KABUL, Afghanistan — 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.
The sheer number of these missions is evidence that progress in the nearly decade-long war depends more on efforts to kill or capture insurgents than the overarching strategy of building support for the Afghan government at grassroots levels. And these missions will take on relatively more importance as troop levels decline.
Saturday's crash of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter was deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in the war and raised anew 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," President Barack 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."
Jacobson said troops continued Monday to recover every last piece of the helicopter and that no one was being allowed in or out of the heavily secured crash site during the investigation. A ceremony was held at Bagram Air Field, a massive military installation north of Kabul, to pay respect to fallen service members being sent back to the United States.
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.
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. Although the investigation has not yet been completed, the coalition said in a statement that the "helicopter was reportedly fired on by an insurgent rocket-propelled grenade."
Coalition troops on the ground searching for the Taliban leader saw several insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles moving through the area, the coalition said. U.S. officials said the ground force was made up of U.S. Army Rangers, who regularly work with the SEALs. During the gunbattle, the ground force called for assistance.
"Those additional personnel were inbound to the scene when the CH-47 carrying them crashed, killing all on board," the coalition said.
A U.S. official said the force was acting as what is called an "Immediate Reaction Force," flying in to provide extra firepower to subdue a target, rather than a Quick Reaction Force, which comes in to stage a rescue. But multiple officials say hard questions are being asked about whether the target merited risking so many elite troops.
More U.S. special operations troops are in Afghanistan – about 10,000 – than in 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, infiltration and night raids on the compounds of suspected insurgents.
From April to July of this year, 2,832 special operations raids captured 2,941 insurgents and killed 834 militants – twice as many as over the same period last year, according to statistics provided by the coalition.
Special operations troops are expected to have a significant role as American forces begin drawing down as part of President Barack Obama's plan to bring 10,000 U.S. troops home by year's end and as many as 23,000 more by September 2012. Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants Afghan security forces to be in the lead across the nation by the end of 2014 when foreign combat forces will have returned home or moved into supportive roles.
Special operations raids are likely to be the lasting U.S. footprint in Afghanistan, according to recent comments by Douglas Lute, the White House's senior adviser on the war. He predicted the current blend will shift from mostly classic counterinsurgency operations – in which conventional forces clear, hold and build, and special operations forces conduct raids – to Afghan forces clearing and holding. But even then, U.S. special operations forces will likely remain, both hunting militants in night raids and working with the local forces.
Saturday's mission was flown by a conventional air crew, instead of the overstretched pilots of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, two U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
There are so many special operations missions every night_ a dozen or so, adding up to roughly 300 a month – that they often are assigned to non-special-operations pilots and aircraft, according to one officer in the war zone and a second U.S. official familiar with the special operations missions. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment publicly.
Conventional helicopter pilot crews sometimes support up to two missions in the same night, the officer in the war zone said.
The 160th special operations regiment flies more technically advanced Chinook helicopters and spends more time on the ground in Afghanistan than many conventional military pilot crews do. But a U.S. official familiar with their operations said that while those advantages help in cases of bad weather or tricky terrain, there is little that any crew can do to move a slow-moving Chinook out of harm's way when under fire.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said nothing done to a helicopter can prevent it from being vulnerable if it hovers, lands or takes off in any area where militants are present.
"We should not overreact to worst-case incidents or exaggerate their tactical and strategic importance," Cordesman said.
Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier contributed to this story from Washington, Patrick Quinn and Rahim Faiez from Kabul.