Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Choppers, the Achilles’ heel in the Afghan war

October 29, 2009


Back in 2002 during a reporting assignment in Afghanistan, a U.S. helicopter pilot told me that it was important to send a message early on that “we own the skies, night or day”.  So at any given point of time if you were at the Bagram air base, north of Kabul, you could see aircraft, mostly choppers taking off, landing or simply idling  in the skies above in what became the region’s busiest airfield.

Seven years on, the U.S. military is holding on to the skies ever more tightly as the ground below slips away to a Taliban insurgency at its fiercest level. And because they fly more and because the terrain and weather are difficult, the chances of things going wrong increase, as happened earlier this week when 14 Americans, including 11 soldiers, were killed in two separate chopper crashes.

U.S. soldiers were twice as likely to die in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan than in Iraq, Time magazine reported. It quoted Michael O’ Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who is keeping a rolling count of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, as saying that it wasn’t hostile fire that was bringing down the choppers. “The main issues have to do with terrain, weather and of course frequency of use,” he says.

While 5% of U.S. deaths in Iraq have been caused by helicopter crashes — 216 out of 4,348 — the total is 12% in Afghanistan — 101 of 866 — even before Monday’s losses, Hanlon says.AFGHANISTAN/

Afghanistan, roughly the size of Texas, has few major roads, and they are being increasingly monitored and mined, forcing the U.S. to rely more on aircraft to move troops and supplies. Indeed many of the U.S. outposts in the country can only be reached by helicopters.

Noah Schachtman writes in Danger Room, a blog on national security, that helicopters are the “irreplaceable connective tissue of the Afghanistan war effort — and its potential Achilles’ heel.”  When the U.S. military wants to haul gear, supply outposts, reposition forces, or evacuate wounded troops, the first, best and only option is to do so by helicopter.

Which means that demand for the aircraft at most U.S. bases far outstrips the supply, and the helicopters that do fly operate under unforgiving and often dangerous conditions.

Earlier this year, Popular Mechanics reporter Joe Pappalardo spent some time with the support crew in Bagram who keep the helicopters flying in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan,” he concluded, “is hell on helicopters.” Here’s a list of just a few of the things he noted that the military was up against: temperature swings that can ruin seals and gaskets; towering mountains with low air density which sap power from spinning rotor blades and engines; dusty deserts that gum up hydraulics; and enemy combatants who pepper the machines with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.

At another time it was the former Soviet Union’s helicopter fleet which played  a pivotal role in its war in Afghanistan and which  the U.S. zeroed in on, famously equipping the mujahideen with the Stinger missiles. That drove up the cost of operating and contributed to the eventual defeat of the Red Army.

America isn’t facing Stinger missiles, yet, but the enemy on the ground seems just as hardened.


One just wonders the risks for these American helicopters if the Russians supplied the Afghan mujahideens with their Stinger equivalents. Good thing the Russians are not a spoiler like the Americans. These Afghan fighters are fighting for their religion and country. The Americans are fighting for cash in a foreign country. Guess who will win the Afghan war.

Posted by mapleleaf3 | Report as abusive

We helped drive out the red army so we could die there.
What goes arround comes arround!!

Posted by James | Report as abusive

Drawing the US to Afghanistan was a well calculated plan. O goes across the boarder where we cannot go or goes back and forth or whatever. The question I wonder is if O is killed will we simply leave?- Sounds like it, what will we do there afterward stop Al Q training camps, it sounds like all we do there, and can possibly attain has happened. The head scratcher is will the US blink on this high dollar chicken game.

Posted by Adam12 | Report as abusive

Not a spoiler like the Americans? Please, your delusion is breathtaking. Further, take note, there is NO money in Afghanistan, except from outside sources. It comes in from India, the U.S., and even the Russians and others, investing in what can be charitably described as a spare landscape. One wise U.S. general said “You can shoot a biblical movie in Afghanistan- without props!”

They fight because they fear. They are to be feared because all they do is fight, and they’re not too shabby at it.

Posted by yank80 | Report as abusive

It should be well known to the politicians that no matter how good there armies are one cannot deter the determined and it is only a matter of time before a withdrawal will take place. You can stop a suicide bomber from detonating his bombs but you can never stop him from trying again and again. People who fight for their faith and ideology and are willing to sacrifice themselves and are happier to embrace death than life are extremely difficult to defeat. You can contain them but can never defeat them conclusively. What they lack in armour they make up more in spirit and tenacity. Unfortunately as long as the school madrasses operate the conveyor belt of fighters having this kind of mentality will continue which effectively means a never ending war.

Posted by ANDREW BATES | Report as abusive

In refference to the last 2 comments.”These Afghan fighters are fighting for their religion and country” many of these Jihadists are not even afgans, there sauidis, yemenis, egyptians and pakistanis. those that are afgans are mostly Pashtuns. They are not fighting for religion or country, though they would love to claim so, there fighting for controle of the poppy feilds and the enforcment of extrimist islam. The Taliban ban music, dancing, art and female education. Our way of life cannot exist anywhere where the taliban is in controle. ISAF is there to try and improve world security but a more important reason i think is that we are trying to bring freedom and peace to a place that has known little but war, oppression and poverty for decades.

Posted by Tim | Report as abusive

WAR is $$

Posted by ALEX | Report as abusive

Heh – We turn Afganistan into the Russian’s Vietnam… Now we made it our Vietnam 2.0 . Brilliant, just brilliant…

Posted by Sebastian | Report as abusive

Tim,you are right on the money.Afstan has been turned into a hellhole while the West toasted victory after the Afghans were used to shed their blood to defeat their ultimate enemy the soviets.And in London,the establishment cheered at the defeat of USSR by proclaiming “bottoms up” with their favorite bloody beverages.Now the Brits are getting bloody there,is this bloody what??!!

Posted by Zartosht Ariana | Report as abusive




Posted by kolla | Report as abusive

The Achilles’ heel of NATO is it’s supply lines which are extended and vulnerable.

Helicopters are the only viable means of rapid movement within much of Afghanistan.

Helicopters are soft targets, prone to mechanical failure and operational losses.

While Washington debates how many more troops to send, those who will have to supply them via vulnerable and extended supply lines are desperate to figure out how to achieve that goal.

Posted by Mark Lincoln | Report as abusive

The Russians used different tactics than the Americans do but both have relied heavily on air support. The real question is how long can we afford the conflict? Helicopter support is expensive and dangerous. Afghan insurgents have the luxury of time. They can simply continue their gorilla tactics until the American population is fed up with the cost and loss of life. Without the support of the locals who cannot escape the presence of the insurgents we have no chance. It seems unlikely that the ‘Hearts and Minds’ war will be won after such a prolonged presence. Afghans must demand change from within which seems unlikely as vast regions covet localized tribal rule. Helicopters are beside the point, their widespread usage simply confirms a lack of control on the ground.

Posted by riverguide | Report as abusive

And Congress just pushed through a huge defense spending bill that didn’t add helicopters to the shopping list but did add fixed wing transports that the Pentagon didn’t ask for and doesn’t need. Come on, people, there’s a war on; which side are you on?

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

He makes no mention of the age of these craft. Most of troop bearing helo’s go back to vietnam. They may have been refurbished but age is age.The military has not designed a new troop helo in over 40yrs.These present copters were designed for a different war in a different time.

Posted by michael | Report as abusive

Reminiscences of the war in Afghanistan

An Afghan never thinks of asking for quarter, but fights with the ferocity of a tiger. He clings to life until his eyes glaze and his hands refused to pull a pistol trigger, or use a knife in a dying effort to maim or kill his enemy.

The stern realities of war were more pronounced on the battlefields in Afghanistan than they have ever been in India, if we except the retributive days of the Munity.

To spare a wounded man for a minute, was probably to cause the death of the next soldier, who unsuspiciously walked past him. One thing our men certainly learned in Afghanistan was to keep their wits about them when pursuing an enemy, or passing over a hard won field.

They turned like wolves and fought with desperation

There might be danger lurking in each seemingly inanimate form studding the ground, and unless care and caution were exercised, the wounded Afghan would steep his soul in bliss by killing a Kaffir just when life was at its last ebb.

This stubborn love of fighting in extreme, is promoted doubtless by fanaticism We saw so much of it that our men at close quarters, always drove their bayonets well home, so that there should be no mistake as to the deadliness of the wound.

The physical courage which distinguished the untrained mops, who fought so resolutely against us, was worthy of all admiration; the tenacity with which men, badly armed and lacking skilled leaders, clung to their positions was remarkable.

When the tide of the fight set in fully against them, they saw further resistance would involve them more deeply. There was so sudden a change always apparent, that one could scarcely believe, the fugitives hurrying over the hills, were the same who had resisted so desperately but a few minutes before.

They acted wisely.

They knew their powers in scaling steep hills, or making their escape by fleetness of foot, and the host generally dissolved with a rapidity which no one but an eye witness can appreciate.
If cavalry overtook them, they turned like wolves and fought with desperation, selling their lives as dearly as men ever sold them; but there was no rally in the true sense of the word, and but faint attempts at aiding each other.

February 10, 1881


All the above naysayers and defeatists will be just as wrong about the US fate in Afghanistan, as they were infamously wrong regarding the exhaustion, humiliation and destruction of the US effort in Iraq.

Posted by rfjk | Report as abusive

Afghanistan is proving very difficult for the USA. If we bail out before the Afghan government is in place to defend itself the Taliban will come back and take over. Once this happens they will continue to train people to kill Americans and most other Christians any where in the world. Based on history it is likely to take 12 to 15 years to defeat the Taliban and get the Afghan people to began developing a society than can join other nations of the world in a peaceful and prosperous manner.

Posted by Dale Dobbins | Report as abusive

This is yet another obstacle for the U.S. staying in the Afghanistan war. They will need to make the helicopters safer. Asia Chronicle has been blogging on many issues facing Afghanistan. Worth a read I think.

Posted by hotaruSTAR16 | Report as abusive

Some quotes from Obama’s top political strategist Brezinski from his book ‘The Grand Chessboard’:

“How America ‘manages’ Eurasia is critical. A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 per cent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.” (p.31)

“The momentum of Asia’s economic development is already generating massive pressures for the exploration and exploitation of new sources of energy and the Central Asian region and the Caspian Sea basin are known to contain reserves of natural gas and oil that dwarf those of Kuwait, the Gulf of Mexico, or the North Sea.” (p.125)

Plans for the pipeline: nistan_Pipeline

Posted by brian | Report as abusive


“For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia… Now a non-Eurasian power is preeminent in Eurasia – and America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.” (p.30)

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

After reading over 200 Reuters article on American war involvement in several wars, I’ve yet to read one that wouldn’t serve to encourage whoever America’s adversary was.

Posted by Richard | Report as abusive

Personally I’m unable to imagine a viable solution to the Af-Pak problem. The outcome could be more or less bad irrespective of whether The West pulls out of direct military engagement there. But it’s worth pointing out that a major premise of the current strategic debate, which seems to be universally accepted, is catastrophically flawed.

Very briefly, this premise is usually formulated along the following lines:
“We will be able to withdraw once the Afghan state has sufficient trained security forces (army, police etc) to control the insurgency themselves.”

The proposition is repeated endlessly by politicians, the military and media, without demur. Only the timescale is open to debate.

It appears to escape notice that western military intervention, equipped as it is with the current state of the art in military resources (air supremacy; manned vehicles plus remotely controlled surveillance and ground attack drones, satellites – not to mention myriad other types of technological surveillance equipment, artillery, armour, the finest personal equipment and medical facilities ever made available to the soldier on the ground, etc) is quite unable to restrain the insurgency, which gets worse yearly. Of course against this technical capability there is the issue of manpower; no field commander ever thinks he has enough, as we’re hearing right now. But this is a distraction, as it was in Vietnam. “The Surge” in Iraq only appeared to be effective (in the short term at least) because it coincided with other policies implemented at the same time which coincided, temporarily, with the interests of some of the insurgents.

However the notion that the Afghan army, other things being equal, could ever be raised to this level of technical capability within a realistic timeframe, is manifestly absurd even if the budget were to become available – which it won’t.

This is the least of the problems. The insurgency is essentially Pashtun driven. The foreign jihadist contribution is insignificant, although it does have significant regional implications. An Afghan army (including police, security forces etc) which doesn’t include at least a proportionate representation of Pashtuns, namely about 40%, is going to be perceived in the Pashtun areas as a tribal army of occupation. The Afghan army is already disproportionately weighted with Tajiks, recapitulating the conflict between the Taliban and the Panjshiri Tajiks which simmered on during the years of Taliban rule. As an aside, if only we had listened to Ahmed Shah Massoud’s repeated warnings we might not now be in this situation; certainly 9/11 would have been prevented.

Even if it was actually possible to form an Afghan army which is demographically representative of the country, how many of the Pashtun soldiers could be relied on? Certain recent events and the timeless phrase “fifth column” spring to mind…

The factors roughly outlined above would seem to me to be self-evident. Although the terrain and the politics are very different, I am constantly reminded of the progress of the war in Vietnam. This is a more relevant touchstone for comparison than the superficially similar example of Iraq. In any case there is a situation of unstable equilibrium in Iraq which will not last, for reasons that are too complex to discuss here. Likewise the relationship between Pakistan’s internal chaos and the Afghan war.

I could add a lot more but these blogs are ultimately quite pointless. So I’ll just add one thing that is being completely overlooked about the reasons for incursion into Afghanistan, or at least for its continuation. At some point there’s going to be a requirement for a base from which to launch the campaign to disarm Pakistan. Afghanistan is handily situated.

BTW I have spent time in Afghanistan.


Posted by Roy | Report as abusive

Richard is that to imply there’s bias involved, (if so where?) or just that there’s a consensus on the issue.

Do you think news articles should be constructed to support certain nations despite their actions?

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

You have all the best toys in the orld but no idea how to use them. I am no old toothless war veteran and my military experience is limited to a 2year stint in the armoured core of a country not currently at war (officially). So I have never fired a riffle with the intent to kill. I do however know people and the Afghani people the civilians don’t get it. He just wants to raise his goats grow his beard and sit in the dust. Now her you come and tell him he must fight. They don’t react well to ambition it is completely foreign to them, for now he is experiencing utopia and doesn’t see the need to fight. They need to be reminded of what will happen when the Taliban returns. Yes win the hearts and minds of the people and you will isolate the enemy but the US and British has never in any war managed to do so, what makes Afghanistan any different. You are asking the wrong people how to win this war. Money wont solve this problem effective populace management just might. Lt the army handle security let the “man” handle the people…

Posted by jedri | Report as abusive

This will be my first and only post on this subject. The Achilles heel of this war is the lack of information the public is being given in regards to the positive effect coalition forces are having there. It is slow going, yes, but Afghanistan has been under attack by one force or another for decades. It is my true belief that if people feel secure, if they have food and shelter and think there is even a chance that their children may grow to have a better life than they have, they will choose peace. We are not there to secure our oil interests. We are not there to install a regime sympathetic to our interests. We are there to provide security to millions of oppressed women and children so that they can have real choices. I want girls to be able to walk to school without acid being thrown in their faces. I want boys to learn about world history and philosophy and a science that goes beyond how to build bombs. Security breeds stability breeds development. If the basic question of survival can be removed from the picture and the Afghans feel safe enough to move forward, THEY WILL. It is our moral responsibility to provide the security for them to choose their own destiny. That is why I’ve signed up to serve. That is why I will lay my life on the line. Please, to all of you whining about the tragic loss of life, or comparing the current mission to the Soviet Union’s invasion, get over yourself, read some history books, and try to understand that standing up to protect the rights of an entire gender is just as honourable, and important, as it was to stand up for an entire race during the Second World War. This is a defining moment in our history, and I for one will not shirk my responsibility to do my part so that 15 or 20 years down the line we can face the problem all over again. Do it once, do it right, do it for the right reasons. That’s the end of my rant. God bless our soldiers and the leaders making decisions in a political climate determined by uninformed, cowardly masses.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

While agreeing in part with Roy’s view that a temporary “unstable equilibrium” occurred parallel and somewhat unconnected to the surge in Iraq (albeit the threat of the surge arguably caused carrot and stick results), the fact that a modicum of stability lingers subsequently is noteworthy: Iraq is beginning to create institutional cultural memory operating as a marginal democracy. As such, its a lessons learned that is clearly being taken with modifications to the Af-Pak mission where McChrystal is attempting to create what he knows also will be a “unstable equilibrium” with the concomitant requirement of a surge to allow such a thing to be pursued. Consequently, and while the Pashtuns and Taliban will likely never be assimilated into a democratic paradigm, protecting communities from the warlords and insurgents, in the end, may be the best strategy. If that doesn’t work, the only solution I can fathom is to pull out of areas, let the rats slink back in, then bomb the hell out of them. Come in- we kill you- we leave- we wait. Come back if you like- it’ll be the same. Got it? Now how many goats do you want to tell us when they’re back.

Posted by RM | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see