There are growing indications that the U.S. military should never have launched the ill-fated helicopter mission that sent 38 U.S. and Afghan troops crashing to their deaths in eastern Afghanistan.
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The military initially said that the troops -- including 22 Navy SEALs -- who died on Saturday were on their way to rescue a contingent of Army Rangers who were pinned down by insurgents, only to drop that account on Wednesday. Now officials say the troops were sent to apprehend fleeing militants, a far lower-level mission that could have been carried out by smaller numbers of conventional forces. The Rangers had been sent to Wardak Province, a violent and sparsely-populated region of the country, in pursuit of a local Taliban commander thought to control a small network of local fighters.
The target escaped, and an array of current and retired Special Operations personnel believe the wanted militant was simply not a significant-enough Taliban leader to justify risking the lives of so many highly trained forces.
A former SEAL commander with extensive recent combat experience said he didn't know who the Taliban leader was, but there was no way he was worth losing 38 men.
In separate interviews, three active-duty Special Operations personnel leveled an additional critique. They told National Journal that the Rangers who'd asked for the reinforcements were ultimately able to push back the militants and secure the crash site on their own -- and without suffering any casualties. That was clear evidence, they say, that the SEALs hadn't been needed in the first place.
"Those Rangers weren't in imminent danger," one of the officers said by phone from Afghanistan, speaking on background because of the ongoing military probe into the crash and a desire to avoid appearing to speak ill of the dead troops. He said there was time to think through whether it made sense to send such a large SEAL element to Wardak.
The military critics acknowledged that it was easy to question such decisions with the benefit of hindsight and stressed that making calls in the midst of an ongoing engagement was an inherently difficult process -- officers often have to make split-second decisions based on incomplete and often contradictory information.
The Special Operations personnel told National Journal that understanding whether a mission like Saturday's SEAL deployment should have even taken place -- and should be repeated in the future -- was at least as important as figuring out what went wrong this time around.
The military has tabbed a one-star Army general to lead an internal investigation into the circumstances of the mission and the specific reasons the helicopter crashed, but it's not clear whether his mandate will extend to the overarching question of whether it should have been launched in the first place.
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, meanwhile, have fueled the growing questions over the mission by providing differing explanations for the mission itself.
On Monday, senior U.S. military officials said the U.S. and Afghan troops had rushed to Wardak to reinforce a detachment of Army Rangers who were pinned down by insurgents while hunting for a high-ranking Taliban leader. The Chinook copter was bringing the forces to the scene of “an ongoing engagement" between Nato-led forces and insurgents when it crashed, the U.S.-led military coalition said in a written statement.
But the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Wednesday offered reporters a markedly different account of why the reinforcements – which included several members of SEAL Team 6, one of the military’s most highly-trained counterterror units – had been rushed to Wardak’s Tangi Valley.
Gen. John Allen said the U.S. and Afghan teams had been sent to Wardak to prevent wanted insurgents from melting away into the surrounding countryside. There was no mention of sending the SEALs to rescue other American troops.
“There were elements that were escaping,” Allen told reporters from Kabul. “And in the course of their attempt to depart the objective, we committed a force to contain that element from getting out.”
Allen’s account immediately raised questions about why U.S. commanders had sent so many troops, including such a large number of SEALs, to hunt for relatively low-ranking insurgents in a remote and sparsely-populated part of Afghanistan. SEAL Team 6 only has about 300 operators around the world, so a disproportionate share of the storied unit’s fighting strength was wiped out in Saturday’s crash. It was the worst single-day loss of the long Afghan war for U.S. forces and the deadliest day ever for the Special Operations Command, which oversees the SEALs and other highly-trained units.
Asked if the decision to send in the SEALs had been the right one, Allen said only that he was “comfortable that that was the right decision to be made at that time.”
Allen also acknowledged -- crucially -- that the original target of Saturday's raid, an unnamed militant suspected of being the senior Taliban commander in the Tangi Valley, managed to escape and remains at large.
“Did we get the leader that we were going after in the initial operation?” Allen said. “No, we did not.”
Even if U.S. forces had killed that insurgent leader, however, it is debatable whether it would have been a turning point for the fight in eastern Afghanistan, let alone for the entire war.
The number of targeted raids by SEALs and other Special Operations personnel has escalated sharply, and U.S. officials estimate those troops have killed nearly 3,000 Taliban fighters in the past six months, including roughly 600 insurgent commanders. Allen claimed coalition forces had reversed the Taliban's momentum in key areas of the country, particularly southern Afghanistan.
Still, the missions haven’t dented the militants’ willingness or ability to fight. There were 1,600 detonations of improved explosive devices in June, an all-time high, and the Taliban are now regularly conducting attacks in once-quiet parts of northern and eastern Afghanistan.
Even southern Afghanistan, the main focus of U.S. operations over the past year, remains dangerous. On Thursday, a massive IED tore through a coalition patrol, killing five troops. At least 388 U.S. and NATO forces have died so far this year, putting 2011 on pace to match, and probably exceed, the record 711 troops who were killed in Afghanistan last year.
That, in the end, for the troops at least, may be the most dispiriting aspect of last weekend’s failed mission: Even if the Rangers and SEALs had succeeded in finding their target and safely returning home, it may not have made all that much of a difference in how quickly the war ends.