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Afghanistan crash highlights role of US elite forces

The loss of dozens of elite American troops to a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade is a window on the war to come — focused increasingly on the type of special operations the troops were pursuing when their helicopter crashed.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

The loss of dozens of elite American troops to a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade is a window on the war to come — focused increasingly on the type of special operations the troops were pursuing when their helicopter crashed.

The U.S. military released new details Monday about the crash in the Tangi Valley, a dangerous area of Wardak province on the doorstep of the Afghan capital. The 30 U.S. troops, seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter who died were taking part in one of thousands of nighttime operations being conducted annually across the nation.

NBC News reported Monday that the helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.

As international forces worked to recover every last piece of the Chinook helicopter that crashed over the weekend, President Obama used the final minutes of his remarks on the Standard & Poor's debt downgrade to memorialize the troops as protectors of "the values that bind us together as a nation."

"These men and women put their lives on the line for the values that bind us together as a nation."

Saturday's crash of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter was the deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in the war and raised new questions in the United States about why U.S. troops are still fighting the unpopular conflict.

U.S. leaders vowed on Monday not to let the loss rewrite the war strategy.

"We will press on and we will succeed," Obama said at the White House.  

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, "As heavy a loss as this was, it would even be more tragic if we allowed it to derail this country from our efforts to defeat al-Qaida and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan."

In Kabul, German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said, "The incident, as tragic as it was in its magnitude, will have no influence on the conduct of operations."

Another NATO helicopter crashed in Afghanistan's east on Monday but there were no apparent casualties, officials said.

Marine Gen. John Allen, the new top commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, released a statement early Tuesday in honor of the fallen American and Afghan troops. "In life they were comrades in arms and in death they are bound forever in this vital cause," he said. "We cherish this selfless sacrifice."

Pentagon officials said two C-17 aircraft carrying the remains of U.S. and Afghan troops killed in the crash left Afghanistan Monday night en route to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. They said that there will be no public media coverage at the Dover base during the ceremony that typically takes place when the bodies of fallen troops arrive because the badly damaged remains are mingled and still being identified.

Fallen forces members of famous SEAL Team Six
Many of the Americans who died were members of the Navy's SEAL Team Six, the unit that conducted the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan. But none of the SEALs killed in the crash took part in the bin Laden mission. The official name of the SEAL team is the Naval Special Warfare Development Group.

The troops, who were packed into the twin-rotor chopper, crashed while on a mission that targeted a Taliban leader in the mountainous and heavily forested Sayd Abad district of Wardak, the coalition said. The helicopter was transporting them to the scene of an ongoing fight between coalition forces and insurgents.

Ali Ahmad Khashai, deputy governor of Wardak province, said Taliban insurgents frequently move through the Tangi Valley.

"This area concerns us because many attacks in Wardak are organized and planned in Tangi," he said. "The enemy is active and the (military) operations have not been effective, unfortunately, because it is between three provinces. Maybe there are mountains and forests between these provinces that no one is taking responsibility for."

The Taliban claimed they downed the helicopter with a rocket. U.S. military officials said the helicopter was hit as it was trying to land.

Afghan drawdown in spotlight The deaths in the helicopter crash came barely two weeks after foreign troops began the first phase of a gradual process to hand security responsibility over to Afghan soldiers and police.

Critics of Obama's plan to withdraw 33,000 U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next summer alternately attack the president for pulling out too slowly or too quickly from the war.

"We're going to have to address the problem that the President has created," said Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 election and wanted a slower pullout.

"There's the perception in Afghanistan and other parts of that part the world that America is withdrawing. That can't be good," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement on Sunday saying "enemies of Afghanistan" — the Taliban and other insurgents — wanted to disrupt the transition process.

A worrying surge of military deaths is being matched by record casualties among civilians, who continue to bear the brunt of a war that appears to have become bogged down despite claims of success from both sides.

On Monday, 300 angry Afghans took to the streets in central Ghazni province carrying the bodies of two people they claimed had been killed during a raid by ISAF troops.

Civilian casualties caused by foreign troops hunting insurgents have long been a major source of friction between Kabul and its Western backers. U.N. figures show such casualties hit record levels in the first six months of 2011, although it blamed 80 percent of them on insurgents.

U.N. figures show that 1,462 Afghan civilians were killed in conflict-related incidents in the first six months of 2011, the deadliest period for civilians since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.