Investigations into the helicopter crash Saturday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai said killed 31 US special forces and seven Afghan Army personnel – the largest single American loss of life in the 10-year war – will be of critical importance to the Afghanistan war.
Military officials have yet to confirm details, but numerous reports suggest that the troops were on a nighttime raid in Wardak Province, which neighbors Kabul, when the Chinook was brought down by enemy fire. The Taliban have claimed responsibility.
As witnessed by the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, nighttime helicopter raids are perhaps the most effective counterterrorism tool available to the US and its coalition partners in Afghanistan to root out and kill terrorist leaders. Without them, or with fewer of them, the American and Afghan prospects for success could be significantly compromised.
That is why military officials will want to piece together what happened as precisely as possible. Rocket-propelled grenades – the Taliban's primary weapon against helicopters – are famously inaccurate. But if the Saturday crash offers any evidence that the Taliban has improved on RPGs or found a more-accurate substitute, it could change the calculus of when and where coalition forces are willing to commit to crucial nighttime raids.
If evidence points to a "lucky shot," though, the attack could have little tactical impact on the war.
Such one-off incidents have happened before and have accounted for the biggest single-event casualty numbers in the war. On June 28, 2005, 16 US troops died when a Chinook was shot down. Two months earlier on April 6, 15 US troops died when a Chinook crashed, though that was the result of a sandstorm.
Special forces helicopter raids are commonplace in Afghanistan, with the US and its allies carrying out as many as a half dozen every night, according to The Guardian newspaper. By that measure, catastrophic loss of life on such operations would appear to be very rare.
The latest reports suggest that the helicopter was brought down by a RPG. But with the Afghan insurgency repeatedly proving itself resilient and adaptable, every major incident is being examined to see if it could be part of a new trend.
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