Last week I noted with some skepticism Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s statement that the war in Afghanistan was over. Since then we have been cruelly reminded that Afghanistan remains a dangerous place. Sixteen men–Navy Seals and an Army aircrew–were killed when their MH-47 Chinook was brought down in Kunar Province. They were part of a quick-reaction force on their way to reinforce troops on the ground engaging the enemy as part of Operation Red Wing. Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi claimed that rebel forces shot down the helicopter with “a new type of weapon,” and that they had captured and executed seven Coalition “spies.”
It is a shame that the only time Afghanistan makes news is when something tragic like this happens. The average citizen might well have thought the war was over; the theater has become something like China-Burma-India in World War Two, the scene of some desperate and heroic fighting that lost exposure to more accessible operations in Europe or the Pacific. The Chinook story put Afghanistan back in the headlines; hundreds of newspapers ran it. Meanwhile only a handful of them have chosen to say anything about Operation Diablo Reach Back, a very successful recent move against remnants of the Taliban in their former stronghold of Kandahar Province. U.S., Romanian, and Afghan forces have used not only armed force but also mediation, infrastructure development, and other elements of soft power to help stabilize the area. It is a good news story that is worth hearing, but positive reportage from Afghanistan is even rarer than from Iraq, which says more about the news business than the situation in-country.
Just as an aside, and especially for those who like to draw analogies to Vietnam, check out Operation Nam Dong, named for the 1964 battle that saw the award of the first Medal of Honor in the Vietnam conflict. This is a good example of a primarily Afghan National Army-led operation that shows the progress being made in establishing the ANA as an effective stability force.
Not much has been released yet about Operation Red Wing, but the location is intriguing. Kunar Province is northwest of Kabul on the Pakistan border, some of the most unforgiving mountainous terrain in the country, and a long-time terrorist haven. The area was once part of Kafiristan, the “land of the unbelievers,” a name probably best known from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King.” It was the last part of Afghanistan to be forcibly converted to Islam (in 1896), and was renamed Nurestan, “land of the enlightened,” which is still the name of the province bordering Kunar to the north. It has since ironically become a center for Muslim extremism, and was an important Mujahedin base of operations during the war with the Soviet Union. Gulbuddin Heymatyar–leader of the Hezb-i-Islami movement, one of the primary beneficiaries of U.S. aid in the 1980s–who is now in a declared state of jihad with his former benefactors, is said to be holed up in or near Kunar.
The operation may also be tied to the ongoing hunt for Osama bin Laden and his cronies. The mountain passes from Kunar lead to Chitral District in Pakistan, which is one of the areas bin Laden has recently been rumored to be hiding. (See for example this ABC News report from two weeks ago.) The area around Chitral is naturally beautiful country, and at one time was a destination for hikers from around the world. But the countryside is now closed to outsiders–for their own good, according to Pakistani authorities–and those who obtain permission to visit are generally not welcomed by the locals. A team from Frontline toured the area in 2002 and found the mood decidedly anti-American. Roadside signs praising bin Laden and condemning the United States were common. One strange sight was a hillside on which was spelled out in whitewashed rocks, in English, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” This was one of Richard Nixon’s favorite expressions; one can only guess what he would think about al Qaeda’s appropriation.
There are other signs that something may be up in the bin Laden hunt. A report earlier this week claimed that British SAS troops were on alert for a “swoop” on Osama. Two weeks ago Canadian investigators announced an intelligence coup, finding important al Qaeda information on the laptop of Zaynab Khadr, daughter of Ahmad Khadr, a bin Laden associate killed in Pakistan in 2003. The computer files were said to have included the locations of safe houses in Pakistan. (Note that Zaynab’s brother Omar is the sole Canadian detainee in Guantanamo.)
Meanwhile, bin Laden is said to have released a letter thanking the “residents of the mountains” who have opened their homes to him and his followers. He says that al Qaeda has reorganized and they are preparing for the next round of jihad. “We are carrying such flags and arms,” he wrote, “which are going to dominate the world very soon.” The Mujahedin are “prepared to sacrifice their lives for the great cause.” Bold words from a man in hiding; but if the terrorists are prepared to lay down their lives, Coalition forces are there to help.
–James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.