,000, than any other theater of war. The forces, often joined by Afghan troops, carry out as many as a dozen raids a night and have become one of the most effective weapons in the coalition's arsenal, also conducting surveillance and infiltration.
From April to July this year, special operations raids captured 2,941 insurgents and killed 834, twice as many as those killed or captured in the same three-month period of 2010, according to NATO.
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.
Until Saturday, the deadliest helicopter crash involving U.S. troops in Afghanistan had occurred in June 2005, when insurgents shot down a Chinook in Kunar province. Sixteen U.S. 16 troops died, most of them Army Rangers. They were trying to rescue a small team of Navy SEALs that had come under fire.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.