What happened on night of deadly Afghanistan helicopter crash?
Late last Friday night, special forces troops from the NATO-led coalition launched an operation to capture a Taliban leader in an inaccessible valley southwest of Kabul.
A few hours later 38 troops — 30 of them Americans — lay dead in a transport helicopter destroyed in the worst single incident suffered by foreign forces in 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Little, if any, information was available soon after the crash, mainly because “a cone of silence had been ordered from the top,” one senior military official said.
Reuters has been able to reconstruct a clearer picture of the circumstances of the crash after interviews with officials from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and the U.S. military.
Unless identified, all spoke on condition of anonymity because investigations are still being carried out.
The disaster unfolded after an ISAF Special Operations Command (SOC) team that included at least some U.S. Rangers began a raid in the Tangi valley in central Maidan Wardak province under darkness late Friday.
Typically carried out in conjunction with Afghan soldiers, “night raids” anger ordinary Afghans who complain they do not respect their privacy or Islamic culture. However, they are one of the most successful tactics used by foreign troops hunting insurgents who hide among Afghan civilians.
Only 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Kabul, the valley is ringed by rugged mountains. Rocky outcrops are dotted around the surprisingly lush valley, making it easy for insurgents to hide, monitor troop movements and control access to the valley.
There are a couple of sparse settlements, with outlying compounds near narrow waterways that snake through the valley.
Despite — or because of — the valley’s proximity to the capital, it has long been a hub for insurgents. The Taliban, the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network and others are active in one of central Afghanistan’s most dangerous areas.
An earlier SOC mission had killed Taliban cell leader Din Mohammad and Friday’s mission targeted Mullah Mohibullah, who led a network of 12 fighters in the Tangi valley.
“It was a capture operation, a standard night operation,” one senior ISAF official said.
As the SOC team moved through the valley, they soon saw insurgents armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the most common weapons used by insurgent foot soldiers for their ease of use, maintenance and resupply.
Military officials in Kabul say six members of Mohibullah’s network had already been killed as the SOC team engaged them. The Taliban said Saturday that eight of its fighters had been killed during the exchange.
That firefight is believed to have taken place around one of the compounds in the valley.
“The ground force was assaulting the objective and were in contact with the insurgents,” another military official told Reuters, adding that a small number of Taliban fighters soon broke away from the main group.
At that point, very early Saturday, the SOC ground team called in what ISAF describes as an “Immediate Reaction Force” (IRF), a standby unit.
An IRF is different from a Quick Reaction Force, emergency units that have been deployed in response to “spectacular” attacks by insurgents in Kabul and elsewhere.
Despite widespread speculation to the contrary, that means the extra force called in to assist the ground team was not sent on a “rescue” mission. Neither was it caught in any kind of elaborate Taliban trap.
“A group started breaking away and fleeing,” the second military official said. “That’s when they called in the IRF, to come in and get those guys.”
Military officials have said that, under such circumstances, it is not unusual for insurgent leaders to break off from an engagement and leave behind “low-level fighters.”
“That’s when the helicopter coming in got hit,” one said.
Several military and diplomatic officials have said it appeared the devastating death toll — 30 U.S. troops, seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter — was the result of nothing more than a lucky shot.