A senior Pentagon official testified Thursday that commanders failed to achieve the element of surprise “that was planned and anticipated” on Aug. 6, 2011, when the Taliban shot down a transport helicopter in Afghanistan, killing 30 U.S. troops, including 17 members of the Navy’s SEAL Team Six.
But Garry Reid, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations, defended the doomed mission against charges from some families members that the men were put on the wrong type of helicopter and that the landing zone was not properly vetted.
Some next of kin also believe the SEALS, soldiers and combat support personnel on the CH-47 Chinook were betrayed by Afghan insiders. They wonder how the Taliban just happened to be on a tower less than 150 yards from the landing zone as the helicopter approached. The Taliban shot it down with a rocket-propelled grenade.
“We do not believe the mission was compromised,” Mr. Reid told the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security.
The panel held Congress’ first investigation into the worst one-day U.S. loss of life in the long Afghanistan war and the most naval special warfare personnel killed in a single mission.
The family’s suspicions are based not only on the Taliban’s positioning near the landing zone. So-called insider attacks, in which Afghan security personnel turn their guns on Western trainers, are a fairly common occurrence. In the 2008 Battle of Wanat, where nine U.S. soldiers were killed, an investigation revealed that members of Afghanistan’s security forces collaborated with scores of Taliban attacking the American outpost.
“We did not achieve, frankly, the element of surprise into the valley that was planned and anticipated,” said Mr. Reid, as some family members sat in the audience but did not testify.
That August night, members of SEAL Team Six, the secretive unit that killed Osama bin Laden, were assembled as a backup force to board the Chinook, call sign “Extortion 17.”
Their mission: Fly 15 minutes from a forward operating base into Tangi Valley, where Army Rangers were hunting a senior Taliban leader. As it turned out, the wanted man was not at the targeted compound and was killed later in a U.S. airstrike.
Mr. Reid portrayed the use of a conventional CH-47D, instead of the special operations MH-47 model with specially-trained pilots, as “tactically sound.” He said the MH’s terrain-following radar would not have helped and the military does not have a device to defeat RPGs.
Special operations observers have said the conventional Chinook is essentially a cargo aircraft and should not have been flown into a battle zone where Apache helicopters and an AC-130 gunship had been buzzing overhead for hours, alerting the Taliban throughout the valley.
Mr. Reid also defended the choice of the landing zone, which would have put the SEALs in an area away from the Rangers.
“Apaches scanned the LZ one minute prior, confirming no enemy presence on the LZ,” he said. “The enemy that fired at Extortion 17 remained undetected during those scans. We did not detect that enemy.”
The Washington Times ran an extensive report Oct. 21 on the Extortion 17 tragedy based on the military’s thick investigative file that had been turned over to family members.
Mr. Reid’s description of a well-run mission that night is disputed by some witnesses in command positions and on the scene. One told investigators the reaction force was “rushed” after the Ranger commander asked for help.