WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A military investigation found no U.S. personnel at fault in the August crash of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan that killed all 30 Americans on board, the deadliest incident for U.S. forces in the decade-old war, officials told Reuters on Wednesday.
The investigation, according to an executive summary obtained by Reuters, confirmed that the Taliban fired a rocket-propelled grenade that hit one of the rotary blades and exploded, sending the helicopter plunging to the ground and bursting into flames within seconds.
All eight Afghans on board were also killed.
Contrary to earlier speculation, the American forces — most of whom were elite Navy SEALs — were not lured into a trap by the insurgent fighters, the investigation found.
“The shoot down was not the result of a baited ambush but rather the result of the enemy being at a heightened state of alert due to three-and-a-half hours of ongoing coalition air operations,” wrote Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt, who led the investigation.
Defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter in depth, said no U.S. personnel would be punished as a result of the investigation, no equipment was found to have malfunctioned and the mission itself — to go after a high-level Taliban target — was considered sound.
One U.S. defense official described it as a “tragic incident in the middle of a war zone.”
“Even the best executed mission in a conflict can cost lives and that is what we saw,” a second U.S. defense official said.
That is not to say that the investigation into the August 6 incident did not make recommendations. Colt wrote that the planners did not allocate more spy aircraft to support the mission given compressed timing, but noted that “this finding was not a cause of the shoot-down or crash.”
The deaths of so many Americans resonated at home in a way that other battlefield incidents have not. Relatives, pastors and friends of the fallen appeared in media, praising the troops fighting a largely unpopular war that has been overshadowed by concerns about the faltering U.S. economy.
The crash initially triggered speculation that perhaps the mission did not justify putting highly trained Navy SEALs at risk or that the slow-moving CH-47 Chinook was not the best aircraft to take them on a mission to a remote valley southwest of Kabul.
Sources familiar with special operations missions had noted that the team could have traveled in a MH-47 helicopter, which is specially equipped for such missions.
But Colt wrote that his investigation showed the “mission and the tactics and resources employed” were consistent with other special operations missions.
The elite forces were deployed after a group of Taliban appeared to be escaping from an ongoing U.S. military operation to go after a high-value target — Qari Tahir, described as the senior Taliban leader for the Tangi Valley in Wardak province.
As the aircraft approached, “a previously undetected group of suspected Taliban fighters fired two or three RPGs in rapid succession from the tower of a two-story mud-brick building,” the report said.
The first RPG missed but the second hit the helicopter, causing it to crash.
“The airframe was immediately engulfed in a large fireball” upon impact in the dry river creek below, it said.
Shortly after the incident, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, defended the decision to send in the SEALs. He said NATO-led forces later killed the Taliban militants responsible for shooting down the helicopter.
Editing by Bill Trott and Christopher Wilson