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It was the single worst day in the history of the Navy SEALs and the bloodiest day in the near-decade long Afghanistan War. On July 6, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter ferrying 22 members of SEAL Team Six, along with eight other Americans and seven Afghan soldiers on a rescue mission, crashed in central Wardak province after being hit by what the military described as a rocket propelled grenade. There were no survivors. The tragic incident raises, once again, serious questions about the success of the Afghanistan mission, now in a draw-down phase. It would appear that not only is the Taliban getting stronger militarily, but that the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is being lost.
SEAL Team Six was the same unit that carried out the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden, although none of the members who were killed in the crash were part of that operation. The unit was called in by Army Rangers who were pinned down by a superior force of Taliban fighters. According to reports, after successfully dispersing the insurgents, the Chinook took a direct hit and crashed.
The Rangers were reportedly on a mission to capture a high-level Taliban commander who was holed up in a house in Jaw-e-mekh Zareen, a village in the Tangi Valley. Known as “Death Valley,” the Tangi corridor is considered one of the deadliest in Afghanistan. After a two hour firefight, the Rangers called in SEAL Team Six for support. Following the crash, the Rangers secured the site and moved off to engage other pockets of Taliban in the area. As of Sunday, there was still fighting in the area.
The continued presence of the large number of Taliban fighters in the province underscores the frustration of NATO forces, which have carried out hundreds of raids on Taliban strongholds, only to see them melt away and return when the troops leave. Military observers now say that the eastern provinces are the scene of the heaviest fighting after the surge of 30,000 US troops pacified large areas in the south last year.
But as the draw-down of American combat forces picks up later this year and into next year, NATO will be forced to increase its reliance on the 10,000 Special Forces personnel in Afghanistan for counter-terrorism operations, as well as joint combat missions with the Afghanistan army. While there is no doubting the skill and courage of the Special Forces, the question must be asked: what strategic ends are their missions supposed to accomplish?
As Steve Clemons of The Atlantic points out, the Taliban is increasingly tapping local villagers in recruitment drives — fighters who attack NATO forces and then return to their villages to blend in with the civilians. One intelligence officer told the The New York Times, “We don’t capture any fighters who are non-Afghans.” In fact, it appears that the US military will have to start making some tough decisions about where best to project its power once the withdrawal starts to pick up steam. This may very well mean that areas like Tangi will be abandoned even if the Afghan security forces are not up to the task of fighting the Taliban.
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