The top NATO commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday that the doomed Navy SEALs mission that claimed 30 American lives was intended to stop fleeing Taliban fighters and not necessarily a rescue mission as first reported.
After the crash Saturday, news reports quoted NATO officials as saying commanders dispatched the CH-47 Chinook helicopter with 22 SEALs onboard to rescue an Army Ranger team pinned down by the Taliban.
The huge twin-engine CH-47 was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade as it approached a “hot” landing zone.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters via a teleconference from Kabul that the mission was to stop Taliban fighters from fleeing in the Wardak province’s Tangi Valley.
“As this mission unfolded, we saw some significant success occurring on the objective itself, but there were elements that were escaping,” Gen. Allen said.
“And in the course of their attempt to depart the objective, we committed a force to contain that element from getting out. And of course, in the process of that, the aircraft was struck by an RPG and crashed.”
Instead being pinned down, as NATO officials first said, the Ranger unit was winning the fight and wanted more troops to stop the enemy retreat.
The Washington Times has reported that some in the special operations community are privately critical of the mission. They wonder why so many SEALs were put in one helicopter instead of two. The sources also ask why the command dispatched a CH-47 instead of the special operations version, the MH-47, flown by the highly trained 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Asked why so many elite SEALs were dedicated to backing up a force not in imminent danger, Gen. Allen said, “All the decisions that are made are made based on the unfolding mission, and in fact that was the decision that was made at that particular moment. And so I’m comfortable that that was the right decision to be made at that time.”
Asked whether it was a mistake to dispatch the CH-47, the general said, “We’ve run more than a couple of thousand of these night operations over the last year, and this is the only occasion where this has occurred. So we routinely use this airplane. It is an important means for tactical ability. The fact that we lost this aircraft is not a decision point as to whether we’ll use this aircraft in the future. It’s not uncommon at all to use this aircraft on our special missions.”
The four-star officer added, “I won’t get into the details associated with how we assign units to its battlefield transportation and to tactical mobility. And in terms of the numbers that were on the objective, again, that’s an operational detail, which I’d rather not discuss with you here.”
Gen. Allen said the fleeing Taliban thought responsible for the fatal Chinook crash have since been killed by a strike from U.S. F-16 fighter jets.
“We tracked them, as we would in the aftermath of any operation, and we dealt with them with a kinetic strike,” he said. “In the aftermath of that, we have achieved certainty that they in fact were killed in that strike.”
He also said the Taliban leader who was the target of the original Ranger mission in the Tangi Valley remained at large.
In a separate statement afterward, the U.S. military said the Taliban guerrilla who fired the rocket-propelled grenade is among the dead. The statement cited ground-based intelligence but did not significantly elaborate.
The general said an investigation will begin shortly to determine exactly how the CH-47 crashed and how the mission was planned.
Also Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that it would formally release the names of the men killed Saturday in the crash, which was the worst loss of Navy SEALs in a single operation. Also killed were the chopper’s five-man Army crew, three other Americans in special operations, and eight Afghans, including an interpreter.
While some of the dead SEALs have been publicly identified by their families, it is not customary for the U.S. military to provide the names of people in covert units.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta decided to release the names in this case and is expected to do so soon.
The tragedy happened three months after elements of SEAL Team 6, the specialized counterterrorism squad, secretly penetrated Pakistani airspace in special twin-engine Black Hawk helicopters and killed Osama bin Laden.
Most of the SEALs killed Saturday belonged to that unit but were not part of the bin Laden raid.