Full story of SEAL mission in question

Report clears commanders

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter, like this one used for training, was shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan, killing all aboard. A special-operations officer questions the use of the craft for such "hot-LZ" purposes. (U.S. Navy photograph via Associated Press)A CH-47 Chinook helicopter, like this one used for training, was shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan, killing all aboard. A special-operations officer questions the use of the craft for such “hot-LZ” purposes. (U.S. Navy photograph via Associated Press)
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By the time the CH-47 transport helicopter descended to 150 feet above an unprotected landing zone in Afghanistan around 2 a.m. on Aug. 6, the element of surprise had been lost.

Hours earlier, two other Chinooks had deposited 47 Army Rangers at another nearby landing site, undetected. The landing triggered a nighttime ground and aerial firefight that raged for several hours as a few Taliban “squirters,” as the military called them, tried to escape from the targeted compound and regrouped with other fighters.

A bevy of surveillance and attack aircraft buzzed overhead, telling the Taliban in a collection of mud-brick homes in Tangi Valley that they were suddenly in the middle of Afghanistan’s 10-year-old war.

When the third chopper — carrying 38 passengers and crew, and one dog, in a reinforcement known as an “immediate reaction force” — approached, a small group of Taliban on a rooftop stood ready. They fired rounds of rocket-propelled grenades. One clipped a rotary blade, sending the CH-47 into a violent spin and then a fiery crash.

All onboard died, including 17 elite Navy SEALs.

Naval officers console each other at funeral services for Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Joseph Strange, who was among the 17 SEALs killed on Aug. 6. As friends and families mourned, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt and a team of specialists were conducting a full-blown investigation. (Associated Press)

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Naval officers console each other at funeral services for Petty Officer 1st ... more >

The loss of so many high-echelon special warriors drew criticism from some in the special-operations community. They said it was a needless waste of lives, a highly risky mission to round up or kill a relatively few enemy forces that the Rangers and air power could have subdued.

As funerals for the fallen sailors played out in small towns across America, ArmyBrig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt and a team of specialists had landed in Afghanistan for a full-blown investigation. He would determine the cause of the crash and whether commanders made the right call.

In his report summary, Gen. Colt, a helicopter pilot who had served in Army special-operations aviation, disagreed with the mission’s critics and cleared the commanders. He said the decision to load all the reaction force onto a single helicopter was “sound.” He said the “squirters” might have included the mission’s original “Objective Lefty Grove”— a Taliban leader named Qari Tahir.

His summary does not tell the whole story. U.S. Central Command released hundreds of pages of interviews and exhibits that showed there were at least two tactical moves that came in for second-guessing.

For months, the special-operation task force in Afghanistan that vets targets and shapes commando strikes had been under pressure to clear Wardak province. Eliminating Taliban leaders was seen as a way to improve security in nearby Kabul.

The first Ranger strike arrived in two Chinooks, escorted by two Apache AH-64s, whose night-vision scopes give pilots a way to monitor the landing area for any ambushing Taliban. The Rangers, on foot, converged around a compound thought to hold the Taliban chieftain. During the attack, four fighters escaped and started joining others whom the military calls “movers.”

One Apache killed six “squirters” with 60 30 mm rounds. That left two, with 11 movers, who congregated amid trees or in another compound.

At some point, the Rangers and special-operations commanders talked about sending in reinforcements to catch them all. A mission was set, at first with 17 troops, then a total of 38, including SEALs, other Navy personnel, Afghan commandos and the air crew.

“We really just kind of talked the idea of inserting the element to maneuver on them, the enemy that got away,” the Army Ranger task force commander later told Gen. Colt.

As the reinforcement Chinook approached, it — unlike the first two choppers — had no AH-64 Apaches for surveillance or fire suppression. The Apaches had stayed fixed on trying to shoot the squirters and movers.

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