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.
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, Army Brig. 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.
Gen. Colt told the Ranger commander: "I'm just going to give you the feedback. The AH guys, they really thought that their primary task was continuing to monitor these guys. … That's where their focus was. And as far as the amount of attention that they paid to the [helicopter landing zone] and the [infiltration] route, it was a secondary task to them."
The Ranger task force operations chief answered: "It might have just been their gut instinct … but I don't think they were directed to do that."
As the SEALs approached the landing site, Taliban in the tower of a two-story compound about 200 yards away fired rocket-propelled grenades. One hit the rotary blade.
Gen. Colt's executive summary does not explicitly say the Apaches were misused.
"The investigation disclosed that the special-operations task force commander did not reallocate the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft to ensure surveillance coverage for the ongoing [Ranger-led assault force] and the inbound immediate reaction force (IRF) mission," he wrote.
Gen. Colt also said that flights over the battle space for more than three hours put the Taliban on alert.
"The shootdown was not the result of a baited ambush, but rather the result of the enemy being at a heightened state of alert due to 3½ hours of ongoing coalition air operations concentrated over the northwestern portion of the Tangi Valley," the general wrote. He suggested that commanders change tactics.
Another issue raised by the mission's critics is why the task force was using conventional Chinooks and crews instead of special-operations Chinooks, with which commandos typically train.
The Ranger officer told Gen. Colt that he preferred to travel with Army Special Operations Aviation (ARSOA), which includes the MH-47, a specially configured Chinook.
He said his "comfort level is low because they don't fly like ARSOA. They don't plan like ARSOA. They don't land like ARSOA. They will either, you know, kind of, do a runway landing. Or if it's a different crew that trains different areas, they will do the pinnacle landing."
The investigation discovered that ARSOA helicopters were pulled out of the area last year and moved to the south. "I still don't really understand the reasons behind that," an investigator said.
Gen. Colt concluded that the mission's Air National Guard crew was fully qualified.
After reading Gen. Colt's executive summary, a longtime special-operations officer still questioned the need for the mission.
The source said immediate-reaction forces are typically used if things are going very badly. In this case, the Rangers were not in danger of being defeated, had secured the objective compound and taken detainees, as the Apaches hunted the remaining Taliban.
"The report does not address the ongoing use of the CH-47 that was never meant for hot-LZs and the combat roles we have used it in for the last decade," the officer said. "It does not address why a CH-47 was used in lieu of a MH-47. It might have had the same outcome, but the MH-47s are somewhat better.
"The report was what I expected. Likely a well-meaning analysis based on misunderstanding, the use of SOF as well as wanting to protect the families from thinking their men died stupidly. I still think they died stupidly and never should have been used in this capacity."
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