The day after a helicopter crash resulted in the largest loss of American soldiers in a single day during a decade of war in Afghanistan, many locals say they fear it is a sign that the war will likely to drag on for a long time to come.
For most Afghans, the incident has done little to change their outlook on the future of the war. It has, however, confirmed their suspicions that NATO-led forces have yet to reverse the Taliban’s momentum.
“It is another big sign that indicates continuous fighting in Afghanistan,” says Mirajudin Ahmadzai, a tribal elder in Nangarhar province. “That the Taliban can now shoot down a helicopter shows that they are getting more capable.”
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US military officials say they are still investigating the incident, but it appears that the Taliban may have shot down the Chinook helicopter on Saturday east of Kabul in Wardak province.
A blow to the special forces community
Among the 30 Americans who died in the crash, at least 20 were Navy SEALs from the elite SEAL Team 6 unit responsible for killing Osama Bin Laden. Seven Afghan commandos and a civilian interpreter were also killed.
The magnitude of the loss will be felt hard by the special forces community – there are approximately 2,500 Navy SEALs in the US military and only a few hundred make it to SEAL Team 6. The deaths also constitute about 10 percent of all American fatalities in Afghanistan this year.
Taliban claims responsibility
The Taliban has claimed responsibility for downing the helicopter. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Islamist organization says fighters used a shoulder-launched, anti-aircraft missile to shoot down the helicopter and he claims the fighters have a handful more of these systems scattered throughout Afghanistan. The Taliban has a history of taking responsibility for incidents they were not involved in or grossly exaggerating their successes.
According to Mr. Mujahid, the fighters did not know the significance of their target.
“We didn’t know exactly that it was that Navy SEAL unit, but we know whenever they have the night raids and they plan to attack mujahideen [holy warriors] somewhere, they always use their special forces so we knew they were very important,” he says, explaining that the helicopter was returning from a night operation.
A propaganda boost?
Throughout the course of the war in Afghanistan, 101 helicopters have crashed, 17 of which were downed by hostile fire. The significance of this latest incident is likely to serve as a major propaganda coup for the Taliban.
“They will have big morale boost since they’ve shown to the world that they can even target a chopper,” says Hakim Bashirat, a resident of Kabul who is originally from Wardak. “Foreign forces and the Afghan government will increase their military operations out there, which will cause many problems for the local residents of Wardak.”
Already, there were reports of fighting near the crash site on Sunday where foreign forces have been conducting a recovery operation. Other locals have reported that Afghan and foreign forces have arrested a large number of civilians in the area.
In Wardak, as in other parts of the East, residents say there has been an increase in militant activity in recent months.
“Foreign people will never bring security to us until our police and our army do their part,” says Roshanak Wardak, a former member of parliament from Wardak who now directs a hospital there. “We should be involved in this. There is no need for foreigners to go to the villages and kill the people.”