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 yesterday, even as violence flares along Afghanistan's eastern border.
Top U.S. leaders vowed that the single largest loss of life by Americans in the 10-year-old war will not force a strategy change.
"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.
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.
"We will press on and we will succeed," said Obama, adding that the United States 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 aircrew underscores the risks as the United States begins to turn over parts of the country to Afghan forces, while concentrating more on ferreting out insurgents operating along the border.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the Taliban's downing of the Chinook with a rocket-propelled grenade on Saturday was just a single combat incident and not a watershed moment in an escalating war.
Pentagon officials said that there will be no public media coverage at the Dover base during the military's "dignified transfer" ceremony because the men's badly damaged bodies are mingled and still being identified. Families are allowed to attend the arrival.
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.