Afghan helicopter crash reflects peril for Special Forces

August 7, 2011

The mission that left 30 American troops, including 22 Navy SEALs, dead Saturday morning in eastern Afghanistan was just one of dozens of operations carried out by U.S. Special Operations forces every week in Afghanistan. The only difference was the disastrous ending.

While SEAL Team 6 gained worldwide fame with the raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden, Saturday’s ill-fated operation reflected the reality of a unit that regularly targets insurgents whose names and faces are almost completely unknown outside military and intelligence circles.

In this case, the mission was aimed at suspects in a series of attacks on foreign convoys along a highway south of Kabul, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Some reports Sunday suggested that SEAL Team 6, which suffered substantial losses when a Chinook helicopter was shot down by an apparent insurgent’s rocket-propelled grenade, joined the mission after another unit asked for backup. 

U.S. Special Operations forces have been a critical component of the war strategy in Afghanistan, executing operations in remote and volatile locations that are often inaccessible to ground troops. In Wardak Province’s Tangi Valley, where the crash occurred, U.S. troops had recently withdrawn from the area’s sole combat outpost.

Such missions are expected to become increasingly important as the United States begins withdrawing troops in the coming months and years, leaving NATO without the manpower to conduct the traditional counterinsurgency operations at the heart of the troop surge over the past 18 months.

Saturday’s mission was a night raid, which is usually a joint operation between NATO and Afghan forces, often informed by lengthy intelligence-gathering efforts. Afghanistan is in the process of developing its own commandos, and the raids are seen as key to building that nascent force’s capacity. 

“Saturday’s operation was a normal mission that we do jointly,” Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimi said. He said Afghan and U.S. troops have cooperated on 10 very similar missions in the past month alone. Seven Afghans also died in the crash, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. 

Officially, NATO would not confirm whether the crash was due to insurgent fire, saying an investigation has been launched.  

The Special Operations missions are seen as critical not only by the Americans and other foreign contingents here, but also by Afghans, who lack an Air Force of their own and often find themselves dependent on NATO air support.

While a number of Afghan National Army units have begun conducting patrols without NATO accompaniment, they often find themselves in need of assistance from Western planes and helicopters when firefights with the Taliban become too intense. 

“We’re getting stronger, but without an Air Force, there’s a limit to our strength,” said Col. Ataullah Zahir, an Afghan commander in Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

It appears unlikely that Saturday’s crash will threaten U.S. or Afghan confidence in Western air superiority. A senior defense department official told the New Yorker magazine recently that in the past couple of years, Special Operations forces conducted almost 2,000 targeted raids. The vast majority of those did not result in casualties among U.S. or Afghan forces. 

Senior U.S. military officials said the loss of the SEALs would have little impact on the U.S. military’s ability to conduct strikes on senior and mid-level Taliban officials, which they said have become increasingly effective and lethal over the past year. 

Still, the incident defies U.S. claims of progress as NATO prepares to hand over responsibility for the country’s security to Afghans by the end of 2014. And it threatens, at least temporarily, to undermine a course long advocated by Vice President Biden, which would make targeted Special Operations an even more central part of military strategy in Afghanistan.

Special correspondent Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and staff writer Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan since 2012. He served previously as an education reporter in Washington, and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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