Afghanistan’s unforgiving terrain and the Taliban’s massive effort to booby-trap roads with improved explosive devices have left U.S. special forces heavily reliant on helicopters to carry out raids on enemy strongholds these days. And the Taliban may be adapting to that reality to try to expose the U.S forces’ Achilles heel.
The risks have been known for some time by the U.S. military, but the consequences were made all too clear when a single rocket-propelled grenade fired by a lone insurgent last weekend killed 38 elite U.S. Navy SEALs and Afghan special forces who had whirled into hostile territory to rescue Army Rangers pinned down during a raid on a Taliban gathering in the hamlet of Tangi Joye Zarin.
The episode highlighted not only the reliance on choppers but the fact that as conventional U.S. ground forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, special forces will be shouldering more of the load. Former defense secretary Robert Gates, on his farewell visit to Afghanistan in June, told U.S. troops in one forward base: “Over time our mission will be less and less counterinsurgency and more counterterrorism.” That’s the special forces’ mission. Thus, they’re likely to inherit more of the costs and risks.
Travel along Afghanistan’s sparse road network has long been hazardous. Of the 1,619 U.S. military personnel who, by Pentagon count, have been killed in Afghanistan in the 10-year war, the greatest toll—691, or 42 percent overall—has been inflicted by roadside bombs and mines. In 2007, however, the insurgents’ use of IEDs really was ramped up, and since then IEDs have caused half or more of all U.S. military deaths.
Helicopters are the other way that U.S. troops get around. That too has brought its costs, though so far only a tenth the toll of IEDs (166 deaths, including those last weekend).
Afghanistan—its altitude, its dust storms, its unpredictable wind gusts over jagged terrain—is an unforgiving environment for helicopters. NATO releases no figures, but an unofficial tally indicates as many as 101 helicopters have crashed in Afghanistan since 2001. Roughly half of these, 56, were Chinooks, UH-60 Black Hawks, and AH-64 Apaches, the workhorses of the American military.
That toll reflects how mobile the U.S. military’s operations are and how much their agility relies on helicopters. Almost all the 101 were downed because of “nonhostile causes” such as mechanical failure or pilot error. Including last weekend’s disaster, however, 18 helicopters are reckoned to have been downed by enemy fire: 14 Chinooks and four Black Hawks. The precise toll is uncertain: the Taliban exaggerate their kills, NATO is reluctant to admit them, and some crashes elude definitive verdicts.
Helicopter crashes can be costly. Even before last weekend’s disaster, six of the seven deadliest incidents in a decade of war were helicopter crashes—though only one certainly due to hostile fire. In June 2005, in a precursor to last weekend's episode, an RPG brought down a Chinook rescuing SEALs in Kunar province, killing 16.
The Soviets learned the hard way how vulnerable helicopters are. In their invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Soviet special forces relied on helicopter-borne assaults as heavily as the U.S. military does now. With CIA-supplied Stinger shoulder-fired SAMs, the mujahadeen inflicted such losses on Soviet operations in south and eastern Afghanistan that the carnage was a significant factor in Moscow’s decision to pull out.
U.S. officials have confronted similar concerns. During NATO’s 1999 campaign to repel a Serbian offensive to crush Kosovo’s bid for independence, Gen. Wesley Clark demanded that a force of Apache helicopters attack the Serbs. Washington felt unable to deny Clark’s request. But, to much ridicule, the Army then took weeks to prepare the field in Albania from which the Apaches were to operate. The truth, as Gen. Dennis Reimer, then the Army chief of staff, said privately at the time, was that the Army was going slowly because it was thought too risky to send Apaches into hostile territory without a devastating artillery barrage to destroy all SAM defenses in the Apaches’ path. The Apaches never flew.
In Afghanistan now, one of the U.S. military’s persistent fears has been that the Taliban might acquire comparable missiles. The Taliban have tried but not succeeded, so far. Even so, Chinooks flying at their cruising altitude of 5,000 feet or so have three machine-gunners flying shotgun—one each side, one with feet dangling over the craft’s open rear-ramp—keeping a wary eye on the landscape below.
As last weekend’s tragedy demonstrated, a Chinook that’s landing or taking off still can be destroyed at low altitude by nothing more complicated than a rifle-fired RPG. Even with night-vision goggles, three guards flying shotgun can’t offer sure protection against night attacks. The SEALs’ craft had its three gunners. A lone Taliban fighter still got off his shot.
The latest attack likely will be dismissed as a freak mishap. The uncomfortable truth is that U.S. deployments in southeastern Afghanistan offer the Taliban multiple opportunities to repeat it.
Night raids by combined teams of U.S. and Afghan special forces are now the tip-of-the-spear effort to disassemble insurgent networks inside Afghanistan. A U.S. military briefing slide records that in 90 days between mid-February and mid-May this year, Special Operations Forces carried out 1,478 raids, capturing or killing 499 “insurgent leaders,” capturing another 2,395 insurgents, and killing 549.
Meanwhile, most of the 33,000 “surge” forces agreed by President Obama in December 2009 are spread in what commanders call “a layered defense” across the southeastern provinces of Afghanistan. These offer the shortest route to Kabul; and they’re the main entry routes for insurgents of the Haqqani coalition, who are reckoned the best-trained and most determined of the insurgent groups allied with the Taliban.
The “layered defense” is a skein of Forward Operating Bases, each of which supports a network of Combat Outposts, inevitably known as COPs. The forward bases are sprawling encampments. But the COPs are small and isolated; most are sparsely manned; all have to be resupplied by daylight helicopter runs. And, under severe attack—almost invariably at night—all have to be rescued by reinforcements hastily arriving by helicopter.
It was these factors that contributed to last weekend’s disaster. A combat outpost in the Tangi Valley had proved so indefensible that U.S. forces abandoned it in April. Afghan forces were to take over the outpost but failed to do so, leaving a gap in the layered protections.
U.S. special forces, nonetheless, continued covert operations in the valley. Late last Friday evening, a force of Rangers was closing in for a night raid on a compound thought to house one of the Taliban’s more accomplished IED makers. The Rangers ran into an unexpectedly strong perimeter of guards. Pinned down, the Rangers radioed for help. By local accounts, backup arrived in two Chinooks. One was shot down as it was landing. The other rescued the Rangers and flew off. Eight insurgents may have been killed in the encounter. Thirty-eight U.S. and Afghan special forces perished in the copter shoot down.
If insurgents learn the lessons of the battle of Tangi Joye Zarin, they’ll adapt their strategies. They will amass forces big enough to overwhelm one of the combat outposts, then wait for the outpost to call for reinforcements. The insurgents could station sentinels armed with RPGs lying in wait for the incoming Chinooks. In effect, the Taliban could turn the outposts into helicopter bait.
Senior NATO officers in Kabul acknowledge the Taliban and its allies could exploit such a strategy but question whether insurgents are too fragmented to affect such a concerted plan.
But as Gen. David Petraeus prepared to depart last month from command of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, he remarked: “There is much we don’t know about the Taliban. But one thing we do know is that they are a resilient and adaptive adversary. We underestimate them at our cost."