Close to Kabul: Chinook Tragedy in the Tangi Valley

In a disturbing but frankly, refreshing, admission by US military intelligence officers, there seems to be growing recognition of the problem of fighting militants who are local residents.

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Nikola Solic / Reuters

30 Americans of whom 22 were Navy Seals as well as 7 Afghan troops and a translator were killed yesterday when Taliban fighters successfully downed a Chinook helicopter with a rocket launched grenade in the Tangi Valley of Wardak Province in Afghanistan.

Wardak is immediately just West of Kabul and the attack took place about 35 miles southwest of Afghanistan's capital city. 

From a report that appeared in today's New York Times:

Saturday's attack came during a surge of violence that has accompanied the beginning of a drawdown of American and NATO troops, and it showed how deeply entrenched the insurgency remains even far from its main strongholds in southern Afghanistan and along the Afghan-Pakistani border in the east. American soldiers had recently turned over the sole combat outpost in the Tangi Valley to Afghans.

What often is not reported about the Afghanistan War is the degree to which the problem the nation faces is embedded in communities and villages throughout the country, not only in the Western and Southern provinces.

In a disturbing but frankly, refreshing, admission by US military intelligence officers, there seems to be growing recognition of the problem of fighting militants who are local residents -- as opposed to fighting foreign jihadist fighters who have come to fight Western troops in Afghanistan or the non-local Taliban Afghans who move in to terrorize citizens of some respective community. 

Again from the New York Times report by Ray Rivera, Alissa J. Rubin and Thom Shanker: 

"There's a lot happening in Tangi," said Capt. Kirstin Massey, 31, the assistant intelligence officer for Fourth Brigade Combat Team in an interview last week. "It's a stronghold for the Taliban."

The fighters are entirely Afghans and almost all local residents, Captain Massey said, noting that "We don't capture any fighters who are non-Afghans."

The redoubts in these areas pose the kind of problems the military faced last year in similarly remote areas of Kunar Province, forcing commanders to weigh the mission's value given the cost in soldiers' lives and dollars spent in places where the vast majority of the insurgents are local residents who resent both the NATO presence and the Afghan government.

As the size of US military and allied forces grew in Afghanistan, so too did the overall count of Taliban fighters, who saw recruitment levels rise in part because of deep resentments over the presence of what was perceived to be a foreign occupying force.

The Taliban, whom the US has been fighting, will inevitably be part of an ending political equation in Afghanistan that includes a variety of other key ethnic and tribal groups and which will need the buy-in from Pakistan, but the notion of "beating" the Taliban -- when they are embedded as residents in the local population -- has been a foolish notion from the beginning.

The loss of so many US and Afghan troops in the largest one-day casualty hit since the Afghanistan War began is a tragedy -- made worse by the fact that US strategists don't seem to understand that beneath a proxy war in Afghanistan between regional neighbors, there is also a civil war underway and a war by some Afghans simply against Occupation. 

Vice President Biden seems to understand that what needs to happen now is a political process in which military force and assets are a part of a strategy to achieve a relatively stable political equilibrium in Afghanistan.  This deal-making will need to take into account the political views of the Taliban. 

But clearly the large loss of ISAF troops in this Chinook disaster can disrupt such a political process -- compelling the US and allied side of the equation to double down while encouraging the Taliban fighters to consolidate their achievement and push for more. 

A two-hour firefight in the Tangi Valley that led to the deaths of these soldiers may have been vital in someone's strategic game plan -- but from my vantage point, I don't see how the deployment of these forces, the fight with local residents in this remote and tough to reach corner of Wardak falls into the overall strategic plan that the US has now set for Afghanistan.

It's vital that strategic decisionmakers reassess how ISAF's military plan fits into a negotiations outcome with key political players in Afghanistan.  Did this Chinook mission fit into that?  If not, then this was even a worse tragedy.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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