WASHINGTON: The Pentagon sought to dispel concerns about a Taliban resurgence Monday after Afghan militants shot down a helicopter over the weekend killing 30 U.S. troops, most of them elite Navy SEALs.
Saturday’s crash was the deadliest incident for U.S. forces since the war in Afghanistan began nearly a decade ago and followed a series of high-profile assassinations and attacks by the insurgents over the past several months.
U.S. military officials have repeatedly played down those incidents as a Taliban attempt to project the appearance of strength after a series of battlefield defeats that saw their former strongholds taken over by NATO forces.
“This one single incident does not represent any kind of watershed or trend,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said.
“We still have the Taliban on the run, we’ve reversed the momentum that they had. But they are still going to inflict casualties, that’s what they do,” he said.
But the killing of so many Americans has resonated in a way domestically that other battlefield incidents have not.
Many of the victims were from SEAL Team Six, the celebrated elite unit which carried out the covert raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials have said none of the dead participated in the bin Laden raid.
“[My husband] felt, and so did the other members of his team, that the very existence of our republic is at stake,” said Kimberly Vaughn, the widow of Aaron Vaughn, a SEAL Team Six member, speaking on NBC television.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said the CH-47 Chinook helicopter appeared to have been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Lapan told reporters the insurgents were presumed to be Taliban.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the killings were a “reminder to the American people that we remain a nation at war.” He vowed to press ahead with the campaign to go after militants that could pose a threat to the United States.
“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-Qaeda and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan,” Panetta said.
Critics of Obama’s plan to withdraw 33,000 U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next summer alternatively attack the president for pulling out too slowly or too quickly from the war.
“There’s the perception in Afghanistan and other parts of that part the world that America is withdrawing. That can’t be good,” said Senator John McCain on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.
Another NATO helicopter crashed Monday in Paktia province, a volatile area in Afghanistan’s east, but there were no apparent casualties and it appeared there was no enemy activity in the area at the time, ISAF said.
A worrying surge in military deaths is being matched by record casualties among civilians, who continue to bear the brunt of a war that appears to have become bogged down despite claims of success from both sides.
Three hundred angry Afghans took to the streets Monday in central Ghazni province carrying the bodies of two people they claimed had been killed during a raid by ISAF troops.
Civilian casualties caused by foreign troops hunting insurgents have long been a major source of friction between Kabul and its Western backers. U.N. figures show that insurgents are responsible for more than three-quarters of civilian deaths.