US troops killed when copter shot down were aiding Army Rangers
KABUL - The 30 American service members, most of them elite Navy SEALs, who died when their helicopter was shot down had rushed to help Army Rangers who had come under fire, two US officials said yesterday.
The heavy loss shows that clandestine tactics carry huge risks despite the success of the SEAL mission that killed Osama bin Laden more than three months ago. Most of the SEALs who died Saturday were from the same unit that killed bin Laden, although none of the men took part in that mission.
The US-led coalition plans to rely more on special-operations missions as it reduces the overall number of combat troops by the end of 2014.
This weekend, the rescue team had subdued attackers who had pinned down the Rangers and were departing in their Chinook helicopter when the aircraft was apparently hit, one of the officials said.
Thirty Americans and eight Afghans were killed in the crash, making it the deadliest single loss for US forces in the decade-long war in Afghanistan. The Rangers, special-operations forces who work regularly with the SEALs, secured the crash site in the Tangi Joy Zarin area of Wardak Province, about 60 miles southwest of Kabul, the other official said.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the event, as the investigation is still ongoing.
NATO was recovering the remains of the twin-rotor Chinook helicopter. A current and a former US official said the Americans included 22 SEALs, three Air Force combat controllers, and a dog handler. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because military officials were still notifying the families of the dead.
All but two of the SEALs were from SEAL Team 6, the unit that killed bin Laden, US officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Eight Taliban fighters were also killed in the battle, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement.
One of the US victims was Navy SEAL Kevin Houston, 36, of Chesapeake, Va., who was raised on Cape Cod.
Two of the other SEALs who were killed came from the same town: Shreveport, La., where they were high school friends. Robert James Reeves, 30, was a chief petty officer, and Jonas Kelsall, 33, was a lieutenant commander.
Other American victims who have been identified are: John Brown, an Air Force technical sergeant from Arkansas; Patrick Hamburger, 30, a National Guard sergeant from Nebraska; Michael Strange, 25; and Aaron Carson Vaughn, 30, both SEALS stationed in Virginia Beach, Va.
As US forces removed the wreckage yesterday, nearby Afghan and NATO forces battled insurgents as they carried out clearing operations in the areas around the crash site, a region that is close to the capital.
The province, which borders Kabul, has increasingly come under Taliban control in recent months, even as the US-led coalition has begun handing over security for parts of Afghanistan over to the government of President Hamid Karzai.
“There have been a small number of limited engagements in the same district’’ as Saturday’s helicopter crash, NATO said in a statement. “However those clashes have not been in the direct vicinity of the crash site. As of now, we have no reporting to indicate any coalition casualties resulting from these engagements.’’
Afghanistan has more US special-operations troops, about 10,000, than any other theater of war. The forces, often joined by Afghan troops, are among the most effective weapons in the coalition’s arsenal, conducting surveillance, night raids, and infiltration and capture missions.
From April to July this year, 2,832 special operations raids captured 2,941 insurgents and killed 834, twice as many as during the same time period last year, according to NATO.
SEALs, Rangers, and other special-operations troops are expected to be the vanguard of the American military effort in Afghanistan as international military forces start pulling out. By the time combat troops plan to have left the country, the coalition will have handed control of security to the Afghan forces they have spent tens of billions of dollars arming and training.
Special-operations troops are expected to remain in the country after 2014 for counterterrorism missions and advisory support. Just how many will remain has not yet been negotiated with the Afghans, but the United States is considering from 5,000 to 20,000, far fewer than the 100,000 US troops there now.
Special forces are frequently used to target insurgent commanders as part of an effort to force the Taliban’s leadership to agree to a negotiated peace. The operations, mostly in the form of night raids, are often carried out by Afghan and coalition special-operations forces.
Night raids have drawn criticism from human rights activists and infuriated the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who says the raids anger and alienate the Afghan people. But NATO commanders have said the raids are safer for civilians than relatively imprecise airstrikes.
Also yesterday, France said of two of its soldiers were killed and five others injured in a clash with insurgents in Afghanistan’s northeastern Tagab valley.