The deaths of dozens of Americans in a single combat incident in Afghanistan was a brief shock to an America that has become inured to the occasional loss of warriors in a dusty place half a world away. With plenty of other pressing problems, the people have largely pushed aside the unpleasantness of a conflict shouldered by a decreasing number of brave souls. But it would be worthwhile to examine what happened, if for no other reason than to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
There are many conflicting reports of the events, and nothing will become totally clear until after an investigation. And even then, because of the nature of special operations, information will be spotty. Nevertheless, some things are known and generally accepted.
The area, just west of Kabul, has been swarmng with Taliban ever since American conventional units, unable to control the difficult terrain, vacated the district. The zone was the province of the 10th Mountain Division, trained specifically to operate in such an environment, but it is a conventional organization, ill-suited to the kind of war that is being fought against the Taliban.
A small Ranger unit was on the ground and on a mission to raid a building where Taliban were suspected to be meeting. It is not clear how large the Ranger unit was, but the implication is that it was quite small, perhaps as tiny as a squad of about a dozen. The size of a force is often a difficult choice: a larger unit---such as a platoon of 40---is better able to defend itself and complete the mission, but a small unit is less unwieldy and can more easily maintain the element of surprise. Nevertheless, a squad is a very small element, and it is difficult to conceive how a raiding party of that size can have both assault and security elements that are effective.
It seems that, before they had a chance to launch the assault, the Rangers got into a firefight with Taliban security near the objective, perceived that they couldn't handle the insurgents and called for assistance. In response, the SEALs were sent as a quick reaction force.
Now, a commander always plans for a reserve, and he also plans to reconstitute it with other troops, just in case the reserve gets committed. Launching the reserve is a very serious decision, taken in haste only when inaction would be a disaster and there is no other viable option, such as withdrawal or an airstrike.** I have been in plenty of long, intense firefights and, like others with the same experience, always thought that I could have used some help. But it isn't clear that the Rangers had sustained any casualties or were in sufficient trouble to justify sending assistance in the form of a scarce, first-tier group like an operational SEAL team.
There has been some criticism of the choice of aircraft, a Chinook, but it was likely that the helicopter was the MH-47G, a highly sophisticated, special operations version of a an aircraft with a 50-year lineage. Although in contrast with more modern helicopters it is large, lumbering and noisy, it carries a Gatling gun as armament and lots of sophisticated avionics. No, the problem was not the helicopter but the way it was used.
With troops in contact, landing a reaction force onto a hot objective is a bad idea, and history is replete with examples---large and small---that demonstrate how ill-advised such a method is. Whether the relief element lands directly onto the ground or uses the fast-rope technique from a hover, it is easy to destroy the helicopter with small arms and automatic weapons or even a rocket-propelled grenade, which is notoriously inaccurate---except at close range. Instead, the greatest chance of success lies in using a landing zone some distance from the objective, with the reaction force getting to the firefight by infiltration. Both special operations forces and conventional units practice this kind of tactic regularly and repeatedly, are very adept at it, and have proven in combat that it works.
Our special operators in combat areas---SEALs, Rangers and others---conduct many raids daily, and the results have been dramatically good. They have killed numerous Taliban operatives and recovered much information of intelligence value. These troops are valuable assets, and while no American life can possibly be worth more than any other, we have very few units like SEAL teams, and they must be husbanded.
Armed combat is like no other endeavor in the world, and it must always be conducted with as much professionalism as can be mustered. And special operations in particular are tricky and risky. The decisions to employ them are, too, and the officers who make these decisions must be the most skilled, mature and experienced we have. But as in all other vocations, practitioners of the profession of arms must never lose sight of the basic principles on which their work is based. Luck is a large component of success on the battlefield, but ignoring basic principles won't do much to improve our odds.
**ISAF has just announced that it has "dealt with" the Taliban insurgents responsible for destroying the helicopter and killing the SEALs...and the method was an airstrike.