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Afghan helicopter crash reflects peril for U.S. special forces

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The mission that left 30 American troops, including 22 Navy SEALs, dead Saturday morning in eastern Afghanistan was just one of dozens of operations carried out by U.S. special operations forces every week in Afghanistan. The only difference was the disastrous ending.

While SEAL Team 6 gained worldwide fame with the raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden, Saturday's ill-fated operation reflected the reality of a unit that regularly targets insurgents whose names and faces are almost completely unknown outside military and intelligence circles.

U.S. special operations forces have been a critical component of the war strategy in Afghanistan, executing operations in remote and volatile locations that are often inaccessible to ground troops. In Wardak province's Tangi Valley, where the crash occurred, U.S. troops had recently withdrawn from the area's sole combat outpost.

Such missions are expected to become increasingly important as the United States begins withdrawing troops in the coming months and years, leaving NATO without the manpower to conduct the traditional counterinsurgency operations at the heart of the troop surge over the past 18 months.

Saturday's mission was a night raid, which is usually a joint operation between NATO and Afghan forces, often informed by lengthy intelligence-gathering efforts. Afghanistan is in the process of developing its own commandos, and the raids are seen as key to building that nascent force's capacity.

"Saturday's operation was a normal mission that we do jointly," Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimi said. He said Afghan and U.S. troops have cooperated on 10 very similar missions in the past month alone. Eight Afghans also died in the crash, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

The Afghans lack an air force of their own and often find themselves dependent on NATO air support. While a number of Afghan National Army units have begun conducting patrols without NATO accompaniment, they often find themselves in need of assistance from Western planes and helicopters when firefights with the Taliban become too intense.

"We're getting stronger, but without an air force, there's a limit to our strength," said Col. Ataullah Zahir, an Afghan commander in Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.

It appears unlikely that Saturday's crash will threaten U.S. or Afghan confidence in Western air superiority.

Senior U.S. military officials said the loss of the SEALs would have little impact on the U.S. military's ability to conduct strikes on senior and midlevel Taliban officials, which they said have become increasingly effective and lethal over the past year.

Afghanistan has more U.S. special operations troops, about 10,000, than any other theater of war. From April to July this year, 2,832 special operations raids captured 2,941 insurgents and killed 834, twice as many as during the same time period last year, according to NATO.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Afghan helicopter crash reflects peril for U.S. special forces 08/07/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2011 9:36pm]
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