HELMAND, Afghanistan - A Nato Chinook helicopter has crashed in Afghanistan, apparently shot down, killing 22 US special forces, three of their support team, their air crew, and seven Afghan commandos. It is the coalition's single worst incident during the 10-year conflict.
The loss of these 38 lives came during an attack on insurgents in the volatile Wardak province. The Taliban said it had downed the troop carrier with a rocket-propelled grenade, a claim confirmed by a source within the US administration in Washington. It is understood that the dead include 22 US Navy Seals from Team Six, the unit which hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden earlier this year. With them were three air force air controllers, seven Afghan army troops, a dog and his handler, and a civilian interpreter, plus the helicopter crew from the 160th special operations aviation regiment.
The high casualties come two weeks after the start of a gradual process of handing security responsibility from foreign forces to Afghan troops and police, and at a time of growing unease over the unpopular and costly war. That process is due to end with all foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014. President Barack Obama, who learned of the deaths while at Camp David, said the incident, late on Friday night, showed the "extraordinary sacrifices" made by the military involved in a raid.
But some US lawmakers have already questioned whether the handover is fast enough. Incidents with heavy death tolls are sure to raise more questions about the transition process and how much longer foreign troops should stay.
While the greatest fear is that the Taliban will attempt to destabilise the Afghan military and police with attacks such as the suicide bombing at the police headquarters in Lashkar Gah last week, yesterday's attack is a reminder that Nato troops remain a target. The heavy losses bring the toll for foreign troops this year to 375.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said Nato forces attacked a house in Sayd Abad where insurgents were gathering. Eight insurgents died and Taliban fighters fired on the helicopter. Because they often travel low to the ground at relatively low speeds, helicopters are constantly vulnerable to attack. Less than two weeks ago, a Nato CH-47F Chinook was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, injuring two crew members.
There have been at least 17 coalition and Afghan aircraft crashes in Afghanistan this year, but most have been attributable to pilot error, weather conditions or mechanical failures and have resulted in low casualties. In June 2005, 16 Navy Seals and army special operations troops were killed when their helicopter was downed in eastern Kunar province after apparently being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and last year a Pave Hawk Pedro casualty evacuation helicopter was shot down, killing all five US crew. The worst loss suffered by the British came in 2006 when a Nimrod plane crashed near Kandahar, killing all 14 on board.
With roadside bombs now the most deadly threat in Afghanistan, the military has come to rely heavily on air movements. The greatest fear has long been a big plane or helicopter crash. Aircraft are all fitted with sophisticated defenses, while helicopters can frequently be seen firing off light showers of chaff to stave off attack.
Historically, the Soviet war in Afghanistan of 1979-89 was marred by a heavy death toll on its air force, largely because of the CIA-supplied FIM-92 Stinger missiles to the mujahedin, which could lock on to infra-red light and were resistant to emissions from the aircraft. In total, at least 333 helicopters and 118 jets crashed during that war.
While there is no evidence that the Taliban has access to such missiles, there have been several incidents of aircraft being shot down by rocket-propelled grenades. The enemy is not the only threat faced by air crews: the weather and difficult terrain are often to blame for crashes, which the Taliban may then go on to claim responsibility for.
In September last year, nine US soldiers were killed in Zabul when a Blackhawk crashed. An Afghan army Mi-17 crashed in Herat province, killing 13 on board in January 2007. While the government insisted it was because of bad weather, the Taliban claimed it had shot the helicopter down. The Spanish suffered the loss of 17 troops in August 2003 when a Cougar helicopter crashed in Herat. It was reported as an accident, although witnesses said it had taken fire from a nearby village. Earlier that year a US Chinook crashed in a sandstorm in Ghazni, killing 15 US soldiers and three civilians.
Yesterday, an Afghan government official claimed that Nato had inadvertently killed eight members of a family, including women and children, during an air strike in the Nad Ali area of Helmand province where British troops operate. A Nato spokesman said Taliban fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and small arms at coalition troops during a patrol on Friday and they had returned fire and called in an airstrike. He said Nato had sent a delegation to meet local leaders to investigate the incident.
Nato has come under criticism for accidentally killing civilians during operations against suspected insurgents. A UN report last month said 1,462 civilians were killed in incidents related to the conflict in the first six months of 2011, up 15 per cent on the first half of 2010. Insurgents are blamed for 80 per cent of those deaths.
And the British military in Helmand confirmed that a Royal Marine from 42 Commando had been killed on Friday in the Nad Ali district of Helmand. He had been on foot patrol when his unit was attacked and it returned fire. The troops returned to their checkpoint when they came under attack again, and the marine was fatally wounded.