KABUL, Afghanistan — Thirty-one U.S. special forces troops and seven Afghan soldiers died when their helicopter was shot down during an overnight operation against Taliban insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, according to statement issued Saturday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
It was the worst single-day toll for American forces in Afghanistan since U.S. troops entered that country nearly 10 years ago, and one of the largest tolls in a single incident of either the Afghan war or the fighting in Iraq.
The last time the U.S. military suffered such catastrophic loses was in January 2005, when 30 U.S. Marines and a sailor were killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq's Anbar province; throughout the country, another six U.S. troops died on the ground the same day.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan provided no details, but a senior Pentagon official in Washington confirmed that the helicopter had been shot down, though he said he could not provide details. A villager in the area where the helicopter went down told McClatchy he heard rocket fire. He said he later saw the helicopter burning an orchard about a half-mile from his home.
"Smoke was rising from the helicopter till morning," Mansour Majab said.
In his statement, Karzai said the helicopter went down in Maidan Wardak province, west of Kabul. He expressed his condolences for the deaths to President Barack Obama and the families of the American dead.
The Afghan defense ministry confirmed the death of seven Afghan commandos in the crash. Gen. Zahir Azimy, the Afghan army spokesman, placed the crash in Logar province, however.
The Taliban claimed credit for the attack in a statement. "Last night at 11 p.m. in the Joye Zarin area of Tangi Saybabad district, the invader forces conducted a night raid and faced hard resistance from the Islamic Emirate fighters,” according to the statement, attributed to Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, and posted on the group's website.
Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman for the provincial governor, largely confirmed the Taliban statement, saying the crash had taken place after an operation by the International Security Assistance Force, as the U.S.-led coalition is known, killed eight insurgents.
“After the operation the ISAF helicopter crashed and there are casualties," Shahid said. "The area has been surrounded by U.S.-led NATO forces."
Maidan Wardak is a volatile province located about 25 miles west of Kabul. It shares a border with Logar, another insecure province.
Majab told McClatchy that night raids by U.S.-led forces happen frequently.
"Every night the helicopters are flying over our house," he said by phone. He said on Thursday U.S. troops conducting a night raid in another village killed three Taliban fighters."
He said Taliban forces fired a rocket at the downed helicopter.
"I was in the house and taking some food for the guests who were in our house. I heard the sound of a rocket firing< Majab said. "Later we saw a helicopter downed in an apple and apricot orchard about a kilometer away. There is a river between our house and the place where the helicopter was downed. Smoke was rising from the helicopter till morning."
Majab said that "most people are awake during night because of night raids" and that the region is dominated by the Taliban. "From each house at least one person is with the Taliban," he said.
Night raids have become a favored tactic of ISAF troops in recent years and have been credited with weakening Taliban forces, though the downing of he helicopter renewed questions about U.S. claims that the security in Afghanistan is gradually improving, in part, because the Taliban is weaker.
Often the U.S. military has noted that the Taliban is on the run from areas in the south and east they once firmly controlled because of an aggressive U.S. campaign in Taliban strongholds. But a string of successful assassinations and high-profile attacks has some asking whether losing such ground has in fact made the Taliban weaker.
Since April, the Taliban has claimed to assassinate Kandahar’s police chief and mayor and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother and power governor of Kandahar. In addition, the Taliban claimed last month to killed a top presidential aide.
In June, insurgents attacked the seemingly secure Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing 18 and rattling residents in Kabul about their security.
As recently as Thursday, top military officials said that they expect the Taliban to continue targeted attacks in response to their lost ground. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that the Taliban is moving to “spectacular assassinations” but “we're working hard to protect certainly our forces and also provide enhanced security for the -- for the senior Afghan officials which are targeted here.“
Regardless, U.S. military officials have said they can safely, albeit gradually, draw down troops. The U.S. is planning to withdraw 10,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year, citing security gains and a more capable Afghan Army and police. There are currently roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
(Special correspondent Shukoor reported from Kabul. Youssef reported from Washington.)