The death of 30 Americans and eight Afghans in a helicopter crash on Aug. 6 was a sobering reminder of the dangers our troops face in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, it also led some reporters, talking heads and politicians to jump to unwarranted conclusions: that special operations raids are alienating the Afghan population, that this tragedy was evidence that the U.S. troop withdrawal needs to be further hurried, and that the Taliban are on their way to victory. Such misguided claims are damaging the already fragile support for the war in the U.S.
Let’s start with the claim that residents of the Tangi Valley, where the helicopter crashed, had converted to the Taliban because of outrage over nighttime raids by U.S. special operations forces. Actually, the population of the Tangi Valley supported the Taliban long before the night raids started, as I learned during a visit to the district in early 2010.
For years, U.S. forces seldom ventured near the valley, and when they did, they were likely to sustain casualties from Taliban homemade bombs or snipers. It seems likely that those valley residents who criticized the night raids to reporters in recent days did so under pressure by the Taliban, who routinely compel citizens to make bogus accusations about U.S. and Afghan forces.
A Single Helicopter
The destruction of a single helicopter tells us nothing about who is winning the war. The larger history of the Tangi Valley, on the other hand, provides valuable insights into the challenges we now face in Afghanistan. Far from demonstrating the advisability of rapid retrenchment, it shows that withdrawing troops from counterinsurgency missions means forfeiting earlier gains, which creates additional risks for remaining U.S. and allied forces and provides the enemy new bases from which to push forward.
U.S. Army soldiers established a permanent base in the Tangi Valley in 2009, using it to launch counterinsurgency operations across the area. The very first patrol came under fire from rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, as did nearly ever patrol thereafter. Two boys who spoke with the Americans during that first patrol were soon after dragged from their homes and murdered by the Taliban. When U.S. forces attempted to bring Afghan government officials and Tangi Valley farmers together for meetings on governance and development, neither group showed up for fear of their lives. U.S. patrols weakened the Taliban’s grip on the population, but did not break it, because the Americans and their Afghan partners were too few in number to cover the valley in strength.
Earlier this year, U.S. forces turned the Tangi Valley base over to Afghan forces. The U.S. had done the same in other tough valleys such as the Pech and Korengal, both in eastern Afghanistan, in the belief that the thinly stretched and numerically declining U.S. forces should be consolidated in populous areas near the ring road, Afghanistan’s central highway. Advocates of consolidation argued that the people in these valleys were merely xenophobic, and would be as hostile to foreign jihadists as to Americans. The U.S. high command did, however, plan to continue special operations raids into the valleys to disrupt enemy operations and eliminate enemy leaders.
In the Tangi Valley, as in the others, Afghan security forces patrolled much less frequently after the Americans departed. The population refused to cooperate with them and instead cooperated with the insurgents, even though many came from Pakistan or other foreign countries. With the enemy in firm control of the valley, U.S. special operations forces have had to fight their way in and fight their way out. Insurgent fighters, informants and improvised bombs were dispersed in locations unknown to the Americans, advantages that may have helped the Taliban shoot down the helicopter last weekend.
Raids Are Insufficient
Although special operations raids have given the insurgents some black eyes in the Tangi and other valleys abandoned by U.S. forces, they have not disrupted enemy operations to the degree that had been hoped. Shortly before the crash in the Tangi Valley, recognition of the dangers posed by insurgent safe havens led to a momentous, if largely unnoticed, decision to reinsert a permanent U.S. troop presence into the Pech Valley.
I interviewed members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment earlier this year as part of a study of the Sangin Valley in southern Afghanistan, which had been a formidable Taliban stronghold until this battalion subdued it at a cost of 200 Marine casualties. When asked what they did after their comrades were maimed or killed, the officers recounted that they honored the fallen and used their memory to inspire the living, but gave their Marines no time off before taking them back on patrol. They said this resilience enabled the battalion to maintain high morale and minimized psychological casualties.
In response to the appalling loss of life last weekend, we could have our forces hunker down on bases. We could accelerate the transition from a counterinsurgency mission to counterterrorism, with the understanding that scaling back in this way would make it harder for us to gather intelligence and increase the danger to our special operations forces.
Or we could honor the sacrifices of the Americans killed in the Tangi Valley by strengthening our resolve and hunting the enemy wherever he feels he is safe. I strongly suspect that the troops in that ill-fated helicopter would have wanted their deaths to provide inspiration, not demoralization.
(Mark Moyar, a former professor at the Marine Corps University and research director at Orbis Operations, a stability operations consultancy, is author of “A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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