An international military helicopter crashed into a populated area on the outskirts of Kabul on Friday, killing at least 12 Turkish soldiers and two Afghan civilians. The crash, which appears to have been an accident, has resulted in Turkey's biggest loss over the course of the nearly 11-year war.
The loss comes during a tough couple of weeks for the international military alliance. Just as protests over Quran burnings seemed to simmer, a US soldier reportedly shot 16 civilians, Taliban talks were derailed, and Afghan President Karzai demanded military outposts be shut down.
With falling commitment levels in Afghanistan and war fatigue among the general public in many of the contributing nations, such a significant loss of life may again raise questions about international involvement in Afghanistan.
In January, an Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers. The incident led France to temporarily suspend its operations here and sparked major debate in France about its continuing engagement in the war. Britain is also on track to withdrawal following recent events, and a majority of Americans now support withdrawing troops even if the situation is unstable. In February, NATO and US leaders also agreed to accelerate the end of their combat mission here to sometime in 2013.
However, Turkey is likely to have a much different reaction to the crash than Western nations, where large segments of the population have increasingly questioned the Afghan war.
“Turkey sees opportunities in Afghanistan quite differently than France would or any other player in Western Europe. There are cultural ties, there are ethnic ties, historical ties, and all of these factors play into the calculus of how Ankara would view an incident like this,” says Candace Rondeaux, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan. “I don’t think an incident in which a mechanical failure causes a major loss of life for one particular military force is going to change the nature of the alliance’s presence here.”
Prior to the crash, Turkey had only lost two of its soldiers in Afghanistan. The soldiers were both killed in 2009 when a Turkish armored vehicle collided with a truck in Faryab Province.
Turkey contributes 1,845 troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Most of them are stationed in Kabul, though Turkey is also responsible for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which manage development work, for Wardak and Jawzjan provinces.
In an official statement, the Turkish military acknowledged the crash and the death of its soldiers. While describing the crash as an “accident,” the Turkish military says it is investigating the incident.
Among Afghans there has been much frustration with the international military following the burning of Qurans on a NATO air base last month and one US soldier's alleged killing spree that left 16 Afghan civilians dead on Sunday.
However, Friday’s helicopter crash is unlikely to trigger a significant response among locals. Afghans seldom have a violent reaction to civilian deaths, especially ones that appear to be accidental, though they are one cause of serious frustration that has eroded the reputation of international forces here.
Villagers who witnessed the crash reported that they spotted the helicopter flying erratically before losing control and slamming into a nearby house. Two Afghan girls were reportedly killed by the fallen helicopter, which residents say immediately burst into flames.
“We were playing cricket and one of us saw the helicopters. There were two helicopters, but one of them was not flying well. It looked like it was having some problems,” says Mohammad Hanif, resident of Kabul who witnessed the crash. “We were looking at it and it kept going down. And when it reached an area of houses it crashed into one. The helicopter hit a building and suddenly there was a flash.”