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.
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 that 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 respects to fallen service members being sent back to the United States.