06 August 2011

Helicopter Crash in Eastern Afghanistan Kills 31 US, 7 Afghans

It would appear that a helicopter carrying 7 Afghan Special Forces and 31 American troops, to include 25 members of SEAL Team 6, were shot down over Eastern Afghanistan today.  If you remember, these were the same Special Operations Forces involved in the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Right now the Department of Defense is stating that this was due to hostile fire.

To quote ABC News:

Saturday's deaths bring the total number of coalition troops killed in Afghanistan to 334 this year, according to the Associated Press.

The last worst one-day U.S. causality record in Afghanistan was on June 28, 2005 when 16 U.S. soldiers were killed in Kunar province after a helicopter was shot down by Taliban insurgents.
Afghan President Karzai's office released a statement on the incident.

"A NATO helicopter crashed last night in Wardak province," Karzai said in the statement. "President Karzai expressed his deep condolences because of this incident and expressed his sympathy to Barack Obama."
President Obama offered his thoughts and prayers to those killed in the crash.

"Their deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families, including all who have served in Afghanistan," Obama said in a statement. "We will draw inspiration from their lives, and continue the work of securing our country and standing up for the values that they embodied. We also mourn the Afghans who died alongside our troops in pursuit of a more peaceful and hopeful future for their country. At this difficult hour, all Americans are united in support of our men and women in uniform who serve so that we can live in freedom and security."

More after the jump.

Helicopter shoot-downs are always a risk during these operations, particularly when you're in the East which has both harsh mountain terrain and an enemy that is able to shelter and organize across the border in Pakistan to carry out its operations. Additionally, Afghanistan is already very harsh environment to operate helicopters in.  To quote Wired's The Danger Room Blog:

Earlier this year, Popular Mechanics reporter Joe Pappalardo spent some time with the wrench-turners who keep the helicopters flying in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan,” he concluded, “is hell on helicopters.” Here’s a list of just a few of the things he noted that can go wrong: Temperature extremes that destroy seals and gaskets; “high/hot” flying conditions that reduce engine performance; dust and sand that ruin rotor blades and clog up hydraulics. And, of course, there’s the enemy. (Soviet helicopter operations were also vulnerable, albeit for a different reason: The delivery of the Stinger missile, courtesy of the United States.)

What will be interesting now will be the propaganda war that will accompany this raid.  The US will most likely play up the involvement of the Afghan National Army forces that were accompanying the raid, and the insurgents on the ground will play up the fact that they were able to shoot down the helicopter in the first place.

Afghans have an interesting relationship with helicopters, who have harsh memories from the Soviet Invasion.  The Soviet Army heavily used their helicopter gunships in air to ground operations in Afghanistan, frequently using them to pound villages suspected of sheltering mujaheddin.  The helicopters, mostly MI-24 Hinds, were highly armored and very difficult to shoot down, and in the days before the US started supplying the mujaheddin FIM-92 Stinger man-portable missiles they were viewed as largely invulnerable.  A famous quote by an Afghan Mujaheddin command is "We're not afraid of the Soviets, but we are afraid of their helicopters."

Each time the mujaheddin were able to shoot a Soviet helicopter down it was viewed as a significant victory, and one that has traveled down in Afghan folklore.  Its one of those memories that resounds in the memories of Afghans when they think back to the expulsion of Soviet troops.  To compare it to something similar in American lore, it holds a similar meaning as the the Invasion of Normandy.  For Afghans, being able to shoot down an enemy helicopter holds the same feelings of accomplishment, skill, and pride that is comparable to the US Army Ranger storming of Pointe Du Hoc.   As such, this will be used by local insurgents to build their credibility as they deal with tribal leadership in the area, which can be used to elicit more support.  It will also be used by the individual fighters involved, if they survived the aftermath, to burnish their credentials and rise to higher levels of authority in the insurgent chain of command.

Perhaps more significant is the impact that losing 25 troops in a single day would have on operational readiness.  It doesn't take a much of a leap in imagination to believe that whatever unit these SEAL Team 6 members were a part of will have to slow operations to recover from this.

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