Both sides expected a quick turnaround. Five days after Taliban insurgents brought down a CH-47 Chinook in Wardak’s Tangi Valley, killing all 30 U.S. troops inside, an F-16 airstrike in neighboring Chak district eliminated the man responsible for firing the primary RPG. U.S. officials are positive that the nameless insurgent, along with local commander Mullah Mohibullah, were tracked down on their way to Pakistan. The top insurgent leader originally targeted on Saturday remains at large.
A statement by NATO headquarters in Kabul revealed, “After an exhaustive manhunt, Special Operations forces located Mullah Mohibullah and the shooter after receiving multiple intelligence leads and tips from local citizens. The two men were attempting to flee the country in order to avoid capture.”
General John Allen, chief commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, added through video phone from Kabul, “We tracked them as we would in the aftermath of any operation, and we dealt with them with a kinetic strike, and in the aftermath of that we have achieved certainty that they, in fact, were killed in that strike.”
Just like that, another handful of martyrs became the Taliban’s latest inspiration.
That the insurgency remains active, potent and resolved to fight across the country can be inversely inferred from Washington’s blossoming narrative. Following a solemn but optimistic reaction to Saturday’s costly incident, two C-17 aircraft carrying the SEALs’ remains were met by President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and a host of military subordinates. “Stay the course” has become the Pentagon’s new mantra, an apparent confident-boosting measure that only seems to invoke nightmares of Vietnam.
“From this tragedy we draw even greater inspiration to carry on the fight, to continue to hunt down those who would do us harm,” Panetta declared on Sunday. “We will never stop. We will fight on until we have achieved the final goal of victory over terrorism.”
Defending two levels of criticism at once, the White House’s first objective was to blunt renewed debate around the war in Afghanistan. Having successfully transformed SEAL Team Six into martyrs, the White House is now using America’s “heroes” to continue the war in Afghanistan without any alterations. On a secondary front, the Pentagon is under scrutiny for the SEAL team’s deployment, from the number of operatives on board a single a standard CH-47 Chinook (as opposed to a Special Forces-modified MH-47G), to the flight path through a narrow mountain pass.
“We've run more than a couple of thousand of these night operations over the last year, and this is the only occasion where this has occurred," Allen argued. "The fact that we lost this aircraft is not ... a decision point as to whether we'll use this aircraft in the future. It's not uncommon at all to use this aircraft on our special missions."
It’s true that a single helicopter crash doesn’t represent their operational history, given that so many flights proceed according to the mission plan. However this thinking also negates asymmetric warfare, denying that a major incident often yields an amplified effect on the battlefield. When Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told reporters that nobody “should be reading into what this means about the Taliban,” one wonders if the Pentagon sincerely believes its rhetoric. The Pentagon also seems to ignoring (at least publicly) the notion that the Taliban are increasingly gunning for helicopters and their Special Forces cargo.
While an investigation has yet to be released, the Pentagon won’t be eager to reveal whether the Taliban did, in fact, set a trap in Tangi.
Yet somewhere in the middle of defending these night-raids, the Pentagon’s narrative shifted to outright progress in Afghanistan. Because U.S. Special Forces routinely overwhelm insurgents in “thousands of night operations,” shooting down a helicopter suddenly became proof that, “we still have the Taliban on the run and have reversed the momentum that they have.” According to Allen, the Chinook crash was, “a singular incident in a broader conflict in which we are making important strides and considerable progress.”
“They're losing territory. They're losing leadership. They're losing weapons and supplies. They're losing public support,” Allen said in between a tour of Marjah, adding that the Taliban is losing the will to fight. “They face relentless pressure from coalition and, increasingly, Afghan forces.”
To the Marine Corps credit Marjah itself is relatively secure, but only after costs far exceeding initial expectations. Another "stronghold" in Helmand (Sangin) remains active and Kandahar is unraveling. U.S. officials also recognize the propaganda value of a downed Chinook, responding with a wave of propaganda in hopes of washing away the Taliban’s momentum. However the harder U.S. officials try to convince the U.S. public of Afghanistan's progress, the more desperate and fallacious they sound. The Taliban have let the story do the talking, realizing its public spectacle needs little garnish. If the Chinook and its SEALs are truly unimportant in the grand scheme, why is the Obama administration going through such lengths to downplay the incident?
Why is Wardak so active with Taliban after “thousands of night operations?” And what will U.S. officials say after the next downed helicopter?
Contrary to the prevailing military vantage, the Taliban have yet to “lose the will to fight.” Though certainly under intense pressure from coalition and Afghan forces, the insurgency remains active across the country and is adapting its tactics to overcome NATO’s numerical advantage. Political assassinations have risen as Taliban cadres shun direct battles with coalition troops, preferring to wait out America’s withdrawal and capitalize on the ensuing instability. Sacrificing its southern territory to move north and east, the Taliban appear confident that the south will eventually be retaken. Washington’s main card - Afghan security forces - are canceled out by the national government enduring limitations.
The Taliban (along with many outsiders) don’t believe that Washington can foster a competent government in the next two years.
The insurgents that met their end in Chak were likely prepared to die. Maybe not expecting to, but the Taliban anticipate ground and air raids at every turn. They expect an air-strike to follow after an ambush and usually flee; sometimes they’re caught, other times they escape. This is war, as U.S. officials state matter-of-factly, and killing Tangi’s triggermen won’t discourage the Taliban in the least. Insurgents are likely competing to bring down the next Chinook, willing to martyr themselves for a war they don’t believe they’re losing.
The Taliban take a more realistic approach to their war - they don’t expect to militarily defeat foreign forces, only stalemate them into a gradual exit. Although U.S. officials also claim to understand the need for a political solution, the Pentagon appears bent on killing every last insurgent to reach this outcome. So weak is their will to fight.