What happened on the night of deadly Afghanistan helicopter crash

KABUL, (Reuters) – 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 on 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.

UNDER FIRE       

Friday’s SOC operation was launched to capture a local  Taliban leader, a man responsible for organising insurgent  operations in the area.

“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.

In one of its rare statements since the crash, ISAF Joint  Command said the SOC team exchanged fire, with several of the  insurgents killed. The Taliban said on 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 on 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.

“It just has to be the right angle, the right shot,” one  said.

ISAF says for now that insurgents had been using RPGs during  the initial engagement and that the helicopter had been fired  on, but still refers to the incident as a crash.

“We can still not confirm that this was the cause of the  crash,” Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson said on Wednesday.

While it is not unusual for rocket-propelled grenades —  normally an anti-tank weapon — to hit helicopters, it is  extremely rare for them to actually bring one down.

Coalition officials have effectively ruled out that the  helicopter was brought down by anything more sophisticated than  an RPG launcher. That dispels fears the Taliban had suddenly  acquired more sophisticated weapons such as the Stinger missiles  used to such devastating effect by mujahideen fighters against  Soviet aircraft during the occupation of the 1980s.

RPGs have an effective range of about 300 metres, although  officials in Kabul say the shot that downed the Chinook would  have to have been fired well within 100 metres of its target.

“You have to understand the terrain
surrounding the valley.  The shot could have come from a low angle, or even from above  the helicopter,” one military official said.

What is not known for sure now is whether the helicopter  caught fire or exploded, or whether it fell from any  considerable height. Officials acknowledge that the destruction  was devastating, something supported by the fact it took about  four days to gather all of the wreckage and remains.

“Whether it was a fire or if it exploded, it was  catastrophic,” another military official said.

“It’s a bloody big target, and a slow-moving target.”

Questions have been asked in the United States why the  second unit — which consisted of 25 members of the Navy’s Seal  Team 6 — was travelling in a U.S. Army CH-47 instead of a more  sophisticated MH-47 more commonly used by special forces.

Part of that explanation might lie in the fact it was not  the primary unit used in the raid and was only on standby.

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