Dateline, The Taliban Strikes Back


As Dateline goes to air tonight, America is reeling from the shocking news of the chopper crash in Afghanistan. It follows a series of high-profile attacks by the Taliban of late including laying siege to an international hotel in Kabul, the assassination of major political figures and a string of roadside bombings. Despite this, we have recently heard positive spin from Washington and Canberra about the success of the Afghan campaign. So who is winning the war and what does the future hold for American and Australian forces? In a moment, two Australians with very different responses to that complex question. Between them they have decades of military experience. But first, this is how the United States heard the devastating news.

REPORTER: Mark Davis

DAVID MUIR, WORLD NEWS: This is a special edition of world news with David Muir - Helicopter down, tragedy in Afghanistan - Good evening, we begin tonight with that headline out of Afghanistan that stunned and saddened so many of us today when we heard it - what is now the single deadliest day for US forces in that war. A military Chinook helicopter was shot down in the dark of night killing 30 US troops and 8 Afghans, everyone on board.

ABC news was the first to report that among the dead, 22 Navy SEALs, later learning that most of them were from Team 6 - the elite of the elite - fellow members of their team were the ones who killed Osama bin Laden. Tonight our team from Washington to Afghanistan reporting in here and we begin with ABC's Martha Raddatz.

MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC NEWS: It happened last night near a Taliban stronghold in Wardak Province, US forces were engaged in a fire fight on the ground. The Chinook full of SEALs was on its way to help when it was shot down. Probably by a rocket-propelled grenade and an eyewitness describes the scene.

EYEWITNESS (Translation): We were outside our rooms on the veranda and we saw this helicopter flying very low and it was hit by a rocket and it was on fire. It started coming down and it crashed just yards away from our house close to the river.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Most of the 22 Seals were part of SEAL Team 6, that heroic unit that carried out the highly successful raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in May. But none of those who actually took part in the raid are believed to have been on this helicopter. President Obama, in the midst of an economic crisis, received the terrible word last night.

US Special Operations Teams carry out up to a dozen missions per day in Afghanistan - 3 to 4,000 last year alone. Since 9/11, there have been 32 SEALs killed but 22 in one day is devastating. There are just 300 men in SEAL Team 6, so in this one incident, more than 7% of the highly trained, highly valuable SEAL Team 6 has perished.

It's a terrible loss, a terrible human tragedy but it is also a significant strategic loss as well. It takes a generation to grow a special operations warrior.

MARTHA RADDATZ: A loss for the nation and a loss for a tiny and close community that one officer said has done more for this nation than we will ever know.

DAVID MUIR: And I'm joined by Martha Raddatz in Washington, so much lost today Martha, and we know that these SEALs operate in such secrecy and understandably so. How does the Pentagon go about notifying the families and in doing so, protecting the privacy even now?

MARTHA RADDATZ: Well I'm sure they had notification teams out all night - I have been thinking a lot about that David, 22 Notification teams in just that small SEAL community - Eight more elsewhere in the nation, that is just so many and what makes this even more tragic is that it follows on the heels of that Bin Laden raid where those SEAL families, the SEALs themselves, and the entire country felt such pride but tonight as you know are feeling such pain.

DAVID MUIR: Martha Raddatz in Washington, Martha thank you. ABC's Mike Boettcher has embedded with US troops so many times in Afghanistan for us and he is there on the ground tonight with reaction there, Mike?

MIKE BOETTCHER: David. I'm speaking to you from the troubled Kunar Province in North East Afghanistan, soldiers of the 25th infantry division taskforce are based here and they often go out on these night operations so the news of this crash has hit them hard. Every time they go out they know they have death tugging at their sleeve. The Taliban have become more adept at using rocket-propelled grenades that shoot at these Chinooks. My son Carlos and I have been out on several of these missions - they are very difficult, you are flying over mountains and there are concealed locations where the Taliban can shoot at you and when you land, you are surrounded by the Taliban and there is usually a big fight. But they keep on going even though the troop withdrawal process has begun in this area as well.

DAVID MUIR: Mike Boettcher in Afghanistan, Mike thanks. I want to bring in Christiane Amanpour, the anchor of ABC's 'This Week'. Christiane, as we heard Martha report there at the top of that phone call that the President received last night on this, you have learned those briefings continued today and the President has issued a statement.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, ABC, 'THIS WEEK': That's right, the White House said the President was briefed several times and then he did issued a statement and of course he said that he and all Americans mourn the loss of these American service members. He sent out his sympathies to the families of those who were killed and to their loved ones and he talked about how it reminds everyone of the sacrifice these people are making for Afghanistan and for a free and more peaceful Afghanistan and he included in his remarks remembrance of the Afghans who also died alongside the Americans in that terrible attack.

DAVID MUIR: And Christiane, in the bigger picture here, what does this mean for the state of play in Afghanistan?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: There have been attempts to paint hopeful and positive messages about what's happening in Afghanistan and you know the President is withdrawing some of the surge forces. We have seen that evidence on the ground is very worrying. Over the last several weeks, a spate of assassinations of pro American Afghan officials working in Kandahar and now we see these attacks on helicopters and this, the single deadliest in that more than ten-year war now, so there are deep concerns about what's happening there right now.

MARK DAVIS: Christiane Amanpour for ABC News America. So, will this current Taliban surge ultimately chase out American and Australian forces from an increasingly bloody battlefield? Joining me now from Canberra is Major-General Jim Molan, who retired as one of Australia's most distinguished commanders three years ago. He worked closely with US General David Petraeus during one of the most critical stages of the war in Iraq.

I am also joined by Craig Coleman, Craig spent over two decades in the Australian Army as a bomb disposal and mine clearance expert. For the past seven years he has run a project management business in Afghanistan overseeing development projects in the most dangerous corners of the country. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Jim Molan, we will start with you, this is America's single heaviest loss in the war, could it have come at a worse time?

JIM MOLAN, RETIRED MAJOR GENERAL: It is a very sensitive time for the US, not just in relation to the war but the US confidence and ego I think has been struck from many different directions. This is a war which I think has been grossly mismanaged and under-resourced from day one. It is a two or three year war that has been mismanaged out to 10 years. But in the last two years or so, Mark, I think that we have finally put in something that approximates enough troops to start to establish some basic level of security. That's been from a very low base remarkably successful. I think that there's a fair probability that by 2014, only a fair probability, that by 2014, we can hand over to the Afghans with some vague chance that they can be successful.

MARK DAVIS: That's a fairly optimistic assessment Jim, do you think that is in tune with the political mood now and have today's events helped that political mood?

JIM MOLAN: No, I don't think today's events should have any impact at all outside the media. We have heard words such as that the nation is reeling. The US military does not reel over something like this. This is a tragedy and it is something we must mourn. Only a couple of months ago, Australia lost a Chinook, one of our pilots travelling as a passenger was killed. A year or so ago we have a Black Hawk crash and a number of our special forces were killed and a number were very badly injured. When I was in Iraq, we lost a Marine helicopter with 28 on board, all of whom were killed. This is not a game changer - I think the helicopter is significantly different from all the other things that Christiane mentioned before.

MARK DAVIS: Okay Craig, is this a single tragic event or part of a broader swing in this war?

CRAIG COLEMAN, PROJECT AND DEVELOPMENT MANAGEMENT, AFGHANISTAN: I think it is part of a broader swing and if we leave Afghanistan now, it will fail and I think that if we stay on the same strategy that we have got now and leave in three years' time it will still fail. I think the difference is going to be the amount that it costs in the next three years and the amount of lives that are lost.

MARK DAVIS: You have been living there for many years, you probably went there in the optimistic period in the early 2000s. What has the mood been like in Afghanistan in the last year?

CRAIG COLEMAN: You are right, when I first went to Afghanistan in 2004 and for the first few years I was optimistic about Afghanistan but in the last 18 months that optimism has completely gone. The mood there now is, and I speak from a number of different perspectives here, for the Afghan people, they are not confident that it is going to be successful. Much of the international civilian community are also not confident that it is going to be successful and many companies have started to leave Afghanistan.

MARK DAVIS: It seems there is a rush towards the exit at the moment. You are in Brisbane right now, are you heading back?

CRAIG COLEMAN: I don't have any plans at the moment to head back to Afghanistan. I'm shutting my company down. I don't think security is getting any better at all and I think corruption is out of control and the opportunities for running a business there are also dwindling.

MARK DAVIS: Well Jim, that is a fairly grim assessment, not necessarily a military assessment but nonetheless an intriguing one.

JIM MOLAN: Yes it is and I respect Craig's view on that having lived there for such a long period of time. A very good friend of mine is just going across from Australia to work with the Marines to run projects in Kandahar. It is certainly the case that throughout this year, if this was always going to be a tough year, I don't think President Obama has helped much by speeding up the withdrawal. This was always going to be a tough year. It may mean that that's the great indicator that we will not win or that the Afghans will not win this Afghan war but it may also mean that this is a tough phase and if we keep working as hard as we have been working and achieve similar effects and objectives as we have achieved, over the last year or so, we can set the Afghans up for success. It is very hard to be definite - Craig can't say we will definitely lose - I can't say we will definitely win.

MARK DAVIS: But I think Craig is saying we are definitely losing, Craig?

CRAIG COLEMAN: I don't want it to lose, I would like to be more optimistic than what I am but I simply can't see it and I am supported in my comments by a number of organisations including the International Crisis Group, who released a report this week that said that no amount of support to the Afghan National Security Forces will be sufficient for them to stabilise their country by 2014 and if they don't do that, they have very little hope of doing anything positive after 2014 when the majority of the assistance forces leave.

MARK DAVIS: Well if you were making a personal or business decision would you extend your decision drawing on your military experience, would you extend that decision to Australian forces or American forces should we be pulling out?

CRAIG COLEMAN: Well I don't know everything about the military forces that are there but I think the strategic focus on Afghanistan has been too much on the military and not enough on the other things that could lead to failure. The military component is a task and it shouldn't be the entire strategy. There are a number of other reasons why Afghanistan could possibly fail and that includes poverty and unemployment, corruption and ineffective Government, outside influence of neighbouring countries and of course the Taliban themselves.

MARK DAVIS: Jim, we had the chance of winning this war, it seems that we did a decade ago. Did we drop the ball when we went to your war, when we went to Iraq? Did we drop the ball and loose the focus on Afghanistan when it was needed the most?

JIM MOLAN: There was certainly that being an aspect of it, Mark. Whether we have still put the troops in when the troops became available later on, there was still a great reluctance to put the troops in. What has characterised both wars by governments around the world has been a fairly shallow commitment to these wars and a reluctance to resource them well enough. Craig and I will always agree that the military alone will never win these wars - I have never heard anyone actually claim that they would.

MARK DAVIS: How long can we go on with this, this has been a decade, who would have guessed a decade?

JIM MOLAN: We have already agreed to come home, though Mark - everyone has agreed that we are out of Afghanistan by 2014. What is important now is how we leave. I believe that President Obama has increased the risk of failure significantly from the way that he has directed that the troops leave. I could accept that if there was a good reason for having one-third of the American troops out by September of next year, except the only reason that I can see, the only reason I can find is a political reason. We should stay there and do this right by 2014. If we haven't got the success we need, and our success is setting the Afghans up for success, if we haven't got success by that stage then maybe we should leave then. But at this stage there are great consequence for leaving and we still have a chance of being successful.

MARK DAVIS: Does the Afghan Government - I will ask both of you this - deserve our support. All we hear is a constant litany of criticism of them, of corruption, of internal leaks to the Taliban, that they are part of the problem. Do they deserve our help?

JIM MOLAN: We are there for a lot of reasons. I have never seen us there to support the Karzai Afghan Government, we are there for a dozen other reasons. Hopefully in 2014, Karzai will go. It doesn't mean it will get better but this is pretty normal.

MARK DAVIS: Craig? Are we propping up a Government that doesn't deserve to be popped up?

CRAIG COLEMAN: We need to make some tough decisions on the government of Afghanistan and there needs to be a lot of tough statements sent directly to that Government. At the moment people are happy to accept, and I use our Prime Minister as an example, who came back from a trip to Afghanistan last year and she was given an assurance by President Karzai that he was doing everything to make sure the corruption problem was being fixed. That's not enough. It's taxpayers' money and Australian lives being taken in Afghanistan and I think there needs to be better measurement of the way that we are doing business in Afghanistan. It means that there has to be tough things said to the Afghan Government in regard to corruption in particular. If they aren't meeting our standards, then we should be telling them that they are not meeting our standards, instead of going easy on them.

MARK DAVIS: If the Taliban win, though, what sort of country are we looking at in Afghanistan if their victory is inevitable, as you are suggesting.

CRAIG COLEMAN: The problem of course is that the Taliban are not known for their great political prowess. They are a religious organisation based on Sunni Islam. I am not sure that the Hazara members in Afghanistan would be happy with the Taliban coming back and the Hazara ethnic group makes up 9% of the population. Of course the Hazara are Shi'ites and they don't have a place in the Taliban understanding of religion. I don't think the Taliban coming back in for any reason is going to work in Afghanistan.

MARK DAVIS: I'm sure there are plenty of people who would not support them in Afghanistan. But in a broader sense perhaps Jim Molan, can we afford to lose? What is the implication beyond Afghanistan, what is the implication for the region and for the world?

JIM MOLAN: The best thing we can do for what is the real problem for that part of the world - Pakistan, the best thing that we can do for Pakistan is to be successful in Afghanistan. Even that may not impact Pakistan but for us to withdraw precipitately now, not only has extraordinary implications opening up Afghanistan to a truly evil group of people, but it flows across and does not help Pakistan one little bit.

MARK DAVIS: Thank you for joining us.












7th August 2011