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.