The Taliban lured US forces into an elaborate trap to shoot down their helicopter, killing 30 American troops in the deadliest such incident of the war, an Afghan official said Monday.
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The senior Afghan government official told AFP on condition of anonymity that Taliban commander Qari Tahir lured US forces to the scene by tipping them off that a Taliban meeting was taking place. He also said four Pakistanis helped Tahir carry out the strike.
The passengers and crew of the twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopter probably never saw the rocket hurtling towards them. The explosion and fiery crash in Wardak province in eastern Afghanistan early on Saturday morning killed all 38 people aboard the lumbering chopper.
For U.S. forces, it was the bloodiest single incident of the 10-year-old Afghanistan war — and possibly a sign of the insurgency’s continued ability to introduce new weaponry. The attack is also a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of the U.S.-lead coalition’s indispensable helicopters. “Shock and disbelief,” is how one official characterized the reaction inside the military.
The dead include: five Army crew members, 19 U.S. Navy SEALs and their three support troops, an Afghan interpreter and seven Afghan commandos plus three Air Force controllers and one military working dog. “Their deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families,” President Barack Obama said.
Details of the shootdown are slowly emerging. “There will be multiple investigations,” a Special Operations Command official said.
Sometime late Friday, it appears, a team of U.S. Army Rangers got pinned down by insurgent fighters during a patrol in Wardak, a province just south of Kabul that, along with neighboring Logar province, is a major staging area for the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
The Rangers called in their “Immediate Reaction Force,” a helicopter-borne mobile reserve that orbits nearby during risky patrols. That day, IRF duty had fallen to the Navy SEALs and their attachments, part of the 10,000-strong Afghanistan-based Joint Special Operations Command task force that, in addition to killing Osama bin Laden in May, also conducts as many as 70 raids per day in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2,800 raids between April and July, JSOC captured around 2,900 insurgents and killed more than 800, military sources said. That’s twice as many raids compared to the same period a year ago.
Normally, JSOC commandos ride in tricked-out helicopters — including stealth models — belonging to the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. But this weekend the SEALs hitched a ride in what was apparently a run-of-the-mill Army National Guard chopper.
With the SEALs’ help, the Rangers fought back against their ambushers. Eight insurgents died in the fighting, according to a Taliban spokesman. Believing the battle over, around 3:00 in the morning, local time, the SEALs and their allies climbed back into their CH-47 for the ride home. That’s when all Hell broke loose.
“The Taliban knew which route the helicopter would take,” one unnamed Afghan official tells AFP. “That’s the only route, so they took position[s] on the either side of the valley on mountains and as the helicopter approached, they attacked it with rockets and other modern weapons.”
“It was a trap that was set by a Taliban commander,” the official added.
The aircraft fell to the ground in flames.