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Afghanistan: Is Helicopter Downing A Sign Of New Tactics, Weapons?

A U.S. military Chinook helicopter (file photo) If confirmed as a hostile-fire incident, the 28 June downing of a U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan that left 16 soldiers dead would be the most costly such incident for U.S. forces in that country since October 2001. The recent resurgence of violence seems to have shattered assertions following Afghanistan's October 2004 presidential election that the insurgency there had been quelled.

The 28 June crash of a U.S. Chinook helicopter with sixteen service members on board in northeastern Afghanistan's Konar Province might well have been caused by enemy fire, although the U.S. military says the incident is under investigation. Media quoted Lieutenant General James Conway, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying on 30 June that the military believes the helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The incident, however, has raised questions about whether the insurgents operating against U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan government troops have obtained new weapons or have learned new tactics. If confirmed, the downing would be the single greatest loss of life due to enemy fire by U.S. forces since October 2001.

The details for the Chinook's crash suggest that either a surface-to-air missile such as a U.S.-made Stinger or Russian SAM-7 or a rocket-propelled grenade -- the most common type in use in Afghanistan is the Russian RPG-7, which was originally an anti-tank weapon -- was used to bring down the aircraft.

The neo-Taliban, who have claimed responsibility for the shooting down the Chinook, have made contradictory statements regarding the type of weapon used.

Mullah Mohammad Ismail -- who claims loyalty to former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, but has his own group called Bira'a bin Malik -- told Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on 29 June that his forces stuck the aircraft with rockets from a distance of 30 to 50 meters. The "helicopter was almost on the ground and was not brought down from the air," Mohammad Ismail added, confirming speculation by U.S. authorities that a rocket-propelled grenade was the most likely weapons used to hit the aircraft.

The person most frequently speaking for the neo-Taliban, Mullah Latifullah Hakimi, told several news agencies the Chinook was brought down by a "new type of weapon," without providing any details.

Mohammad Ismail's claims are in line with the current capabilities of the insurgents operating in Afghanistan, and RPG-7s have been used before in Afghanistan and in other conflicts to attack helicopters flying at low altitudes or during landings and takeoffs. However, if Hakimi's claim that a new type of weapon, most likely an anti-aircraft device, was used is true, then the United States and its allies no longer have total air dominance over Afghanistan. It should be noted that in the past Hakimi has exaggerated figures and has even claimed responsibility for acts of violence that later were confirmed to have been commited by other groups.

Beyond the possible use of new weapons systems, the downing of the Chinook could point to a sophistication of tactics by the insurgents in Afghanistan. There are suggestions that the special-operations aircraft was lured to an area where it was became an easy target. The helicopter was reportedly on a mission to transport special-operations troops to an area where insurgents had confronted a group of pro-U.S. Afghan personnel. The neo-Taliban or their al-Qaeda allies could have deliberately left a few of the Afghans alive so that they would call for reinforcements, while the attackers prepared for their target.

The shooting down of the Chinook may have been the result of an opportune shot by the insurgents. However, the recent escalation both in insurgent activities and terrorist attacks in southern and eastern Afghanistan suggest that groups fighting against President Hamid Karzai's government and its foreign backers have not been defeated, as was suggested after the successful holding of the presidential elections in October.

Moreover, RFE/RL learned from various Afghan authorities in Kabul last week that there are indications of increased attempts by some of Afghanistan's neighbors to destabilize the situation in the country. The main aim of the alleged interferences is to make the presence of the United States in Afghanistan unpopular and costly with the eventual aim of driving the United States out of the country.

The Chinook incident -- if it was a preplanned tactical operation perhaps involving more sophisticated weapons -- will undoubtedly make anti-insurgency operations more difficult for the U.S.-led coalition forces and could forestall plans to make NATO more involved in security management of Afghanistan.

And beyond the immediate military implication of this incident, a political understanding between Kabul and some of its neighbors is necessary to avoid plunging Afghanistan back into a quagmire from which it is yet to recover.