A U.S. military Chinook helicopter lands in southern Afghanistan. Twenty-two… (Romeo Gacad / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Washington — The retribution wasn't long in coming.
An American airstrike killed the Taliban insurgents whose attack caused a helicopter crash that killed 22 Navy SEALs and eight other U.S. service members, military officials in Kabul and Washington said Wednesday.
However, Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon that the main Taliban leader in the area remained at large. He did not identify that insurgent commander, the hunt for whom set in motion the events that led to the crash of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter on Saturday.
Military officials had said previously that the helicopter went down as the SEALs were rushing to aid fellow elite troops. They were identified as U.S. Army Rangers who had come under insurgent fire while on a night raid in pursuit of a Taliban target, one of the hundreds of such special-operations raids now taking place each month across Afghanistan.
Special operations forces tracked down a group of "less than 10" insurgents and called in an airstrike from an F-16 fighter jet, Allen said. NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Kabul said the strike took place early Tuesday in the Chak district of Wardak province, close to the area where the Chinook helicopter was shot down.
Among those killed was a senior operative in the area and the man whose fire, apparently with a rocket-propelled grenade, brought down the chopper, the military said.
The downing Saturday of the CH-47, which killed seven Afghan commandos in addition to the 30 American troops and an interpreter, represented the worst loss of military lives in a single incident in the nearly 10-year-old war.
The senior Taliban operative killed in Tuesday's raid was identified as Mullah Mohibullah, described as a "key facilitator" of Taliban attacks in the Tangi Valley, about 60 miles southwest of Kabul. He had about a dozen fighters under his command, the military said, and had replaced a Taliban leader who had been killed in an earlier U.S. operation.
Mohibullah and his group of fighters were located after an "exhaustive manhunt" in Wardak, with tips from villagers, according to the military statement. It said the insurgents were trying to flee the country, presumably to Pakistan, when the U.S. raid occurred.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force said the airstrike was called in after insurgents were tracked to a wooded area, and that no civilians were hurt in the bombardment. The Afghan police chief in Wardak, Gen. Abdul Qayum Baqizoi, said his forces had aided in intelligence-gathering that led to the U.S. strike.
Although the military said insurgent fire is presumed to have caused the downing of the helicopter, it also said the precise cause of the crash remains under investigation.
"While it has not been determined if enemy fire was the sole reason for the helicopter crash, it did take fire from several insurgent locations on its approach," the ISAF statement said.
Allen declined to answer questions about the decision to have so many elite troops aboard a single craft. Because of its size, the Chinook presents a vulnerable target, particularly when taking off and landing.
He also declined to discuss why elite SEALs were sent in to help the Ranger force, saying only that they were part of the mission and that using them was the right decision at the time.
According to officials the team included 17 SEALs, five Navy special operations troops who support the SEALs, three Air Force troops, a five-member Army air crew and a military dog.
King reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Dilanian from Washington.