Juliette Kayyem

Afghan crash inflicts double blow on US psyche

By Juliette Kayyem
August 8, 2011

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THE DEATH of 30 Americans on a Chinook helicopter Saturday marked the single-deadliest day for this country in its 10-year war in Afghanistan. Among the dead were 22 Navy SEAL commandos, including members of SEAL Team 6, the famous unit that killed Osama bin Laden. That is tragedy enough. But the attack also holds a mirror up to the war itself and exposes the fallacy that we can leave Afghanistan on our own terms.

Operationally, Saturday’s events show how little we have progressed in turning Afghanistan over to the Afghans. For a nation whose exit strategy was based on sharing the war-fighting efforts with the Afghan military, the fact that there were only a few Afghan commandos on the mission belies any notion of shared responsibility. Three hundred seventy-nine coalition troops have died this year in Afghanistan.

Throughout Afghanistan, as coalition troops withdraw, the Afghans are simply unable to come in and create civic order. Last week, the International Crisis Group reported that despite the $57 billion in aid spent in Afghanistan, sustaining nation building was “virtually impossible.’’ The Afghan police and army “have thus far proved unable to enforce the law, counter the insurgency, or even secure the seven regions’’ handed over to them.

The Wardak district where the raid took place is only 60 miles from Kabul. Though NATO has been focusing military missions and monetary support there consistently for more than a year, the Taliban is clearly able to organize and launch attacks. This isn’t the hinterlands of the border with Pakistan, or even the Taliban’s historic stronghold in regions further south. Little outside of Kabul itself seems ready for independent governance.

Limiting ground troops, the sought-after panacea for making a difficult war more palatable, will not necessarily limit danger. To be clear: air warfare and special operations are deadly endeavors. Helicopter crashes constitute 10 percent of US fatalities in Afghanistan. As Mark Thompson describes in Time magazine, the only way to fight in Afghanistan is often flying “low and slow’’ in the dark of night, making the helicopters ideal targets for attacks. Afghanistan’s rugged mountain terrain makes for thinner air, which is dangerous for helicopters. Forget combat; helicopters are more often brought down by mechanical or crew error than the Taliban.

Leaving aside the tactical challenges in Afghanistan, Saturday’s attack was also a stark reality check to the heroic aura surrounding our military efforts after bin Laden’s death. SEAL Team 6 had been enjoying a sort of coming-out in recent weeks, including a long story in the New Yorker and a planned Hollywood movie. That exposure undermines the secrecy that is necessary for how the unit functions, and makes its 3,000 elite personnel more attractive targets for insurgents.

The deaths in the helicopter crash are already being viewed in Afghanistan and Pakistan as payback against a unit that only a few months ago was unknown to the general public. While no members of the bin Laden raid were killed in Saturday’s downing, the unit still lost some of its most valuable human resources to fight not only in Afghanistan, but throughout the world.

For the past few weeks, as I wrote in a recent column, the administration has been waging an odd sort of warfare against Al Qaeda and other enemies, arguing that, in the words of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, their defeat was “within reach.’’ Those words were consistently echoed in news reports throughout August. We should have learned by now that any declaration of “Mission accomplished’’ was bound to be received by the outside world as an expression of American hubris.

We had come to believe that whatever would happen to Afghanistan in the future, that we could exit gracefully, with our heads held high even if we were also holding our noses. We would leave Afghanistan to the Afghans and wash our hands of the stabilizing effort that has eluded us and our allies for so long. While no American would want to deprive our troops a happily-ever-after departure, Saturday’s events suggest that whether we leave this year, next year, or in 2014, we won’t be able to control what happens afterward, any more than we can control the rocket-propelled grenades that so easily bring down Chinook helicopters.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at and Twitter @juliettekayyem