A helicopter similar to this one pictured in Afghanistan in 2004 was shot… (S. Sabawoon / European Pressphoto…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Washington — Their name conjures up the most celebrated moment of America's post-Sept. 11 military campaigns. Now the Navy SEALs belong to a grimmer chapter in history: the most deadly incident for U.S. forces in the 10-year Afghanistan war.
Three months after they killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan and cemented their place in military legend, the SEALs suffered a devastating loss when nearly two dozen of the elite troops were among 30 Americans who died when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan early Saturday.
It was the largest number of American troops killed in a single day in the war. U.S. officials said the helicopter appeared to have been felled by enemy fire, and the Taliban quickly claimed responsibility. Seven Afghan commandos and a civilian interpreter also were killed, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said.
No member of the Bin Laden raid team was among the dead, said a Pentagon official briefed on the casualties who was not authorized to speak publicly while families still were being notified. But he said 22 of the 30 were Navy SEALs, and a significant number were members of SEAL Team 6, the unit that conducted the Bin Laden raid and is made up of just a few hundred of some of the best-trained fighters in the U.S. military.
The loss of so many represents a significant blow to a tightknit group that is involved in some of the most sensitive U.S. counter-terrorism operations around the world.
There was no indication that insurgents knew that many aboard the doomed Chinook were Team 6 members. But the Taliban and its allies are likely to reap an enormous propaganda boost from the deaths. The Taliban often seeks to appeal to the country's folkloric sensibilities by depicting battlefield exploits in florid fashion; videos and songs trumpet various successes against foreign "invaders," and any victory against NATO forces is held up as proof of divine inspiration and guidance.
The downing of the U.S. helicopter in mountainous Wardak province comes at a crucial juncture of the war, as the U.S. begins a drawdown in troops in a prelude to a full-fledged withdrawal.
The episode could embolden the insurgency at a time when Western and Afghan officials have been hoping a weakened Taliban movement can be lured to the bargaining table. Like the assassination last month of Karzai's powerful half brother, it will be viewed by many as a sign of the insurgents' reach and power.
A statement from Karzai's office offered condolences to President Obama and the families of the Afghan troops who died.
In the early hours Saturday, the SEALs joined other U.S. Special Operations forces on a raid in Wardak province, west of Kabul, the capital. Such is the clockwork regularity of these nighttime raids that they have become almost routine.
But this one went horribly awry.
A Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the twin-rotor CH-47 helicopter had apparently been brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade moments after takeoff from the raid, when it was most vulnerable to attack.
White House national security advisor Tom Donilon notified Obama of the incident shortly after 8 p.m. Friday, said a White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
"Their deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families," Obama said in a statement Saturday. "We will draw inspiration from their lives, and continue the work of securing our country and standing up for the values that they embodied."
Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, said: "We grieve for our lost comrades and especially for their families, yet we also remember that the lads were doing what they wanted to be doing and they knew what they were about. This loss will only make the rest of us more determined, something that may be difficult for those who aren't in the military to understand."
The SEALs and their special operations counterparts "conduct these missions night after night knowing that every mission could be their last," said a Special Operations officer who asked not to be identified. "And despite this tragic loss for the units and our nation, tonight their brothers will board helicopters and go out and do the work our country has asked of them. And they will continue to do so without hesitation or mental reservation as they go after the enemies that would do us harm."
Team 6, known officially as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, is overseen by the Joint Special Operations Command, which also supervises the Army's Delta Force and other elite units.