A Chinook CH-47 transport helicopter was apparently shot down by the Taliban in the Wardak province of Afghanistan over the weekend. I say “apparently” because officials have been remarkably slow to concede the crash was an enemy action… despite the Taliban claiming responsibility, the helicopter’s mission taking it into a combat zone, and an Afghan eyewitness who reports seeing a rocket hit the chopper.
Reuters quotes NATO spokesman Brigadier General Carsten Jacobsen: “We’re still not aware of the cause of the incident, this is a very vital part of the investigation. The area in which the helicopter was operating was known to be not free of insurgents.”
A second NATO CH-47 made a “hard landing” on Monday, while operating in a different area. Fortunately, this incident resulted in no casualties. The Taliban claims they also brought this chopper down.
A thorough investigation of the Wardak crash site is underway. It will be important to determine if this week’s horrible events represented a lucky shot – a “golden BB,” as Time magazine puts it – or a significant upgrade of the Taliban’s anti-aircraft capabilities.
It will also be important to assess the level of risk special forces troops are being exposed to, as American troops draw down in the face of a very active and hostile enemy. The downed Chinook carried 22 Navy SEALs, including 20 members of the legendary SEAL Team 6. The Associated Press reports they were on their way to reinforce U.S. Army Rangers who were under fire, in the small hours of the night.
These are the kind of high-risk missions special forces teams undertake, and without a main battle force beating the enemy down across a broad front, the danger increases greatly. Loss of land to Taliban control has compelled American troops to rely more heavily on risky air transportation. As the AP puts it, “The fatal crash on Saturday highlights the risks confronting the U.S.-led coalition as it looks to rely more on special operations forces while reducing the overall number of troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.”
There is some speculation that SEAL Team 6 might have been targeted in revenge for taking down Osama bin Laden, perhaps with intelligence about their presence on the chopper leaked to insurgents in the area. There’s no evidence for this theory yet, but it must be investigated. It’s not as if the war in Afghanistan has been without intelligence leaks. The Pentagon has stated that none of the men involved in the bin Laden raid was killed in this incident.
Saturday was the deadliest day for American forces in the Afghan war, and the greatest loss in the storied history of SEAL Team 6. Milblogger Blackfive notes “this loss to SOCOM is akin to the Pacific Fleet losing an aircraft carrier.”
Also aboard the Chinook were a five-man Army air crew, three Air Force spotters, a dog handler with his dog, seven Afghan soldiers, and an Afghan interpreter. The Washington Post yesterday published a moving remembrance of the fallen, including Navy SEAL Aaron Carson Vaughn:
Aaron Carson Vaughn was a man of deep faith, insisting to his family that he didn’t fear his job as a Navy SEAL “because he knew where he was going” when he died.
“Aaron was a Christian and he’s with Jesus today,” Geneva Vaughn of Union City, Tenn., told The Associated Press on Saturday. “He told us when we saw him last November that he wasn’t afraid … he said, ‘Granny, don’t worry about me.’”
“He was a tough warrior, but he was a gentle man.”
I hope that, en route to their eternal reward, these tough and gentle heroes will tarry for a while with a grateful nation. Our duty is to remember those who died performing theirs, and offer our prayers and love to their families in a time of unbearable loss. It’s always one minute to midnight for freedom, in the bleak wastelands of the human world. These are the people you want to see coming down through the clouds before the final seconds tick away. It’s a miracle that we have so many of them. It is the measure of our peril that we need more.