A very tragic development in our involvement in Afghanistan. Several news sources are reporting that “dozens” of U.S. soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash near the Afghan capital, Kabul, late Friday night.
The New York Times reports that the Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade launched by insurgents just west of Kabul.
It is believed to be the deadliest helicopter crash in the Allies’ decade-long involvement in that country and, if confirmed, the deadliest day for American forces since the Afghanistan war began.
According to the Times,
Afghan military officials put the death toll at 38, including 31 Americans and 7 Afghan commandos. President Hamid Karzai’s office, in a statement, described the American casualties as members of the Special Operations forces. The coalition official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it, confirmed that most of the dead were NATO forces, but could not immediately identify their nationalities or the units to which they belonged.
According to the Washington Post, a second helicopter made a precautionary landing on Saturday suffering “minor damages” with all on board escaping unhurt. Capt. Justin M. Brockhoff, a spokesman with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), rejected Taliban’s claim that the group had shot it down.
The helicopter was taking the personnel back to their base after an operation.
Neither the US nor [NATO] have confirmed the cause, but witnesses, officials and the Taliban say it was shot down.
The incident is believed to be the biggest single loss of life for US forces in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001.
“The president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan expresses his sympathy and deep condolences to US President Barack Obama and the family of the victims,” the statement from Hamid Karzai said.
President Obama, too, issued a statement paying tribute to the Americans and Afghans who died in the crash.
“We will draw inspiration from their lives, and continue the work of securing our country and standing up for the values that they embodied. We also mourn the Afghans who died alongside our troops in pursuit of a more peaceful and hopeful future for their country,” the statement said.
“What we saw was that when we having our pre-dawn (Ramadan) meal, Americans landed some soldiers for an early raid,” said Mohammad Wali Wardag.
“This other helicopter also came for the raid. We were outside our rooms on a veranda and saw this helicopter flying very low, it was hit by a rocket and it was on fire. It started coming down and crashed just away from our home close to the river.”
The BBC also provide the following chronology of “NATO’s worst Afghan moments”:
• 6 April 2005 – Chinook crash in Ghazni province kills 15 US soldiers and three civilian contractors
• 28 June 2005 – 16 US troops killed when Taliban bring down Chinook in Kunar province
• 16 August 2005 – 17 Spanish soldiers die when Cougar helicopter crashes near Herat
• 5 May 2006 – 10 US soldiers die after Chinook crashes east of Kabul
• 2 Sept 2006 – 14 UK personnel killed when RAF Nimrod explodes following mid-air refuelling
• 18 August 2008 – 10 French soldiers killed in Taliban ambush east of Kabul
• 6 August 2011 – 31 US special forces and seven Afghan soldiers killed in Chinook crash
UPDATE, 10:25 CST
CNN reports that most of the U.S. troops killed may have been navy SEALS.
UPDATE: 20:30 CST
The Washington Post reports that the dead in Saturday’s attack included 22 Navy SEALs, most of them members of SEAL Team 6, the counterterrorism unit that carried out the mission to find Osama bin Laden, although none of the commandos who died Saturday were involved in the raid in Abbottabad that killed Bin Laden in May.
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, officials said.
The New York Times reports
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.
The Air Force Times says:
The naval special warfare community was reeling in what one member called “shock and disbelief” Saturday after 22 of its own died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan that also killed eight other U.S. service members, a civilian interpreter and seven Afghan soldiers.
The CH-47 Chinook crash, which occurred during a raid in Wardak province, is believed to be the biggest single loss ever suffered by the NSW community or in the 24-year history of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Of the 22 NSW members killed, 17 were SEALs and five were direct support personnel, according to the source in the NSW community. Two of the SEALs were from a West Coast SEAL unit, but the others were from Gold Squadron of Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DevGru, sometimes known as SEAL Team 6, said the NSW source.
The remaining U.S. military casualties were divided between a five-person regular Army aircrew and three Air Force combat controllers, said a special ops source who has been briefed on the incident. The use of a regular Army Chinook to fly a JSOC mission was “atypical,” the source said. Most JSOC missions involving helicopters are flown by the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne).
The Defense Department has not announced which unit or units the three Air Force personnel were from, but most JSOC missions of this type are supported by members of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron.
The [NSW] source noted that twice as many NSW personnel died in the Wardak crash than were killed in Operation Red Wings, which cost the lives of eight SEALs and eight 160th soldiers when insurgents shot down their MH-47 Chinook near Asadabad, Afghanistan, on June 28, 2005. A further three SEALs were killed during a firefight on the ground.
The Stars and Stripes reports (from the AP):
The downing was a stinging blow to the lauded, tight-knit SEAL Team 6, months after its crowning achievement. It was also a heavy setback for the U.S.-led coalition as it begins to draw down thousands of combat troops fighting what has become an increasingly costly and unpopular war.
The deaths bring to 365 the number of coalition troops killed this year in Afghanistan and 42 this month.
The casualties are believed to be largest loss of life in the history of SEAL Team Six, officially called the Navy Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU. The team is considered the best of the best among the already elite SEALs, which numbers 3,000 personnel.
The loss of so many SEALs at once will have a temporary impact on the tempo of missions they can carry out, but with an ongoing drawdown of special operations forces from Iraq, there will be more in reserve for Afghan missions.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.