Soldiers take positions after racing off the back of a Chinook helicopter… (David Furst, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Washington — Taliban insurgents shot down a U.S. Chinook helicopter early Saturday, killing 31 American troops and seven Afghans aboard, U.S. and Afghan officials said. It was the war's greatest single-incident loss of military lives.
The casualties included members of SEAL Team Six, the special operations unit that carried out the raid in Pakistan this spring that killed Osama bin Laden, but none of the elite unit's members on the raid against the Al Qaeda leader were on the helicopter that went down, according to a person briefed on the casualties.
Even so, the casualties are a major blow for the close-knit and secretive unit only months after it carried out the greatest victory in its history.
It was not known exactly how many of the 31 U.S. casualties were SEALs, but there were believed to be more than a dozen.
The helicopter was being flown by a crew from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which was also involved in the raid.
SEAL Team Six is divided into numerous detachments that rotate into Afghanistan. The SEALs who killed Bin Laden were hand-picked and considered the top members of the unit.
The rare downing of an American military aircraft, in a province on the doorstep of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, represented a blow to Western efforts to establish calm as the United States and its allies begin drawing down forces in Afghanistan.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, confirmed in a terse statement that a helicopter crash had occurred and acknowledged insurgent activity in the area at the time. 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, when it was most vulnerable to attack.
President Hamid Karzai, in a condolence statement, identified the slain Americans as special operations forces. Sensitive to operational secrecy, special forces commanders as a rule are slower than other branches to publicly acknowledge combat casualties. That would account for the military's near-silence on the incident a full 18 hours after it occurred.
The helicopter went down shortly after midnight Afghan time in the Sayedabad district of Wardak province, west of the capital, Kabul, according to Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the provincial governor. He and other provincial officials said the crash came after a firefight that had left eight insurgents dead.
The NATO force said recovery efforts were underway, and Afghan officials said the crash site had been cordoned off. The statement from Karzai's office offered condolences to President Obama and the families of the Afghan troops who died.
Downings of Western helicopters by hostile fire have been relatively rare in the Afghan conflict, though insurgents do occasionally manage to shoot down a chopper, including one such incident in 2005 that killed 16 Americans. Far more helicopters are lost to mechanical problems or bad weather.
The Taliban claimed its fighters had ambushed Western troops after being tipped off to an imminent night raid in the district. The crash site is located in Wardak's Tangi valley, where the insurgents are extremely active.
The Wardak police chief, Gen. Abdul Qayuum Baqizoi, said the American strike was aimed at a meeting of insurgent figures in the district, which is considered a perilous one. "This area isn't even safe for security forces to travel in," he said.
The Taliban statement, from spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, was unusually specific in some of its details, and confirmed the "martyrdom" of eight Taliban fighters in what was described as fierce combat before the shooting down of the helicopter.
Targeted nighttime strikes, often carried out by U.S. special-operations forces, have been the single most successful tactic employed by the Western military over the last two years, significantly damaging the field-command structure of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
But night raids are a major point of contention between the Western military and the Afghan government. Karzai has called repeatedly for a halt to the operations, saying they pose an undue danger to Afghan civilians.
King reported from Kabul and Cloud from Washington.