KABUL, Afghanistan — The 30 U.S. soldiers, many of them Navy SEALs, who died Saturday in the U.S. military's single biggest loss of the Afghan war, were operating in a Taliban-controlled valley where frequent U.S.-led night raids have won the insurgents popular support, area residents said Sunday.
The raids occur "every night. We are very much miserable," said Roshanak Wardak, a doctor and a former member of the national Parliament. "They are coming to our houses at night."
Wardak runs a clinic about 3 miles from the rugged Tangi Valley where insurgents early Saturday shot down a helicopter carrying the U.S. troops, an Afghan translator and seven Afghan commandoes.
Night raids have become a significant part of the U.S. strategy aimed at weakening the insurgents and compelling their leaders to accept U.S. and Afghan government offers to hold talks on a political settlement of the decade-old war.
The Taliban have suffered heavy losses in the operations, which have soared since last year to an average of 340 per month, according to a Western intelligence official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue.
There has been no apparent progress toward convening peace talks, but U.S. commanders defend the raids as effective in eliminating and capturing insurgents, and gaining intelligence that leads to other militants and arms caches.
"Eight-five percent are shots not fired, when you're talking about night raids and disruption," said the Western intelligence official. "Over 50 percent of the time they hit the target that they're after, which shows the intelligence has been accurate."
Afghan commandoes participate in all such operations, he added.
The tactic, however, has proven highly controversial with ordinary Afghans amid charges that they claim civilian lives. President Hamid Karzai has demanded that they stop.
Residents of the Tangi Valley area, in eastern Wardak Province, about 60 miles southwest of Kabul, issued similar complaints about the night raids in their vicinity, charging that they have killed civilians, disrupted their lives and fueled popular support for the Taliban.
"There are night raids every day or every other day," said a second doctor who asked not to be identified because he feared for his safety. He said he lives about 100 yards from the parched riverbed where the U.S. Chinook helicopter crashed.
Thirty Americans and eight Afghans were killed in the crash, making it the deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in the decade-long war in Afghanistan. The rangers, special operations forces who work regularly with the Seals, afterwards secured the crash site in the Tangi Joy Zarin area of Wardak province, about 60 miles (97km) southwest of Kabul, an official said.
On Sunday, Nato began an operation to recover the remains of the large transport helicopter, while Afghan and American forces battled insurgents in the region of the crash. The clashes Sunday did not appear to involve the troops around the crash site.
"There have been a small number of limited engagements in the same district as yesterday's helicopter crash, however those clashes have not been in the direct vicinity of the crash site," NATO said in a statement. "As of now, we have no reporting to indicate any coalition casualties resulting from these engagements."
Shahidullah Shahid, the Wardak provincial spokesman, confirmed the helicopter recovery mission was under way and said there were reports of Taliban casualties overnight.
"There is a joint operation going on by Afghan and Nato forces. A clearing operation is ongoing in the district and there are reports of casualties among insurgents," Shahid said. "The area is still surrounded by American forces."
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, Nato said insurgents killed four alliance service members in two separate attacks in the east and the south. It did not provide their nationalities or any other details.
The deaths bring to 369 the number of coalition troops killed this year in Afghanistan and 46 this month.
The downing of the helicopter Saturday was heavy setback for the US-led coalition as it begins to draw down thousands of combat troops fighting what has become an increasingly costly and unpopular war.
Of the 30 Americans killed, there were 22 Navy Seals, three Air Force combat controllers and a dog handler, his dog and four crew members, a current US official and a former official said on condition of anonymity because military officials were still notifying the families of the dead.
Most of the Seals belonged to the same elite unit that killed Osama bin Laden, although they were not the same people who participated in the May raid into Pakistan that killed the al-Qaida leader. The downing was a stinging blow to the lauded, tight-knit Seal Team 6, months after its crowning achievement.