August 7, 2011

Stepping Out of Afghanistan’s Shadows

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Like rotating blades hitting the dirt, propaganda spin from Afghanistan’s traumatic Chinook crash has destructively spiraled into U.S. policy. The 30 U.S. troops inside the helicopter, presumably a Special Operations-employed MH-47G Chinook, morphed into masked heroes overnight, their personal lives immediately reduced to political campaigning. To both U.S. policy-makers and the Taliban, Wardak’s wreckage is a symbol of their “success” and the need to “fight on.”

A stalemate, in other words.

The downed Chinook means little to either side from an isolated military vantage; Wardak province stands the same tomorrow as it did yesterday. However the impact may have noticeable effects on Afghanistan's tactical and propaganda realms, opening a strategic opportunity for the Taliban. Of initial consequence, the Taliban may have finally resorted to a U.S. cache of FIM-92 Stinger missiles, which Iran allegedly supplied new batteries for. These reports remain sketchy though, and a standard rocket-propelled grenade probably brought down the Chinook. However the question remains whether insurgents are adapting to heli-borne raids, and if they will grow bolder in firing easily traceable RPGs.

One emerging theory contends that, as U.S. and NATO forces increasingly rely on air-raids in eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban will attempt to transfer its IED’s to the air - and a downed helicopter creates a bigger shock wave than an exploding Humvee. This strategy would mirror a high-ranking assassination campaign back on the ground. Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid admitted that Taliban fighters had no idea 22 SEALs and three Air Force combat controllers occupied the Chinook, only that they assumed Special Forces dropped in on them for the 3,000th time. The Taliban will continue to escalate its aerial tempo after witnessing Tangi Joy Zarin’s aftermath.

A senior Afghan official has since told AFP that
Qari Tahir, a Taliban commander, lured U.S. forces into the valley: "The Taliban knew which route the helicopter would take. That's the only route, so they took position on the either side of the valley on mountains and as the helicopter approached, they attacked it with rockets and other modern weapons. It was brought down by multiple shots."

As President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General John Allen eulogized the fallen Americans and their Afghan comrades, sorrow only partially explained their motivation. The politically correct decision morally aligns on this specific occasion; Obama staked his presidency on SEAL Team Six and he owed its members his gratitude, even though none had been to Abbottabad. Yet beyond honor lies the administration’s ulterior objective, which violates the very ideals U.S. troops supposedly uphold as they fast-rope into an Afghan village in the middle of the night.

“At this difficult hour," Obama said, “all Americans are united in support of our men and women in uniform who serve so that we can live in freedom and security.”

Because 20 members of SEAL Team Six lost their lives in battle, “all Americans” are now supposed to rally around the war in Afghanistan. A war that many Americans don’t believe any SEALs, Marines or National Guards should be fighting in. Many others remain undecided, perpetuating a stalemate that favors the insurgency. That the U.S. public remains apathetic but skeptical of the Pentagon’s repetitious “progress” helps explains why tragedy is being manufactured into triumph. The SEAL team sent a quake through the White House after the thrilling success of Osama bin Laden’s raid, but administration officials also realized the negative psychological impact. Multiple bodies then jumped on the news to blunt a momentum swing back to the Taliban.

Thus Afghanistan’s latest sign of deterioration mutated into progress when Panetta announced, “We will stay the course to complete that mission, for which they and all who have served and lost their lives in Afghanistan have made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Problematically, “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda” still doesn’t clarify America and NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. At first no one was sure of SEAL Team Six’s latest mission either, although its reputation gave the impression of a high-ranking Taliban target. Mujahid said the Chinook landed on a complex where insurgents had gathered, suggesting an ordinary meeting. Later reports revealed a rescue operation after an Army Ranger unit became pinned in a firefight. Regardless, the target was Taliban rather than al-Qaeda, insurgents and a commander who may rule ruthlessly but forget attacking Americans outside of Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the crash site is a “particularly dangerous area... where many of the attacks that take place in the province are planned.” U.S. and NATO forces have doggedly raided the Sayd Abad district, which locals say is equally anti-U.S. and anti-Taliban. Night-raids and other collateral damage have created enough sympathy to sustain the Taliban’s presence, a self-fulfilling cycle. Wardak's Deputy Gov. Ali Ahmad Khashai told reporters, "Even with all of the operations conducted there, the opposition is still active."

Apparently U.S. officials want to keep dropping into areas like Tangi Joy Zarin until locals accept the coalition’s presence, which too often fails to reward them enough for their life-threatening risks. Speaking at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Penatta would tell his audience, "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 Qaeda and deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan. Instead, we will send a strong message of American resolve."

The administration's rhetoric makes sense only through a jingoist prism; defending the war’s present course with SEAL bodies is illogical and shameful. These particular men would surely urge their brothers to fight on and “protect the Afghan people from bad guys” - or "fight for the American dream," in Panetta's words - but their personal characters cannot dictate U.S. policy in the region. When President Obama solemnly declares, “their deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families,” it becomes fair to question whether the White House actually drifted away from Afghanistan. Was the war out of mind because of debt haggling, or because “only” two or three soldiers die each day? What about every Afghan soldier and civilian caught in the middle of U.S. and Taliban troops?

In attempting to “remember” the fallen with grandiose rhetoric, U.S. officials have expressed a faux shock of Afghanistan’s war zone. President Obama should be familiar with the term “cynicism.”

Were a positive influence to flow from SEAL’s loss, U.S. officials would reassess Afghanistan’s strategic mission and the over-reliance on night raids, America’s most unpopular practice. These raids only succeed 85% of the time (95% without a shot fired) in the Pentagon’s collective mind; independent reports suggest a large number of wrongful arrests and cover-ups. Even when a Taliban cell is active in the village, every resident suffers a disproportionate terror that isn’t easily forgotten or disassociated from America. High-flying, night-stalking Special Forces also reduce the local contact necessary in counterinsurgency.

The Pentagon disingenuously argues that air-strikes are less precise, and plans to leave Special Forces inside the country past 2014. Ignoring the politically incorrect truth about night-raids and U.S. strategy in general, a feeling of shattered invincibility overwhelmed the Obama administration into safety-mode. Special Forces deaths aren’t rare, only classified. Saturday’s death toll launched a hidden reality into public consciousness, accelerating the impact from 0 to 100. U.S. policy must follow these fallen soldiers into the light of transparency and reexamination - and opponents of the war must step out of the shadows in greater numbers.

“Staying the course” on the domestic and foreign fronts will lead straight into an Afghan mountainside.


  1. Your piece says it all in the Chinook aftermath. Meanwhile the reprisals have started with a spike in the night raids. Watch out for more Afghan protests in the wake of NATO 'mistakes' in the coming days. A spiral indeed turning into a bigger and bigger vortex. What a mess of futility.

  2. Well said. However, high losses sustained by Special Operations Forces is nothing new. Recall that during the Vietnam War, there had been untold numbers of Special Forces camps that were overrun, not to mention numerous MAGSOG operators killed, wounded and missing. Also, during the Battle of Mogadishu, aka Black Hawk Down, the Rangers and the Delta Force commandos lost eighteen killed in addition to a Night Stalker--Michael Durant--captured and held for three weeks.

    Where Obama and Bush and their retinues of sycophants insist that we "stay the course," President Clinton had the courage to cut losses and return the troops home promptly. I am not suggesting that we concede defeat--nor did Clinton concede defeat when he withdrew troops from Somalia--but that we recognize that America's power--both hard AND soft!--is finite. With that understanding come wisdom and salvation from our past follies.

  3. Withdrawing from an unfavorable military situation doesn't qualify as pure retreat, but putting oneself in that situation in the first place is equally destructive. Many errors were made during the run-up to Blackhawk Down, including force levels, how they were employed by the UN, and a lack of understanding in regards to the local environment. These same errors have been committed in Afghanistan.

    The point isn't to react from a single downed helicopter, but to reflect on wider problems at hand and, as you say, recognize America's limit in Afghanistan.