The New York Times account of the helicopter crash in the Saydabad district in Wardak province provides important details on the status of Taliban safe havens in the Afghan east. It is still unclear if the helicopter was shot down, but it appears to be the case. Thirty US soldiers, including more than 20 SEALs, and seven Afghan commandos were among those killed. Keep in mind while reading this that Wardak borders Kabul province. From the NYT report:
The Tangi Valley traverses the border between Wardak and Logar Province, an area where security has worsened over the past two years, bringing the insurgency closer to the capital, Kabul. It is one of several inaccessible areas that have become havens for insurgents, according to operations and intelligence officers with the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, which patrols the area. The mountainous region, with its steeply pitched hillsides and arid shale, laced by small footpaths and byways, has long been an area that the Taliban have used to move between Logar and Wardak, local officials said.
Officers at a forward operating base near the valley described Tangi as one of the most troubled areas in Logar and Wardak Provinces.
“There’s a lot happening in Tangi,” said Capt. Kirstin Massey, 31, the assistant intelligence officer for Fourth Brigade Combat Team in an interview last week. “It’s a stronghold for the Taliban.”
The fighters are entirely Afghans and almost all local residents, Captain Massey said, noting that “We don’t capture any fighters who are non-Afghans.”
The redoubts in these areas pose the kind of problems the military faced last year in similarly remote areas of Kunar Province, forcing commanders to weigh the mission’s value given the cost in soldiers’ lives and dollars spent in places where the vast majority of the insurgents are local residents who resent both the NATO presence and the Afghan government.
The dilemma is that if NATO military forces do not stay, the areas often quickly slip back under Taliban influence, if not outright control, and the Afghan National Security Forces do not have the ability yet to rout them.
When the Fourth Brigade Combat Team handed over its only combat outpost in the Tangi Valley to Afghan security forces in April, the American commander for the area said that as troops began to withdraw, he wanted to focus his forces on troubled areas that had larger populations. But he pledged that coalition forces would continue to carry out raids there to stem insurgent activity.
“As we lose U.S. personnel, we have to concentrate on the greater populations,” said Lt. Col. Thomas S. Rickard, the commander of 10th Mountain Division’s Task Force Warrior, which has responsibility for the area that includes Tangi. “We are going to continue to hunt insurgents in Tangi and prevent them from having a safe haven.”
Within days of the transition, the Taliban raised their flag near the outpost, said a NATO official familiar with the situation. Afghan security forces remained in the area but were no match for the Taliban, the official said.
The problem with weighing “the mission’s value given the cost in soldiers’ lives and dollars spent” in these remote areas, and then pulling back forces, is that it inevitably leads to the establishment of enemy safe havens. And that decision usually turns around to bite you, as today’s incident demonstrates. If you are going to rely on helicopter raids to attack the Taliban on turf they own, you have to be prepared to have your helos shot down on occasion.
Note that the US Army is reassessing the drawdown in the Pech Valley in Kunar [see this article from Stars & Stripes and this story from ISAF], and is now redeploying US soldiers to Nangalam Base (formerly FOB Blessing), where another Chinook was shot down on July 25. The deployment at Nangalam will be smaller than it was before the drawdown. Afghan forces are going to be asked to shoulder the burden. But in the Pech, as in Saydabad, there is zero evidence that the Afghan Army is up to the task.
One other quick point: While the fighters in Saydabad may well be made up of “entirely Afghans and almost all local residents,” as the NYT reports, “not all Afghans are created equal,” as a US intelligence official often reminds me. The Haqqani Network, which is widely considered one of the most effective groups in Afghanistan and has close ties to al Qaeda, operates in this area of Wardak.