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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Lessons from this weekend’s Afghan helicopter crash

Spc. Kevin Welsh provides security before boarding a CH-47 Chinook helicopter after completing a mission in Chak valley in the Wardak province of Afghanistan on Aug. 3, 2010. Photo: Sgt. Russell Gilchrest/US Army

On Saturday, a Chinook helicopter carrying 30 Americans and eight Afghans crashed in Central Afghanistan, killing everyone on board. It is a horrible incident in a war that seems to be filled with similarly horrible incidents. But what can we learn from it?

First, the details of the crash matter somewhat. The special operations forces troops in the helicopter were a part of Seal Team 6, the legendary unit that killed Osama bin Laden in May. But what were top-tier special operators doing in Wardak province, a restive area not really known for its central place in the insurgency? The latest reporting indicates that these elite soldiers were on a rescue mission to assist some U.S. Army Rangers who were pinned down by insurgent fire. In short, one elite group of troops had rushed to rescue another elite group of soldiers who’d been pinned down.

This isn’t the first time soldiers have been pinned down by surprisingly vigorous insurgent forces. In recent months, troops further east (in Laghman, Nuristan, and Kunar provinces) have come under increasingly strong fire from insurgent forces, who have managed on occasion to occupy entire districts. ISAF has not yet figured out how to respond to these incidents, and in some cases has released misleading information about them to mitigate the potential effect they might have on public opinion.

So it’s a big deal that a firefight got so bad the U.S. military’s premier special operators were called in to break it up. But it is also, obviously, a big deal that so many of them died at once. Under General Petraeus, the usage of these top-tier operations has increased dramatically, and this year alone special operators have conducted over 2,800 raids on insurgent forces. With so much combat activity, it was inevitable some would get killed off as insurgents learned and adapted to their tactics. Given their heavy reliance on helicopters for mobility, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the biggest loss of life in the war so far happened on a helicopter.

This isn’t the first time special operators were killed en masse in a Chinook helicopter, either. During Operation Red Wings in Kunar Province in 2005, 16 special operators were killed when their Chinook, also on a rescue mission to four Navy SEALs pinned down by insurgents, crashed after being shot at by RPGs. One, a lucky strike, went through the Chinook’s open rear ramp, destabilizing it and causing the crash.

We still don’t know for certain which weapon caused Saturday’s crash, or in how it was deployed. But this latest incident is part of a rising tide of violence in Afghanistan — one primarily targeted at Afghans (eight of whom died this time) but also at ISAF forces. In addition to the 30 Americans on that helicopter, seven more ISAF troops died in separate incidents. Another helicopter, this time further south in Paktika province, crashed this morning.

However, extrapolating strategic conclusions from a single attack on a helicopter is premature. There is rampant speculation about the Taliban using a new weapon called an IRAM, but officials also seem to dismiss this as baseless. Much like the Red Wings crash in 2005, it could have easily just been a lucky shot from a fairly normal RPG, a common weapon in Afghanistan.

Similarly, as shocking and as sad as the loss of 30 American troops is, the fundamental strategic picture of the war hasn’t changed. Nearly 50 troops have died in Afghanistan so far in August; while that’s high, 65 ISAF troops died in June. The number of soldiers killed says very little about their effectiveness: In war, fighting can be hard with many dead but ultimately serving some purpose.

The real scandal in Afghanistan isn’t that Americans are getting killed. The real scandal is that we don’t know why we’re there. President Obama’s goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda has been largely accomplished. The Afghan government has a sufficiently large enough military to prevent a total Taliban takeover, and with a political reconciliation there is every likelihood that Al Qaeda will be denied access to Afghanistan.

Tragic as the loss of those soldiers is, without a clear strategy articulated by our leadership, it’s difficult to say what grander purpose they served. Rescuing other troops is a noble mission, and those that died in service to this mission all deserve our profound thanks. But if the war they’re fighting has no purpose and no definable end state, we should be questioning why they have to perform such heroic acts in the first place.

We should — we must — mourn the dead. But after we mourn, we should also ask why they’re being asked to sacrifice so much for a war that’s being propelled solely by inertia. The war is as incomprehensible post-crash as it was pre-crash. Despite our grief at this loss, our questions about why we’re there remain the same.