Airstrike reportedly kills insurgent who downed U.S. chopper

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 10, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — A “precision airstrike” has killed the insurgent who fired the rocket-propelled grenade that downed an American helicopter last weekend, killing 30 U.S. troops in the American military’s worst loss of the Afghan war, the U.S.-led international coalition said Wednesday.

A midlevel commander of Taliban fighters operating in the insurgent-controlled area where the helicopter crashed also died in the airstrike Tuesday, an International Security Assistance Force statement said.

The airstrike ended a three-day hunt for the insurgents involved in downing the CH-47 Chinook helicopter as it prepared to land early Saturday in the remote Tangi Valley in Wardak province, about 60 miles southwest of Kabul.

The crash killed 30 U.S. servicemen — many of them elite Navy SEALs — the largest number of American soldiers killed in a single incident in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Their Afghan interpreter and seven Afghan commandos also died.

Using “multiple intelligence leads and tips from citizens,” U.S.-led special forces tracked the insurgents’ leader, Mullah Muhibullah, and the fighter who fired the rocket-propelled grenade, locating them in the Chak district, about 40 miles north of the Tangi Valley.

“The two men were attempting to flee the country in order to avoid capture,” the ISAF said. The border with Pakistan’s tribal area, where the Taliban and allied groups maintain sanctuaries, is about 75 miles east of Chak.

“The security forces . . . followed the insurgents to a wooded area in Chak district. After ensuring no civilians were in the area, the force called for the airstrike, which resulted in the deaths of . . . Mullah Muhibullah, the shooter and several of their Taliban associates,” ISAF said.

The airstrike occurred the same day that the 30 dead Americans and eight Afghans were mourned at a solemn, private ceremony at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. After initially withholding the names and ranks of the Americans who were killed, Pentagon officials said Wednesday that they'd release the names despite the concerns of some commanders for the safety of special forces families. A Pentagon spokesman said the names were expected to be released Thursday.

Questions persisted about why the lumbering, twin-rotor Chinook was called to assist a team of American soldiers that had become embroiled in a firefight while hunting another Taliban leader.

That leader wasn't killed, officials said, but the American team reportedly suffered no casualties and immediately left the battle for the scene of the crash after the Chinook went down, raising questions about the intensity of the firefight.

In a news briefing, Gen. John Allen, the coalition commander, rejected suggestions that the Chinook was the wrong aircraft for the mission.

"We've run more than a couple of thousand of these night operations over the last year, and this is the only occasion where this has occurred," Allen said.

Two defense officials told McClatchy earlier this week that a Pentagon investigation into the crash would probe whether Chinooks should be sent into firefights, where their slow landings can make them targets for insurgents.

The ISAF withheld further details of Tuesday's airstrike, including the type and nationality of the aircraft involved. U.S. planes usually carry out such operations.

Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Wardak governor, said that 13 Taliban fighters had died in the airstrike near the village of Seaab. “These guys had fled the Tangi area,” he said. “Usually when they’ve done an operation, they leave the area and go to another location.”

The ISAF didn’t disclose how it had confirmed that the fighter responsible for shooting down the helicopter was killed, but the U.S.-led force has extensive intelligence-gathering capabilities, including an ability to monitor insurgents’ radio and cellular telephone traffic.

Also on Wednesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appeared to retreat from a constitutional showdown with the opposition-dominated Parliament that's created near-total gridlock as the U.S. and its allies begin pulling out their combat forces and turning over security responsibilities to the Afghans.

Karzai issued a decree proclaiming the country’s election commission the sole arbiter of disputed elections. In doing so, he effectively overturned a ruling by a special court he'd appointed, which had ordered some results of last September's violence-marred elections nullified.

Critics had called the special court a bid by Karzai to circumvent the election commission and replace opposition lawmakers with his own supporters. The Parliament and Afghanistan's Western backers had rejected the special court as illegal.

As the dispute grew, opposition lawmakers refused to pass legislation or approve Cabinet appointments, and Karzai has governed by decree.

The decree “is definitely a significant step back from confrontation by Karzai, and the question is whether it’s a retreat by Karzai or a face-saving compromise by both sides,” said Scott Worden, an American who served as one of three foreign members of the Electoral Complaints Commission, the complaint review panel.

(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)

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