Horrendous: 31 U.S. troops, most from SEAL Team 6, killed when Taliban shoots down helicopter

Thirty-eight are dead in all, including seven Afghan troops who were aboard. As many as 25 of the Americans were SEALs and a majority of them reportedly were from Team 6 — the same unit that got Bin Laden. Whether any of the men on that mission were killed today, the White House hasn’t said (yet). In almost 10 years of war, it’s the single deadliest incident for U.S. soldiers by far, and these were the very best of the best. I’m trying to find solace in the fact that those numbers are small compared to terrible days in previous wars, but I’m not finding it.

The cause: A Taliban RPG.

The helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Tangi Valley of the Wardak Province just west of Kabul, the coalition official said. The Taliban claimed credit for the attack…

There were conflicting accounts about when the helicopter went down. A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, said insurgents shot down the helicopter around 11 p.m. Friday as it was starting an operation on a house where the militants were gathering in the Tangi Joyee region of the district of Saidabad in the eastern part of the province. Eight militants were killed in the fight, which continued after the helicopter fell, Mr. Mujahid said…

Gen. Abdul Qayum Baqizoy, police chief of Wardak, said the operation began around 1 a.m. Saturday as NATO and Afghan forces attacked a Taliban compound in Jaw-e-mekh Zareen village in the Tangi Valley. The firefight lasted at least two hours, the general said.

“It was at the end of the operation that one of the NATO helicopters crashed,” he said. “We don’t know yet the cause of the crash, and we don’t know how many NATO soldiers were on board.”

Question for military readers: How low must the helicopter have been to be within range of an RPG? From what I understand, 200 meters or less is optimal for an attack, but if it was that low I assume the altitude plus the pilot’s maneuvering would save some of the people on board. Instead, catastrophe. Was this a lucky hit when the chopper was at a higher altitude or was this some other weapon entirely? CSM considers the ominous implications:

If the helicopter was shot down, it could have significant implications for the war effort. Insurgents have hit helicopters in the past, but never in any great numbers. If today’s crash is an isolated incident, it is unlikely to significantly affect the direction of the war or American public perception, despite the magnitude of casualties that included so many highly trained commandos. But if it marks the beginning of a trend in which insurgents use advanced anti-aircraft weapons, it could cost NATO crucial air superiority…

“This technology and how the Taliban have accessed it raise the question from where and from what sources were they able to get such technology,” says Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “If the Taliban is able to get regular access to these technologies, it will certainly have a significant, unfortunately dangerous effects for the future of the war in Afghanistan.”

Hmmm. I wonder who’d want to supply the Taliban with weapons like that.

Here’s the inevitable “will this encourage a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan?” piece. The answer to that depends on the answer to CSM’s question of what brought the chopper down, I think.

Update: At least 20 members of Team 6 are dead. It’s the biggest loss of life the unit has ever suffered.

Update: According to Fox, there may be as many as 300 men in Team 6. The unit hasn’t been wiped out, but it’s obviously suffered a grievous loss.

Update: An eyewitness account:

Mansour Majab, a resident of the area, said he saw four to six helicopters in the village around 2 a.m. Saturday morning, as he rose for a pre-dawn meal before beginning his dawn-to-dusk fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

An hour later, Mr. Majab said, he “heard a rocket shot” and went up to his roof to see what was happening. “We saw a helicopter was shot down and it was set on fire,” he said…

Poorly armed insurgents have rarely had success in shooting down U.S. helicopters in Afghanistan.

Update: Conspiracy theories are bound to rage about Team 6 taking such a heavy hit so soon after they cut off the head of the snake. One commenter’s already raised the possibility of local jihadis or Pakistan being tipped off to the fact that Team 6 members would be on this raid. Note the quoted bit above about four to six helicopters in the village, though; was everyone on board those choppers a Team 6 member or did the enemy just get fantastically lucky in hitting the one that happened to carry men from the unit?

Update: Pentagon sources tell Fox News they don’t believe any of the men from Team 6 who were killed today were part of the Bin Laden raid.