The Aug. 6 crash of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan, downed by armed insurgents using a rocket-propelled grenade, is said to mark the biggest one-day loss of U.S. troops since the war started nearly 10 years ago. The tragedy is once again turning a bright spotlight on the urgency of speedily ending this country’s longest war.
The war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of over 1,700 U.S. soldiers, including the 30 who were aboard the downed helicopter. Thousands of troops have been wounded – among them many who suffer permanent brain injuries from IEDs, or “improvised explosive devices.”
Countless Afghan civilians have died in the war. Villages have been destroyed, many thousands of people have been displaced, their families torn apart, their livelihoods ruined.
Though military generals claim, as they always do, that progress is being made, it’s hard to see that on the ground.
Where once the major battlegrounds were in the south and southeast, now armed insurgents – often collectively called “Taliban” though a number of different groups are involved – have gained substantial footholds in other parts of the country. The helicopter was less than 100 miles from the capital. Kabul, when it was shot down in Wardak province.
The circumstances of the helicopter’s downing also point to a disturbing aspect of today’s war in Afghanistan. The Chinook was carrying 20 members of the Navy SEALs’ elite Team 6, on their way to aid other Special Forces units hunting a Taliban leader said to be responsible for armed insurgent activities in the area.
As efforts to “win hearts and minds” have been increasingly revealed as unsuccessful, the U.S. military campaign has shifted more and more toward assassinating key insurgent leaders. The most spectacular instance is, of course, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this year. Last January columnist Conn Hallinan likened the current “night raid” strategy to the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War.
An aspect of this tactic is the increasing use of drones, which, like all forms of aerial warfare, pose a grave threat to innocent civilians as well as to their intended targets.
Throughout all of this, civilians in Afghanistan and here at home are increasingly opposing the war. Recent polls in the U.S. show some 55 to 60 percent opposing the war. In Afghanistan opposition to the war reportedly exceeds 80 percent.
In May, a bill by U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., calling for a plan and timetable to withdraw U.S. forces came within a hair of passing with bipartisan support in the House of Representatives.
Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Barbara Lee – both California Democrats – have also gained significant backing for their bills to end the war.
If we can’t afford the lost and devastated lives, neither can we afford the huge financial outlay. At the same time the far right is touting the rising deficit as a pretext to demand draconian cuts to domestic human needs programs, the Afghan war is costing the U.S. $100 billion a year. Economists warn that the total costs of the war, including the ongoing treatment and rehabilitation of physically and psychologically wounded veterans, will be vastly greater.
President Barack Obama called the deaths in the helicopter downing “a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families, including all who have served in Afghanistan.”
Earlier this year the president took an important first step toward winding down the war, when he announced that 10,000 U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2011, and another 20,000 by next summer, as a down-payment on complete withdrawal by the end of 2014.
The best way the president and the Congress can honor the memory of the troops who died on Aug. 6, and all those who preceded them, is to greatly speed up that plan, removing all the troops and contractors as quickly as possible and opening the way for the negotiations which must take place both within Afghanistan and in the region.
The best way we all can honor them, and the many innocent civilians who have also suffered and died in the war, is to work actively for that speedy end, wherever we’re involved.