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.
The navigator onboard an AC-130 helicopter gunship talked about all the aircraft noise.
“Having that element of surprise in the beginning of an operation is good, but by the time we’ve been there for three hours, and the party’s up, bringing in another aircraft like that, you know, may not be the most tactically-sound decision,” the officer told investigators.
Other officers told investigators they did not know of any other time in Afghanistan when a backup force was sent in to help a unit catch fleeing Taliban fighters. Normally, if such a force is assembled, it goes in and waits at the landing site, they said.
The command had no information on activity near the landing zone.
“But the immediacy of it, we didn’t delve as much as we needed to into the threat at that location,” an officer told investigators.
While Mr. Reid called the use of a conventional helicopter “tactically sound,” a special operations officer criticized the employment of such aircraft.
“[My] comfort level is low because they don’t fly like ARSOA [Army Army Special Operations Aviation],” he said, according to the investigative file. “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.”
“It’s tough,” the officer said. “I mean, and I gave them guidance to make it work. And they were making it work. But it limited our effectiveness. It made our options and our tactical flexibility — our agility was clearly limited by our air platform infil — where we could go. How quickly we could get there.”
Mr. Reid said rules of engagement did not affect the mission. But an Apache pilot told investigators he spotted the source of the RPG after the crash, but could not fire on the building due to rules of engagement.