The deadly crash of a U.S. helicopter in eastern Afghanistan earlier today will fuel the growing questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the long war—and the public’s nagging sense, evident in recent polls, that the conflict is simply not worth its enormous human and financial cost.
Military officials believe that the Taliban shot down an American Chinook helicopter in eastern Afghanistan’s volatile Wardak Province early Saturday, killing at least 31 U.S. troops—including 25 Navy SEALs—in the largest single-day loss of American forces since the Afghan war began in 2001. More American troops died in the crash than have typically been killed in entire months of the grueling conflict.
The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter, and a military official familiar with the probe into the crash told National Journal that "the working hypothesis" was that the chopper had been taken down by an insurgent surface-to-air missile.
The dead included at least 25 SEALs, elite commandos who belonged to the same highly-trained force which killed Osama bin Laden earlier this year, as well as six other American troops and seven Afghan personnel. The military official said the dead SEALs did not appear to include any operators who had taken part in the bin Laden raid.
In a written statement, the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan said there had been “enemy activity” in the areas of the crash but that the exact cause remained under investigation.
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The crash comes amid a spate of grim news from Afghanistan, the Obama administration’s primary national-security focus. National Journal reported last week that the number of IED attacks in the country soared to a record high of 1,600 in June, killing dozens of coalition troops, because of the free flow of bomb-making materials from neighboring Pakistan. A recent government watchdog report, meanwhile, found that an inability to properly control the billions of dollars of American aid flowing into Afghanistan every year means some of that money could be inadvertently fueling the Afghan insurgency.
The rapidly rising U.S. death toll in Afghanistan—paired with a lack of discernible military progress there—is raising new questions about President Obama’s war policy. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama accused then-President George W. Bush of shortchanging the Afghan war effort in favor of the Iraq War and promised to significantly boost U.S. troop levels if elected. Since taking office, Obama has more than tripled the number of American forces in Afghanistan, including a surge of 33,000 U.S. reinforcements last year.
But the administration has never clearly articulated its specific aims in Afghanistan, laid out metrics for gauging progress there, or evinced a consistent argument for why the war should still be fought. Obama administration officials defended the unpopular Afghan surge by arguing it was essential to eradicating the lingering al-Qaeda presence in the country. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, by contrast, a senior administration official told reporters that that the U.S. hadn’t “seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years,” seemingly undercutting the main White House justification for the war’s escalation.
When he announced the surge in December 2009, Obama also promised to begin withdrawing the troops roughly 14 months later. The timetable was opposed by senior Pentagon and military officials, who argued in internal White House debates that a firm drawdown deadline would embolden the Taliban while persuading Afghanistan’s jittery neighbors—most notably Pakistan—that the U.S. was looking for a fast exit.
The pace of the coming drawdowns has also alarmed many top military commanders. Earlier this summer, Obama said 10,000 of the surge troops would withdraw by the end of the year, with the remaining 23,000 returning home by September 2012. That was a much faster withdrawal than had been recommended by Gen. David Petraeus and other top military officials, who warned that it would jeopardize nascent battlefield gains and allow the Taliban to regroup. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers last month that Obama’s drawdown plans were “more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept."
Privately, senior military commanders have said in recent interviews that they believe the drawdown pace was dictated by Obama’s desire to show that he was winding down the unpopular war in advance of next fall’s presidential elections.
There is little doubt that Americans have tired of the war, already the longest in U.S. history. A June poll by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans, for the first time, want troops to return home as quickly as possible. The survey found that 56 percent of Americans favored such a withdrawal, up from 40 percent a year earlier. Two-thirds of Democrats said troops should leave quickly, up from 43 percent in June 2010, and the number of independents with the same views increased 15 percent from last year.
Even among Republicans, long the most stalwart backers of the war, the Pew survey found clear signs of fatigue. In June 2010, 65 percent of Republicans said troops should remain in Afghanistan until the country’s security situation stabilized; by June 2011, that number had fallen to just 53 percent.
Afghanistan has vexed foreign policymakers for centuries, and Obama is no exception. The president has said he remains committed to the war and envisions keeping tens of thousands of troops there until 2014. He has given military commanders the additional troops they requested and publicly stood by them even as the Pentagon’s expansive counterinsurgency strategy has failed to show clear results. But Obama has long since lost his own party when it comes to the war, which majorities of the public now oppose.
Regardless of what proves to have caused today’s helicopter crash, Obama will soon need to decide how important the Afghan conflict is to him, and how hard he should fight to reverse the ongoing declines in American support for the war. For the moment, momentum does not appear to be with the president, either here at home, or on the battlefields of Afghanistan.