Helicopter Crash In Afghanistan Takes Deadly Toll

Thirty-one American troops and seven Afghans are reported dead in a helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan. If confirmed, it would be the highest number of Americans killed in a single incident since the war in Afghanistan began 10 years ago. NPR Pentagon Correspondent Tom Bowman is following the story, and talks with host Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. A military helicopter has crashed in eastern Afghanistan killing 31 American Special Forces and seven Afghans. President Karzai has that casualty figure this morning when he broke the news of the incident. President Obama issued a statement mourning the loss of life and extending his thoughts and prayers to the victims' loved ones. It was the highest number of Americans killed in a single incident since the war in Afghanistan began nearly 10 years ago.

NPR's Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman joins us. Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM BOWMAN: Oh, you're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: And what are U.S. officials saying about the crash and the details that President Karzai has put out?

BOWMAN: Well, officials in both Washington in and Afghanistan are saying very little publicly. They'll only say at this point there was a helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan in an area of known Taliban activity and that a recovery operation is underway. But we are hearing from our sources that many of those killed were Navy Seals; that's the Navy's elite commando unit.

There's no indication of any survivors. They do have control of the crash site, we're told, and they say there is no fighting there right now, so they're moving to a recovery operation. But you're not going to hear anything more really until the next of kin are notified and that effort is ongoing right now.

SIMON: Tom, do we know anything about the nature of the mission, if that's what was happening in eastern Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, we're told this particular mission was to go after a Taliban compound in Wardak province in eastern Afghanistan. It was a U.S.-Afghan operation. Of course, seven Afghans were killed as well. It was a nighttime operation and we're seeing a lot of special operations, missions at night so they can sneak up on the Taliban. But those missions are also very controversial, Scott.

President Karzai condemned them because sometimes civilians get caught in the crossfire or they go to the wrong house. But the other thing is eastern Afghanistan now is becoming the big fight, now that the southern part of the country, around Kandahar province and Helmand province, those areas are becoming more and more pacified.

SIMON: The Taliban is claiming to have downed a helicopter in a rocket attack. Is that plausible? Is the Taliban in Afghanistan - eastern Afghanistan - strong enough to do that?

BOWMAN: Well, it is plausible and now American officials are saying it was likely shot down by the Taliban. They are strong and they, of course, in eastern Afghanistan enjoy a safe haven right across the border in Pakistan. And also Scott, in this area the mountains give them a lot of covers. So in Kandahar and in Helmand it's more of a desert area, it's hard for them to hide. They can scoot up into the mountains and hide here as well.

When I was there in June up in the mountains at this combat outpost we came under mortar attack from the Taliban and the attacks were so frequent at this area on certain days of the week that the soldiers talked about Rocket Sunday and Target Tuesday.

Now there are plans, by the way, to shift more U.S. troops within the country to the eastern part of Afghanistan next year because of the growing strength of the Taliban.

SIMON: Tom, you've spent so much time embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And, of course, the Navy Seals unit most recently celebrated for participating in the raid that got Osama bin Laden. This has got to be a terrible blow to morale. And help us understand that, even as NATO and U.S. forces are beginning to talk a modest drawdown.

BOWMAN: Right. Well, there is a larger Seal community, thousands of them. And they are a very, very tight-knit community. Spend a lot of time deployed overseas. Very secretive organization. Do a lot of these missions against the Taliban. And this will clearly be a big blow not only to all American forces in Afghanistan, but to the Seal community in particular.

And it's the largest number of American forces killed in this kind of an incident since 2005 when 16 Special Operations Forces were killed in a similar helicopter shoot down. So this is a real big blow.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Bowman, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Scott.

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