WASHINGTON - Seven U.S. special operations troops were killed yesterday in incidents involving two helicopters in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said. It was the largest U.S. death toll in a single operation in the 5-month-old war in Afghanistan.
In addition, 40 U.S. soldiers have been wounded in intensive fighting with al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in the rugged Shahi Kot Valley south of Gardez. Some of the U.S. wounded were hit by shrapnel and flying rock, but officials said their injuries were not thought to be life-threatening.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the battle was continuing to rage with nearly 1,000 U.S. soldiers, together with 200 commandos from allied nations. Up to 1,000 Afghan government forces are joined with them.
They are squared off against al-Qaida and Taliban forces, estimated at perhaps 400, carrying small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and possibly surface-to-air missiles, entrenched at altitudes of up to 12,000 feet.
"The fighting," said Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, "has been fierce. Enemy forces have been dug in."
Details of the actions involving the two helicopters - MH-47 Chinooks that are used to ferry commandos - were sketchy.
The first helicopter was hit yesterday afternoon local time as it swooped down for a landing to deposit reconnaissance troops in the battle area. It was damaged by a rocket-propelled grenade, causing one American soldier to fall to the ground. That solider is presumed to be dead.
The helicopter flew away and was able to make a "controlled crash-landing," Franks said, about a half-mile away. Soon after, a second MH-47 arrived to pick up troops from the damaged helicopter.
The second helicopter then lifted off and landed near the site where the U.S. soldier had fallen. As the troops scrambled off, they were quickly locked in a firefight with enemy forces. The fighting killed six Americans and left an undetermined number wounded.
Some hours after the firefight, the second helicopter was able to extract the dead and wounded, officials said.
Franks indicated for the first time that U.S. forces, rather than Afghans, were doing the bulk of the fighting over the 60- to 70-square-mile area, with Afghan fighters involved mostly in "blocking moves." Over the weekend, military officials had indicated that Afghan forces, commanded by three Afghan generals, were spearheading the fight.
The U.S. forces are drawn from the 101st Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division and Special Forces.
Franks said the U.S. soldiers were "making progress" in the bleak terrain, at temperatures of 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but that "much remains to be done." He estimated that between 100 and 200 al-Qaida and Taliban have been killed.
The sweeping operation, supported by Apache attack helicopters and U.S. warplanes that dropped more than 350 bombs, had been planned for weeks, officials said. It began last week with the insertion of observation posts throughout Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials also identified a soldier, a 34-year-old Green Beret, who was killed by a mortar round on Saturday in the battle area while traveling with Afghan troops. He is Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman of Wade, N.C., who was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Yesterday, at a school event in Minnesota, President Bush said, "We send our prayers and tears to those whose families have lost life."
He added: "Defending freedom is a noble cause, and it is a just cause. And so long as I am the president of the United States, I will pursue those who want to hurt America and who want to take away our freedoms."
The presence of large numbers of U.S. forces in the fighting outside Gardez is in marked contrast to earlier U.S. ground operations in Afghanistan.
The earlier operations mostly included small teams of Green Berets linking up with Afghan forces and then calling in U.S. aircraft for bombing runs. In those battles, U.S. commanders relied heavily on large numbers of Afghan forces to do most of the close-in fighting.
But in December, that strategy failed when hundreds of al-Qaida forces, possibly including Osama bin Laden, escaped from the Tora Bora region. That battle occurred in a similar forbidding mountainous area just to the north of the Pakistan border.
"I think they recognize Tora Bora was largely a failure," said an Army officer who asked not to be named. "If they're going to get [al-Qaida and Taliban], they're going to have to use [American] forces. Afghans aren't going to do it."
Another officer, however, dismissed the notion that Tora Bora dictated a new strategy of relying more heavily on U.S. ground forces. He suggested that small groups of U.S. Special Forces troops might well be used again for future operations.
"We're adapting to each situation," said one Army general who requested anonymity. "You fit the troops to the mission at hand."