On June 29, a U.S. Army MH-47 Chinook transport helicopter was shot down in mountainous terrain near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, killing all 16 U.S. troops on board — including 13 elite Special Forces commandos. The troops were on their way to relieve a small reconnaissance unit when the helicopter went down. Their were assigned to Operation Redwing, an offensive against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Kunar province. More than three years after Operation Enduring Freedom toppled the Taliban regime, the insurgency in Afghanistan shows no signs of abating.
The U.S. Army MH-47 Chinook transport helicopter that was shot down in Afghanistan on June 29 was taking part in an intense battle. The fighting started hours earlier when, according to an Afghan government source, a U.S. Special Forces unit was ambushed by Taliban fighters who used their superior knowledge of the local terrain to their advantage. The Taliban, likely using a tactic employed by the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of 1979-1989, set up an ambush for the helicopters that they knew would be coming to assist the embattled U.S. forces. As the Chinook approached its landing zone to extract the U.S. troops, it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, which caused it to crash. In addition to the original Special Forces unit, there were also reports of a group of U.S. personnel wearing Afghan clothing in the area — reminiscent of the operations CIA agents mounted in the early phases of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The Taliban claim to have killed seven U.S. "spies" — possibly a reference to these personnel — prior to shooting down the Chinook. Thirty-six hours after the initial ambush, the original Special Forces unit and the "spies" were still missing in Kunar province, a Taliban-held area beyond Kabul's control. Fighting has escalated in Afghanistan, and the insurgents have shown themselves to possess some potent fighting capabilities. The downing of the Chinook helicopter is just one engagement in a period of sharply escalating fighting that has been going on since mid-June as the Taliban, al Qaeda elements and Afghan Pashtun militias have increased their activity. In Afghanistan's harsh environment, fighting traditionally intensifies in the spring and summer months, when weather permits movement through mountain passes. However, this year the fighting has been more intense than in previous years — in the first six months of 2005, more U.S. service members have died than in all of 2004. Overall, U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have increased every year since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001. In addition to the ongoing Operation Redwing in northeast Afghanistan, recent fighting in the central Afghan province of Uruzgan left 25 people dead over three days. On June 29, Taliban fighters attacked a police checkpoint in Tirin Kot district. Seven militants were killed in the ensuing hour-long battle. The next day, militants stormed the village of Saiban and kidnapped nine tribal elders, whom they later executed. On July 1, four police officers and five militants died during an attack on another police post. The battle in Uruzgan came after a similar running battle that ended June 23 with 76 Taliban fighters being killed in Zabul and Kandahar provinces, according to the U.S. military. U.S. sources in Afghanistan report that many fighters the U.S. forces encounter seem to be students from madrassas — Islamic schools — in Pakistan along the border. These students are motivated by years of indoctrination and Islamist rhetoric to fight against U.S.-led coalition and Afghan government forces in Afghanistan. These relatively inexperienced students serve as foot soldiers and are led by cadres of more experienced local fighters. The older, more-experienced fighters — who are mostly Afghan Pashtuns — largely keep the insurgency in Afghanistan alive. They travel to different areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan to recruit and train fighters from among the madrassa students and villagers unfriendly to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Once they have formed and trained a cell, they move on to repeat the process elsewhere. This results in small bands constantly popping up in widely dispersed areas, which U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces then have to engage. In addition to the madrassa students and local fighters, there is a significant foreign element in the insurgency. The U.S. military has confirmed kills of Uzbeks, Urdu-speaking fighters and fighters from Central Asia. In addition, there have also been confirmed kills of Chechens. The Chechens in Afghanistan are the insurgency's elite fighters. They are deployed as personal security details for important insurgent commanders and as trainers for new recruits. Chechen fighters often go into combat with local Afghan insurgents and fighters recruited from the madrassas to act as advisors and give the younger fighters confidence. It is quite possible that the Chechen fighters rotate through Afghanistan in an effort to enhance their influence in the worldwide jihadist movement, by lending their skills to the fight in Afghanistan. The Chechens' involvement could also be meant to repay al Qaeda and the Taliban for helping them in their fight in Russia. While some areas of Afghanistan — such as much of Kunar province, where the MH-47 was shot down — are under the control of the insurgents, Pakistan is also a safe haven for insurgents operating in Afghanistan. The Taliban and al Qaeda conduct the majority of their financing and recruiting operations on the Pakistani side of the border. Wounded insurgent leaders have sought and gained refuge in Pakistan among tribes sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda. When the insurgents find themselves under excessive pressure from U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces, they simply melt away in the mountainous border region and re-form inside Pakistan. According to sources in Afghanistan, as a result of the sanctuary that the insurgents find across the border, many Afghans deeply resent Pakistan and blame them for all Afghanistan's problems. One factor contributing to the increase in activity in Afghanistan could be the more aggressive strategy U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces have used since the beginning of spring. The increased activity in Afghanistan began in March 2005, when new units rotated into the country. That rotation, Operation Enduring Freedom 5, included airborne and Special Forces units that were more capable of locating and closing in on the insurgents. The Taliban and al Qaeda forces have been obliged to engage in combat when U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces enter their areas. This is especially notable in southern Afghanistan, where the insurgency has been unexpectedly intense. It is also possible that an increase in funding has enabled the insurgents in Afghanistan to raise the level of operations. There have been reports that al Qaeda has been able to pump more money into Afghanistan in recent months, perhaps as part of a campaign to disrupt parliamentary elections scheduled for September. The fighting in Afghanistan will continue throughout the summer, possibly decreasing slightly and then surging before the September elections. Beyond that, it is likely that in a country that has been the scene of constant warfare for the last 26 years, the various militias, insurgents and warlords will continue fighting the government in Kabul and each other — and U.S. forces as long as they stay — for years to come.