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Sixteen Confirmed Dead from Tuesday’s Helicopter Crash in Afghanistan

June 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: When an American Chinook helicopter similar to this one crashed on Tuesday in the rugged mountainous terrain of eastern Afghanistan, northwest of the town of Asadabad, 16 servicemen were onboard, some of them special forces troops. Today at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. James Conway said none survived the crash.

LT. GEN. JAMES CONWAY: At this point, we have recovered all 16 bodies of those servicemen who were on board the MH-47 helicopter that crashed on Tuesday. Positive identification and family notification are under way and expected to be completed soon. In that the operation is ongoing, we’ll have nothing else for you on the details of the action.

RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday in Kabul, a military spokesman explained the crash was likely caused by hostile fire.

U.S. OFFICER: The aircraft was taking indirect and direct fire from elements on the ground. The aircraft, as it was dropping off those personnel, crashed. So we know it was taking fire. Whether or not that caused it to crash we do not know yet, but it was under indirect and direct fire. So that’s why we say that it may have caused the crash to the helicopter.

RAY SUAREZ: The Taliban has taken responsibility for the attack. Violence in Afghanistan has increased sharply in recent months, prompting Afghan forces to beef up their training and go after Taliban insurgents. They’ve emerged after the bitter winter with unexpected numbers and ferocity.

The Taliban are increasingly employing tactics like those used in Iraq as Afghanistan approaches elections slated for this September. A suicide bomber killed more than 20 people on June 1 at a mosque in Kandahar. Hundreds had gathered there for the funeral of a notable Muslim cleric. And two weeks ago, four U.S. soldiers were injured by a roadside bomb outside Kandahar.

Fifty-five U.S. servicemen and -women have been killed in Afghanistan this year, more than any other year since the U.S. invaded the country in the fall of 2001. There are approximately 18,000 U.S. and 8,000 international troops on the ground in Afghanistan now.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the rising violence in Afghanistan, we turn to Milton Bearden, a veteran CIA officer who helped run the agency’s covert operations arming the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation; and Peter Tomsen served as U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan during the first Bush administration.

And, Ambassador Tomsen, in your view, why the recent steady rise in violence in the country?

PETER TOMSEN: Well, I think the first reason is that winter has ended, as of March, April. And more Taliban fighters, al-Qaida fighters, and fighters associated with the anti-U.S. warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have infiltrated into Afghanistan. They come in small groups; they mostly mount minor ambushes, and attack soft targets like NGO’s and de-mining experts that are working on the roads. But occasionally you get fire fights and incidents like you just saw in Kunar where incidentally both Hepmachar’s forces and the Taliban are operating.

Also, there’s a political current at work here. Actually it’s an undercurrent of restlessness among a lot of Afghans outside the cities that reconstruction aid has not reached them; that in the cities, corruption and abuse of power is on the upswing, and the proceeds that they thought would come from international involvement in Afghanistan and the period of democracy have not been forthcoming. The elections are coming in September; I think that’s another reason why you see an upswing in Taliban violence.

RAY SUAREZ: Milton Bearden, why do you think the violence is rising now?

MILTON BEARDEN: I think for all the reasons that Peter has just laid out for you. But I think the most important thing we need to watch is that small group of disgruntled Afghans. At what point do we see the dynamic change from the usual suspects, the Taliban, remnants of al-Qaida, the Hekmatyar crowd — which we I think overdraw sometimes. And at what point does that morph into a more general insurgency?

I’m not suggesting that that’s happened yet. But if this is something that’s under way, the dynamic changes in Afghanistan and we see the resurgence here or the increase in hostilities, not necessarily only because it’s the Kunar Valley or only because it’s the new fighting season for 2005, but because the dynamic might have changed.

RAY SUAREZ: But for a long time, since the war began in Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida were portrayed as spent forces, no longer able to organize attacks against the United States and its allies in the country. What happened?

MILTON BEARDEN: Perhaps it is not necessarily Taliban and al-Qaida alone. I mean, the Afghans in particular in Kunar Valley have been the worst nightmare for foreign armies since Alexander the Great came through there and got into a terrible dustup.

And the British knew it well, the Russians lost — the single most damaging strikes against Soviet Special Forces happened right where this happened today, where the Chinook went down a day ago. This is a tough neighborhood, and I think right now we have a situation where we’ve been in Afghanistan for more than three years. And I don’t know what that dynamic is and I’m not sure anybody does yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Ambassador, help us understand what’s going on here. If you plotted out on a map of Afghanistan where these things were happening, it would be mostly in the south and east. Are these fighting forces that actually control territory, villages, towns, stretches of land? Or do they melt back into the country after the fighting is done?

PETER TOMSEN: What they do is melt back into Pakistan. Pakistan is still playing the role of fireman and arsonist in Afghanistan. It’s more assisting us now than working against us in the war on terror, but that latter aspect is also there. Almost all of the Taliban cabinet, including the former defense and intelligence ministers, are in Pakistan, organizing fighters to go into Afghanistan and attack U.S. coalition forces, Afghan security forces and soft targets.

There’s a major Taliban training camp not far from an American battalion that’s stationed at Kalat; Kalat is the capital of one of the more insecure provinces along the Pakistani border. So I think Pakistan is, has got to do more. They’re already doing a lot. The president has praised them, but they could do a lot more.

PETER TOMSEN: Recently a former commander of Taliban forces was interviewed by a Pakistani TV station. And if a TV station can track down such a person, certainly the vast apparatus of the Pakistani intelligence services could track him down and corral him. That’s what needs to be done inside Pakistan. Pakistan has to take more steps to control the violence that’s hemorrhaging out of northern Pakistani border regions.

Also, as you saw in the news reports the other day, comments by Porter Goss, the head of CIA, and others, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are operating out of northern Pakistan into southern and eastern Afghanistan. And until Pakistan takes more steps to try to control those forces, I think we’re going to continue to see rising violence inside Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Arsonists and firemen at the same time do, you agree with that assessment?

MILTON BEARDEN: Peter knows my position on that. I think it’s overdone. I think that the Pakistanis are doing about as much as they can do before their own house starts burning down.

There is a thing called zero line, that’s the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s drawn by British in 1898. It separates the Pashtun tribes, close to 50 percent, but there are twelve million or so Pashtuns on the Afghan side of zero line, and about twelve or thirteen million or fourteen million on the Pakistani side. And I think, particularly with the recent elections in Pakistan, which make both northwest frontier and Baluchistan, the bordering provinces, fairly frisky, fairly hard to control, have complicated the matter.

But I don’t know that Pakistan has the capability that Peter suggests of moving in and doing more than they’re doing. I think that Musharraf might not survive going much farther than that, and I would suggest that if Porter Goss knows where Osama bin Laden is, I’d just say go get him.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, recently a CIA report came out that suggested that better trained fighters will be sent out into the trouble spots of Central Asia and West Asia by the war in Iraq, that when they leave that theater they will make mischief in other places in the world and be better at it than they were before.

Do we see that happening in Afghanistan? Are foreign fighters who are battle hardened veterans of other conflicts heading there?

PETER TOMSEN: I think to a minor extent, but it’s very minor. It will continue to be basically an Afghanistan-centered conflict, with Afghans and Pakistanis involved. But I don’t see that many Arabs coming in.

The defense minister of Afghanistan announced last month that six al-Qaida terrorists had just been infiltrated through Pakistan into Afghanistan. This attack on the mosque, the suicide bomb attack on the mosque at Kandahar took place, 20 killed.

Earlier, on June 13, a suicide bomber with a explosive-laden vehicle rammed into an American military convoy in Kandahar and that was probably also an al-Qaida operative. And there was another suicide bomber who set himself off at an Internet café in Kabul recently. But generally it’s very low level, it’s mostly Afghan-Taliban generated.

RAY SUAREZ: Very, very quickly, is this like a persistent fever, something that there is no way to end with a conclusive battle?

MILTON BEARDEN: It’s quite possible. It’s never ended with a conclusive battle when any other foreign force has been in Afghanistan, and we’ll have to break a pattern that goes back 2,300 years, that is very adequately recorded. The Afghans have lived where they’ve lived longer than most human beings have lived anywhere, so when you go into their neighborhood, you better beware.

RAY SUAREZ: Milton Bearden, Ambassador Tomsen, thank you both.