A US Army CH-47D Chinook helicopter from the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division prepares to land inside the landing zone at Forward Operation Base Joyce, in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Dec. 17, 2009. Image from US Army/DVIDS.
The US military confirmed that the Taliban shot down a helicopter in the contested province of Kunar in eastern Afghanistan.
The International Security Assistance Force Chinook helicopter was shot down by the Taliban yesterday and “crashed about 100 yards outside” of a military base in Kunar, a spokesman for Regional Command East told The New York Times. The attack took place just outside of the Nangalam Base in the Pech River Valley, according to Stars & Stripes. Nangalam is an Afghan Army base that used to be known as Camp Blessing.
ISAF reported the crash of the Chinook yesterday, but did not indicate it crashed due to enemy fire. No US military deaths were reported; two soldiers were lightly wounded in the attack.
The Taliban ambushed a rescue force that moved to the crash site, ISAF reported yesterday. “As coalition rescue forces approached the crash site, they came under enemy fire,” ISAF stated in a press release on the incident. “Coalition forces returned fire, with small arms, while working to secure the site of the crash. All passengers and crew members have been secured and safely transported to a nearby base.”
In a statement released on their website, Voice of Jihad, the Taliban claimed credit for the shoot down, and said two of their fighters were killed during the operation. The Taliban fighters “shot off rocket propelled grenades from a close distance to bring down the enemy helicopter last night at approximately 1:00 am local time,” the statement on Voice of Jihad said.
The Taliban claimed that 22 Coalition troops were killed after the Chinook helicopter crashed, but ISAF said both yesterday and today that there were no casualties. The Taliban routinely exaggerate or manufacture accounts of Coalition and Afghan casualties.
Kunar province was the scene of the Taliban’s most successful operation involving a downed ISAF helicopter. In 2005, the Bara bin Malek Front, a Taliban subgroup operating in Kunar, shot down a US special operations Chinook helicopter as a rescue team attempted to recover a four-man team of Navy SEALs who disappeared during Operation Redwing. Three of the missing SEAL team died in an ambush and another 16 US personnel, eight SEALs and eight members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, were killed when insurgents shot the helicopter down with a salvo of rocket-propelled grenades. The sole surviving member of the ill-fated team sought refuge from local villagers who nursed him back to health and helped coordinate a successful US rescue mission several days later.
Kunar is an al Qaeda safe haven
Kunar province is a known safe haven for al Qaeda and allied terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The presence of al Qaeda cells has been detected in the districts of Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Dangam, Asmar, Asadabad, Shigal, and Marawana; or eight of Kunar’s 15 districts, according to an investigation by The Long War Journal.
Since September 2010, ISAF has killed or captured six top al Qaeda commanders and operatives in Kunar.
On April 14, an ISAF airstrike killed Abu Hafs al Najdi, al Qaeda’s operations chief for Kunar province, who was responsible for “establishing insurgent camps and training sites” throughout the province. Also killed in the airstrike was Waqas, a senior al Qaeda operative who was from Pakistan, along an unspecified number of other operatives.
Prior to the killing of Najdi and Waqas in April of this year in Kunar, special operations forces captured Abu Ikhlas al Masri, the previous operations chief for Kunar, in December 2010. [For more information, see LWJ report, ISAF captures al Qaeda’s top Kunar commander.]
A few months earlier, in October 2010, US aircraft killed three senior al Qaeda operatives in an airstrike on a compound in the Korengal Valley. Among those killed in the strike was a Saudi named Abdallah Umar al Qurayshi, who was a senior al Qaeda commander who coordinated the attacks of a group of Arab fighters in Kunar and Nuristan provinces and also maintained extensive contacts with al Qaeda facilitators throughout the Middle East. Qurayshi has also been described as al Qaeda’s third in command in Afghanistan. The two operatives also confirmed killed in the strike were Abu Atta al Kuwaiti, an explosives expert; and Sa’ad Mohammad al Shahri, a longtime jihadist and the son of a retired Saudi colonel. Shahri, like Najdi, was on a Saudi most wanted list.
ISAF has also been actively hunting another top al Qaeda commander, Qari Zia Rahman, since last summer. Rahman has been described as a “dual hatted al Qaeda and Taliban commander,” and leads forces in Kunar and Nuristan provinces in Afghanistan as well as across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of Bajaur and Mohmand.
ISAF has admitted that al Qaeda has a significant presence in Afghanistan. In the press release announcing the death of Najdi, ISAF said that “more than 25 al Qaeda leaders and fighters” have been killed in Kunar over the period of one month. This is in stark contrast to claims that there are only 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. This claim has been made by top US intelligence and military leaders, including General David Petraeus, the former commander of ISAF who has been appointed to lead the CIA.
“There is no question that al-Qaida has had a presence in Afghanistan and continues to have a presence – generally assessed at less than 100 or so,” General Petraeus told reporters in Kabul on April 10.
Despite the known presence of al Qaeda camps, US troops have abandoned several combat outposts in Kunar and in the neighboring province of Nuristan after major attacks on remote bases. US Army commanders said that the outposts were closed or turned over to Afghan forces as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy to secure population centers. US officials also claimed that the US presence in these remote valleys created the conditions for a local insurgency, and that the locals would cease fighting after US forces left.
But as the US military began drawing down its forces in Kunar and Nuristan in late 2009, it acknowledged that al Qaeda camps were in operation in Kunar. ISAF targeted three al Qaeda camps in Kunar between October 2009 and October 2010 as it withdrew forces form the province.
The withdrawal of US forces from the Korengal and Pech river valleys in Kunar has created more space for al Qaeda and the Taliban to expand their operations in the region. The US has abandoned counterinsurgency efforts in the province and has shifted to carrying out massive sweeps and special operations raids to “mow the grass,” as one general recently told The Wall Street Journal.