WASHINGTON – The deaths of 30 U.S. troops and eight Afghans to an insurgent marksman was an unprecedented loss but does not signal a new surge in Taliban combat strength, U.S. officials said Monday, even as violence flares along Afghanistan's eastern border.
Top U.S. leaders vowed that Saturday's helicopter shoot-down — the single largest loss of life in the 10-year-old war — will not rewrite America's strategy.
"As heavy a loss as this was, it would even be more tragic if we allowed it to derail this country from our efforts to defeat al-Qaida and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan," said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The comments came as the Pentagon prepared to release the names of the fallen, and to develop plans to receive the remains of the war dead in a private ceremony at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Tuesday.
Panetta was speaking in Tampa, Fla., as Adm. Eric Olson handed control of U.S. Special Operations Command to Adm. Bill McRaven, a Navy SEAL who commanded the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden earlier this year.
The ceremony was scaled back a bit, in deference to the heavy losses the crash dealt to the military's special operations forces. Among the 30 killed were 22 Navy SEAL personnel — the deadliest single loss by the elite force.
President Barack Obama, in a statement at the White House, said he spoke to his commanders and vowed to continue the fight.
"We will press on and we will succeed," said Obama, adding that the U.S. will keep working on handing over security responsibilities in Afghanistan to the Afghan forces.
The crash in eastern Afghanistan that also killed three Air Force members and an Army air crew underscores the risks as the U.S. begins to turn over portions of the country to Afghan forces, while concentrating more on ferreting out insurgents operating along the border.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the Taliban's downing of the Chinook with a rocket-propelled-grenade on Saturday should be seen as a single combat incident and not a watershed moment in an escalating war.
Pentagon officials also said that there will be no public media coverage at the Dover base during the military's "dignified transfer" ceremony because the badly damaged remains are mingled and still being identified. Families are allowed to attend the arrival. News organizations are protesting the decision to prohibit any media coverage.
The 18-year ban on media coverage of the returns was lifted in 2009 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, leaving the decision to the families of the war dead.
Military officials said the troops in the crash were on a mission to assist forces pursuing a Taliban leader. NATO says the Chinook helicopter carrying the troops was shot down by an insurgent armed with a rocket-propelled grenade.
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.