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.
As an example, when the Fourth Brigade Combat Team handed over its only combat outpost in the Tangi Valley to Afghan security forces in April, the US commander in the area, Lt. Col. Thomas S. Rickard, promised to continue occasional sweeps to support government security forces. But he also wanted to focus his efforts on areas that had larger populations.
The result was not encouraging. Within days of the handover, the Taliban had raised its flag within sight of the outpost. Although it appears the Afghan forces were willing to fight, they were badly outclassed by the Taliban. Eventually, the Taliban simply moved in and occupied the security post. A coalition spokesman tried to put the best face on the failure, saying, “We deemed it not to be strategic and closed it,” he said, adding, “The Taliban went in and occupied it because it was vacant.”
Be that as it may, questions abound regarding the ability of the Afghan army to pick up the slack when NATO troops pull out. Special Operations warriors can carry out raids and target specific individuals for capture or death. They can also carry out reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines, and call down drone strikes on high value targets. But they are unsuited to the task of playing glorified policemen. Ideally, that’s the job of the Afghan army, with US soldiers acting as consultants or advisers. That sort of mission is too high profile for the secretive special ops soldiers, who prefer working in the shadows.
Beyond the questions regarding the capabilities of the Afghan army and the confusing mission of Special Operations personnel, there is the huge problem of winning the Afghan people to the government’s side. This was one of General David Petraeus’s major goals when he announced his plans for the surge in troops in 2009. By pacifying population centers, freeing them from Taliban control, while the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) move in and improve the lives of ordinary Afghans by building schools, mosques, and infrastructure, it was believed that the people’s loyalty would flow to the government in Kabul rather than the Taliban.
To date, it hasn’t worked that way, and given the fact that troops will be leaving by 2014, it appears probable that the concept will never work.
An article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel profiling local PRT officers points up the daunting challenges faced by the reconstruction teams as they work with local officials to bring water, electricity, roads, and other amenities to the provinces. They also seek to develop economic infrastructure in order to boost local economies. One such effort involves developing an agriculture production system where none existed before. Capt. Gena Selby is working with Afghan officials to figure out ways to improve transportation and storage of crops and boost marketing. She is also working to set up an agricultural resource center so that local farmers can improve their farming methods.
“Farmers have no incentive to change their practices if they can’t get more money for their crops and if there’s not a market,” said Selby. She also listed the almost impossible challenges she faces: “You need transportation to move your crops to market. You need packaging and grading, sorting and milling to preserve it or canning if you want to make jams and jellies,” Selby said.
Very little of that – not even the roads – currently exist in Afghanistan.
Another PRT member hit upon the biggest problem facing these dedicated soldiers and public servants. “Afghanistan is tribal based, and if you had a problem you went to the tribal elders. Now we’re trying to get people to understand they can come to the government.”
This is where our nation-building efforts have landed us in Afghanistan. We are trying to alter a culture that has done things a certain way for a thousand years, attempting to make a nation-state out of a collection of farmers and small artisans who have never contemplated any identity other than that defined by their clan, or tribe, or village. Kabul is so remote to almost all of them that it may as well be on the surface of the moon. They appear angry at the occupation of their villages – not because they believe it violates Afghanistan’s sovereignty, but rather for the much more mundane reason that the fighting disturbs the familiar rhythms of their lives. They don’t like the Taliban much either, but at least they’re local.
The downing of the helicopter carrying 30 brave Americans is a tragedy. But perhaps a bigger tragedy is that we are still in Afghanistan after 10 years of failure – asking our courageous soldiers to do the impossible.