The crash of an American helicopter on August 7 with the loss of 30 men, many of whom were elite Navy SEALs, brought the highest casualties of any event in the decade-long U.S. war in Afghanistan. How did it happen and what does it tell us about the situation in Afghanistan?
This event took place took place in the Tangi valley of Maidan Wardak province in the eastern part of the country. It is known as a Taliban-controlled area. Frequent U.S.-led night raids have apparently won the insurgents more popular support among generally xenophobic Afghans. Night raids have been one of the most successful tactics used by foreign troops hunting insurgents who hide among Afghan civilians but are also quite risky, especially in unfriendly territory like the Tangi valley.
Most of those killed were members of SEAL Team 6, part of the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU). Those units spearheaded the raid in Pakistan that killed Usama bin Ladin. Was this attack, then, revenge for bin Ladin’s death? If it is seen that way in Afghanistan and Pakistan that would constitute a considerable defeat for the United States as its enemies would then exaggerate their ability to retaliate and be incited to fight harder.
While more intelligence has to be collected to confirm whether this might be the case, the operation itself was certainly a deliberate, planned effort on the Taliban’s part. As the special operation team moved through the valley, it soon saw insurgents armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket- propelled grenade launchers, the most common weapons used by insurgent foot soldiers.
A senior Afghan government official explained that Taliban commander Qari Tahir lured U.S. forces into an ambush by feeding them false information about an important meeting of insurgent leaders taking place there. He also said that four Pakistanis helped Tahir carry out the operation.
American retaliation was militarily successful to some extent though not necessarily politically so. A group of 15 militants fled the valley immediately after the clash and took refuge in the safe house in the neighboring Chak District.
Shortly after midnight, International Security Assistance Forces hit the safe house and killed 13 Taliban soldiers, while two escaped, according to Afghan government sources and villagers. The Taliban forces were part of the Mullah Muhibullah network that operated in the valley, deploying both military forces and suicide bombers. Muhibullah and one of his chief lieutenants were among those killed.The U.S. forces thus showed their ability to locate insurgents and go after them effectively. But the Taliban also showed their skill at infiltrating the Afghan government and feeding false information to mislead NATO forces. The Taliban’s growing strength was also indicated by its ability to kill several high-ranking government officials despite their tight security, including the powerful half-brother of Afghan president Ahmed Wali Karzai, a leading figure in Kandahar.
The Taliban will likely attack more often as the timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops is implemented. The question is how and whether the NATO forces and the Afghan government can counter this trend. Heavy U.S. casualties might persuade the American government to pull out faster and can certainly persuade Afghans that the Taliban might well be the winning side in the aftermath.