KABUL, Afghanistan — Two Pentagon officials told McClatchy on Monday that an investigation into the helicopter crash that killed 30 American troops would probe whether it's a mistake to send the large, lumbering Chinook helicopter into a Taliban firefight, where it's a target for insurgents.
As the remains of the 30 troops killed in the military's deadliest incident of the Afghan war were being flown back to the United States, U.S. commanders confirmed that the servicemen were flying to the aid of American troops embroiled in a firefight when an insurgent shot down their helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade.
The U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan offered the first detailed account of the tragedy since the pre-dawn crash in the Tangi Valley, a Taliban-infested area of Wardak province, about 60 miles southwest of Kabul, the capital.
"The helicopter was reportedly fired on by an insurgent rocket-propelled grenade while transporting the U.S. service members and commandos to the scene of an ongoing engagement," said a statement released by the International Security Assistance Force.
The Pentagon announced that the return of the servicemen's remains, in flag-draped coffins, to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware possibly as early as Tuesday won't be open to the news media, although family members will be allowed to attend. The ceremony will be closed to the public because there were "no identifiable remains," said Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. As of Monday night, military officials hadn't publicly released the names of the dead, although family members had confirmed many of the names to reporters.
Separately, two Defense Department officials told McClatchy that a military investigation into the crash would ask whether dropping a Chinook into the middle of a battle is too dangerous now. Before the incident, the Taliban rarely had shot down a Chinook, bolstering commanders' confidence that the military could use the aircraft, which can carry more people than the Black Hawk helicopter, under such circumstances.
But just two weeks earlier, on July 25, the Taliban used a rocket-propelled grenade to shoot down a Chinook in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province, injuring two U.S. service members. That Chinook was struck in the bottom and was forced to make a hard landing, defense officials said.
On Saturday, officials said, the grenade struck the middle of the helicopter, essentially splitting it in midair, killing everyone on board.
Area residents told McClatchy by phone that the ground forces and the Taliban were in the midst of a firefight less than a mile from the crash site.
President Barack Obama said that the incident, while tragic, wouldn't deter American forces from the fight in Afghanistan, now in its 10th year. U.S. forces have begun to withdraw 33,000 "surge" troops from the country, a drawdown that's expected to be completed in September 2012.
"We will press on and we will succeed," Obama said. "Our troops will continue the hard work of transitioning to a stronger Afghan government and ensuring that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for terrorists."
Gen. John Allen, the commander of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, said: "We will continue to relentlessly pressure the enemy and we will continue to develop the Afghan National Security Forces so that on their strong, broad shoulders they can defeat this insurgency and bring lasting and enduring peace to this historic land and this great people."
According to the coalition statement, Saturday's incident began when U.S. ground troops became engulfed in a battle with Taliban forces armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s. The troops were flying to the aid of other U.S. service members who'd gone into the Tangi Valley in search of an unidentified Taliban leader who oversaw "insurgent operations" in the remote area, the ISAF statement said.
"After commencing the search, the initial security force on the ground observed several insurgents, armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47 assault rifles, moving through the area," the statement said. "The security force and the insurgents exchanged small arms fire, resulting in several enemies killed."
The soldiers asked for backup, and 33 people — Navy SEALs, airmen and Afghan special forces — climbed into a Chinook and headed to battle, led by five crewmen.
When a Chinook lands, it descends slowly to the ground, and on Saturday it did so into a remote area where there was no surrounding base to offer protection. Even under the best of circumstances, military officials say, the landing is most vulnerable part of the flight. In Afghanistan, amid fierce fighting, it's the best chance the Taliban have of killing dozens of troops at one time.
Those killed aboard the twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook included "five aircrew and 25 personnel from the U.S. Special Operations Command," said the statement, which withheld the identities of the victims and their units.
Many of the dead reportedly were from the same Navy SEAL contingent from which was drawn the unit that killed Osama bin Laden in the al Qaida leader's hideout in Pakistan in May.
Also killed were an Afghan interpreter and seven Afghan commandos.
After the crash, the unit on the ground "broke contact" with the insurgents, moved to the crash site, secured it and searched for survivors, the ISAF said.
The investigation to determine the "exact cause" of the crash was ongoing, the statement said. It was the deadliest incident the U.S. military had suffered in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
(Youssef reported from Washington.)
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