Paul Pillar

A New Tragedy and Old Issues in Afghanistan

The tragic loss of 30 U.S. service members and eight Afghans in the crash, apparently from enemy fire, of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan over the weekend elicits—as does any other prominent and deadly incident—attempts to draw larger lessons. The drawing is done from different angles, sometimes with an agenda attached. The Taliban, playing off the inclusion of Navy SEALs among the victims, will portray the shoot-down as a calculated reprisal for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, rather than as a lucky shot by an insurgent armed with a rocket-propelled grenade. In discussion in the United States of the war in Afghanistan, some will use the incident to emphasize costs they believe must be ended, while others will emphasize the insecurity they believe warrants staying the course. Some are questioning the advisability of a strategy that relies heavily on the use of special forces in risky missions to take out individual insurgent leaders or terrorists.

The crash of the helicopter—causing the single biggest loss of life for the U.S. military in its nearly ten years of involvement in the Afghanistan war—is significant in its own right. We need to reflect on the sacrifice that some remarkably brave warriors and their loved ones have just made. The event does not tell us anything about the bigger issues concerning the war, however, that we did not already know or should have known.

The SEALs on the Chinook were coming to the support of other U.S. special forces on the ground engaged in a tactic the NATO command in Afghanistan has used heavily over the past couple of years: a nighttime raid to kill or capture a specifically targeted insurgent leader. The U.S. military considers this tactic one of its more successful methods, and in terms of accomplishing the missions of particular individual operations it probably has been so. Many similar missions have been completed without significant losses. The vulnerability to hostile fire of an aircraft such as the Chinook when landing or taking off has been well understood as an inherent risk.

Step back from the tactical to the strategic and and one must ask the question of how much is being accomplished through even the tactical successes. The Taliban do not constitute a fixed quantity, in which their numbers go down every time one of their leaders is killed. Instead, the trend over the last few years has been in the other direction, with coalition military operations serving as a stimulant to Taliban recruitment. The targeted killing of some leaders may have a further downside in their replacement by younger Taliban who are even more intractable than the older ones.

If the strategy of using special forces to conduct nighttime raids is to be criticized, one must ask what the alternative is. If what is at stake in Afghanistan is considered important enough to the United States to fight for it, then the alternative is clear-hold-and-build counterinsurgency, which has always had serious and longstanding problems as it is applied to Afghanistan. One problem is that there simply are not enough forces available to do all the necessary clearing and holding, and that would be true even if the announced U.S. troop withdrawal were reversed and a new surge begun. Another problem is the counterproductive nature of a foreign military occupation stimulating popular resentment and support for insurgency. Yet another is the lack of that sine qua non of successful counterinsurgency: a legitimate host government that the local population considers worth fighting for.

We need to step back even farther from the tactical and operational to the strategic and consider whether the costs of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan—regardless of whether they are centered on special operations raids, counterinsurgency, or any other preferred tactic—are worth the benefit, if any, being gained for the security of Americans. That should have been the central question being asked all along about the war. To the extent the latest event gets some Americans who have not thought hard about that question to do so, the terrible loss in Wardak province may have a small silver lining.