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Deadly ‘Lucky Shot’ on Helicopter Unlikely to Change U.S. Tactics in Afghanistan

August 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A Chinook military helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan early Saturday, killing all 30 Americans and seven Afghans on board. Margaret Warner discusses the latest details of the crash, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, with Mark Thompson of Time magazine.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more, we go to Mark Thompson, deputy bureau chief and military correspondent for TIME magazine.

And welcome back, Mark.

Based on what has been disclosed so far — and I realize it’s incomplete, but what was it — and we know about the original Ranger raid and then the SEALs being brought in. What do your sources think went wrong?

MARK THOMPSON, TIME: Well, it’s important to realize, Margaret, that a military helicopter flying is a lot like commercial aviation. You’re in trouble when you take off and you’re in trouble when you land.

In the middle, it’s generally OK, especially in Afghanistan. I have been there. I have been in a CH-47 flying nap of the earth, where you’re like an airborne toboggan, just going up and down over the hills through the valleys.

What happened here apparently is that the CH-47, as it was nearing its landing zone, the hot L.Z., where the bad guys were hanging out already engaged in a firefight with the Rangers, had to slow down before it could land. And almost when it came to a stop, preparing to enter the hover, a lucky shot rang out from apparently an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade, that either hit a fuel bladder or a rotor blade or some key mechanical part that quickly consumed the aircraft in flames and brought it to the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, was there anything unusual about this operation, for instance, bringing in a big, lumbering, sort of slow-moving helicopter like the Chinook into a valley like this, or the fact that there were 22 SEALs on one helicopter?

MARK THOMPSON: No, I think the key thing was this was a quick-reaction force. They were either on the ground ready to go on a moment’s notice, or actually may have been airborne at the time they were summoned, because you cannot send your Rangers into harm’s way without anyone there to rescue them if they get into trouble.

The Rangers got into trouble. The order went out. The SEALs came in. You know, there are 10,000 special operations forces in Afghanistan. And on any given night, when night raids are being conducted, you have these units, not always SEALs, not always special forces, but quick-reaction forces, ready to come to their aid if they get in trouble.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us about Wardak Province. Why has it been — I mean, it’s been a source of — a place of conflict for at least two, if not three years. What’s special about it? What’s important about it?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, the key thing is the following.

Number on, the Tangi Valley is a corridor through the province into Kabul. The province is basically on the southwestern doorstep of the nation’s capital. And Americans for the past couple of years have paid a lot of attention to Helmand and Kandahar Province further to the south…

MARGARET WARNER: In the south.

MARK THOMPSON: … you know, closer to Pakistan. This is on the other side of the capital. And it’s right next to the capital. Apparently, you get the sense talking to military officials, that, you know, they’re trying — they have their so-called Ring Road around Afghanistan.

And you get the sense the Taliban are doing much the same thing. They are sort of gathering around the capital. Karzai for a long time has been called the mayor of Kabul. And it’s looking like that’s the Taliban strategy right now.

MARGARET WARNER: So, why did the U.S. ground forces leave the one operating base they had in this Tangi – or Tangi Valley, and what happened?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, basically, they pulled out in the spring because we’re preparing to build down.

And our ticket out of Afghanistan is to turn over provinces to the Afghan national army. This was a key test of that. As soon as the Americans left and the Afghans came in, by all accounts, the Afghans were not up to the task. The Taliban, you know, just like a drop of oil, seeped in and began spreading around. They’re running courts. They’re conducting roadblocks, checkpoints, you know, extorting stuff from travelers.

So it’s not a great report card in terms of the way forward.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do any of the people you were talking to at the Pentagon think that this is sort of a warning about what may happen more often if — when U.S. forces get spread more thinly?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, I think a couple of things.

Number one, it’s important to realize this was the so-called golden B.B. It was a very lucky shot. This has happened very rarely. There have been some 100, 120 helicopter crashes in Afghanistan in our 10 years there. Only about 20 of them have been due to hostile fire. So most of them are just run-of-the-mill accidents.

But the key thing here is that the U.S. can hold territory in Afghanistan. But when it pulls out and turns it over to our Afghan partners, in some areas, plainly, they are not yet up to the task.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, before we go, though, as the U.S. starts building down — they’re supposed to have 10,000 of these troops out by the end of this year, 30,000 by next September — will the whole international operation become more reliant on special forces?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, number one, the trigger-pullers are staying. The people who are coming out this year and most of next year are more of the enablers, the support forces.

They want to — you do the math and the numbers don’t matter. What matters is what residual force you have left behind. And it’s going to be very gun-heavy. So there will be a lot of special forces. And especially if the U.S., you know, relies more on the sort of counterterrorism thing of going after bad guys, as opposed to securing the population, we are going to be relying more and more on special operators.

MARGARET WARNER: And, therefore, the special operators more — may be more vulnerable to this sort of, you called it lucky, but very unlucky shot for them.

MARK THOMPSON: Sure. You fire enough bullets in the air, one of them is going to hit something important on your helicopter.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Thompson, TIME magazine, thanks.