In the deadliest incident involving coalition forces in recent months, six U.S. troops were killed and one was injured Tuesday when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO officials said.
"The cause of the crash is under investigation. However, initial reporting indicates there was no enemy activity in the area at the time," a NATO statement said. A Taliban spokesman on Twitter claimed that the insurgent group shot down the helicopter but such claims are made routinely.
Initial reports said that the helicopter went down in the Shahjoi district of southern Zabul province. U.S. and NATO officials did not immediately disclose how many were aboard the helicopter, what its mission was, or the weather conditions in the region but said that one U.S. soldier was injured in addition to the six killed.
CBS News, citing American officials, said the deaths may have occurred when the helicopter made a hard landing due to an engine failure and then came under fire from insurgents, but there was no immediate confirmation of that account from the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul.
According to International Security Assistance Force reports, a total of five fixed wing and five helicopters have been involved in mishaps this year, resulting in the deaths of 16 servicemembers. None of the previous incidents involved enemy fire, ISAF said.
The worst previous incident came on March 11 when a UH-60 Black Hawk crashed in the Daman district of southern Kandahar province, killing five U.S. troops.
Until the crash Tuesday, there had been only one U.S. fatality in Afghanistan in December. A total of 139 coalition troops have been killed this year, including 109 Americans. Last year, 394 coalition troops were killed – 297 of them American.
The death toll for the coalition has dropped significantly since combat forces began withdrawing last year and the coalition handed over lead responsibility for security to Afghan forces last summer.
The worst year for the coalition was 2010 when a total of 711 troops (499 U.S.) were killed.
Currently, about 67,000 NATO-led troops remain in Afghanistan, including about 43,000 from the U.S. The U.S. troop presence was scheduled to drop to about 34,000 in February under the current plan to have all coalition combat troops out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
However, the plan has been thrown into doubt by the refusal of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. and a separate Status of Forces Agreement with the NATO allies for a continuing coalition troop presence after 2014.
Karzai has said that he will not sign until the U.S. publicly begins peace talks with the Taliban and gives solid guarantees that U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan past 2014 will not enter Afghan homes.
U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned that the U.S. might exercise the "zero option" and withdraw completely next year. However, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested in recent days that the U.S. would be flexible on a deadline for signing a new BSA.
"It's a brinkmanship they're playing with us," Karzai said, according to wire service reports. "Even if they did, then come what may."
Despite the standoff with Karzai, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday that British troops would be leaving with a sense of accomplishment.
Opposition members of Parliament immediately seized on Cameron's remarks and compared them to the May 1, 2003 speech of former President George W. Bush, when he stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declared major combat in Iraq over under a banner that said "Mission Accomplished."
During the Christmas visit to British soldiers in southern Afghanistan, Cameron was asked if they would be able to return home with the message "mission accomplished" after 12 years of fighting.
"Yes, I think they do," he replied.
"The absolute driving part of the mission is a basic level of security so it doesn't become a haven for terror," Cameron said according to BBC reports. "That is the mission, that was the mission and I think we will have accomplished that mission."