Questions haunt the families of Extortion 17, the 2011 helicopter mission in Afghanistan that suffered the most U.S. military deaths in a single day in the war on terrorism.
The investigative file made available to The Washington Times shows that the helicopter’s landing zone was not properly vetted for threats nor protected by gunships, while commanders criticized the mission as too rushed and the conventional Chinook chopper as ill-suited for a dangerous troop infiltration.
Every day, Charlie Strange, the father of one of the 30 Americans who died Aug. 6, 2011, in the flash of a rocket-propelled grenade, asks himself whether his son, Michael, was set up by someone inside the Afghan government wanting revenge on Osama bin Laden’s killers — SEAL Team 6.
“Somebody was leaking to the Taliban,” said Mr. Strange, whose son intercepted communications as a Navy cryptologist. “They knew. Somebody tipped them off. There were guys in a tower. Guys on the bush line. They were sitting there, waiting. And they sent our guys right into the middle.”
Doug Hamburger’s son, Patrick, an Army staff sergeant, also perished when the CH-47D Chinook descended to a spot less than 150 yards from where armed Taliban fighters watched from a turret.
He asks why the command sent his son into Tangi Valley toward a “hot landing zone” in a cargo airship instead of a special operations helicopter. The souped-up choppers — the MH-47 and the MH-60 Black Hawk, which SEAL Team 6 rode the stealth version of to kill bin Laden — are flown by Night Stalker pilots skilled in fast, ground-hugging maneuvers to avoid detection.
“When you want to fly them into a valley, when you’ve got hillsides on both sides of it with houses built into sides of the valley, that is an extremely dangerous mission,” Mr. Hamburger said. “The MH, the new model, they’ve got radar that will pick up an incoming missile or incoming RPG. They’re faster. They’re quicker on attack. They’re more agile. So there was every reason in the world to use the MH that night.”
Sith Douangdara, whose 26-year-old son, John, was a Navy expeditionary specialist who handled warrior dog Bart, said he has lots of unanswered questions.
“I want to know why so many U.S. servicemen, especially SEALs, were assembled on one aircraft,” he said. “I want to know why the black box of the helicopter has not been found. I want to know many things.”
Not all families believe the fact-finding investigation, conducted by Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt covered all issues. Gen. Colt, who has since been promoted to major general, told commanders that his job was not to find fault and his report did not criticize any person or decision.
“I want people held accountable,” said Mr. Strange, a former union construction worker who deals blackjack in a Philadelphia casino.
A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which overseas the war and conducted the probe, declined to answer the families’ questions and referred a reporter to Gen. Colt’s report.
Congress gets involved
More than two years later, more answers may be forthcoming.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, is making inquiries after meeting with some families.
Larry Klayman, who runs the nonprofit watchdog group Freedom Watch, has filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Pentagon, as well as the Air Force, Army and Navy. He wants a judge to order the military to turn over an array of documents under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. He said the Defense Department stonewalled his written requests, so Freedom Watch went to court last month and succeeded in forcing the government to turn over records.
For the first time, Mr. Klayman allowed The Washington Times to view the military’s investigative files turned over to family members two years ago.
“The families of our fallen heroes, who I am proud to represent, need closure to this tragedy,” Mr. Klayman said. “There are many unanswered questions and the military’s explanations of the causes of the crash do not add up.”
He said families also want changes to the military’s restrictive rules of engagement that made it more difficult for U.S. helicopter pilots to fire back at the Taliban fighters they believed brought down the Chinook.
“The families also want our military’s rules of engagement to be changed, as a testament to and in honor of their dead sons,” Mr. Klayman said. “When our nation enters into battle, it must be to win the battle, not the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Islamic jihadist enemy and the Muslim civilian population it uses as human shields.”
He also wants to know the identities of Afghan soldiers onboard, and why the aircraft’s black box, washed away in a fierce rainstorm, was never found — even though it has a homing device.
“We want to make sure our fallen heroes are respected and that answers are provided,” he said.
About an possible insider betrayal, he says: “We’re not saying that happened, but it needs to be explored because increasingly Americans are being killed at the hands of Afghans.”
Even some military personnel involved that night questioned the operations afterward.
The navigator aboard the AC-130 gunship that loitered for three hours over Tangi Valley expressed in 2011 what the families are thinking today.
“One of the other things that we did talk about — kind of what you’re hitting on, sir, is about the fact that, you know, for three hours we had been burning holes in the sky,” the officer told Gen. Colt’s team. “You’ve got [Apaches] flying around, so there’s a lot of noise going on and, basically, this entire valley knows that there’s something happening in this area. So, to do an infil on the X or Y, you know, 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.”
After Gen. Colt’s report became public in September 2011, the military arranged for him to brief next of kin Oct. 12 in Little Creek, Va., home to Naval Special Warfare Development Group, popularly called SEAL Team 6. The crash took the lives of 17 SEALs and five special warfare development group operators, making it the worst one-day loss in the history of U.S. naval special operations.
The chopper’s manifest included five Army soldiers, three Air Force airmen, seven Afghan soldiers and one Afghan interpreter. All 38 died. Twenty-two of them, such as Petty Officer Strange, were thrown from the aircraft. The rest died inside the fireball.
The military morgue at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware reported that all succumbed within seconds. Gen. Colt said they were “most likely rapid fatalities.”
President Obama went to Dover to receive the fallen and console the families.
“‘Your son changed America,’” Mr. Strange said the president told him. “I grabbed the president by the shoulders and said, ‘I don’t need to know about my son. I need to know what happened.’”
The nation mourned as 30 funerals were held across the country, many in small-town America.
The public was transfixed by the service in Rockford, Iowa, for Petty Officer 1st Class Jon Tumilson, a SEAL. His beloved Labrador, Hawkeye, stayed loyal to the end, lying at the casket as more than 50 SEALs sat in attendance.
The military probe
Gen. Colt had the right experience to lead the probe: He is a decorated Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and career helicopter pilot, including time in the storied 160th Special Operations Regiment. He is now deputy commander of Fort Bragg, N.C.
For the families on Oct. 12, he went over his main conclusions, then his staff handed out DVDs.
But the questions the next of kin have today did not materialize until they began poring over 1,300 pages of maps, charts, briefings and interview transcripts of task force commanders and planners connected to the incident.
The tragedy unfolded at 10:55 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2011, when 47 Army Rangers set down in two CH-47 Chinooks in high ground overlooking Afghanistan’s Tangi Valley. The mission was part of an intensified campaign to kill or capture Taliban leaders, a drive that put tremendous demands on the helicopter fleet and left newer special “ops” models in short supply.
That night, the quarry was Qari Tahir, identified as the top leader in that critical area south of Kabul where the enemy moved in and out of Pakistan.
The Rangers raided a house thought to hold Tahir. The fleeing enemy — the military calls them “squirters” — escaped through a back door. The Rangers’ leader then made a pivotal decision: He asked the special operations task force to send an immediate reaction force to help catch the squirters, though whether any of them was Tahir was not known. It turned out he was in another village.
Commanders assembled the reaction force in 50 minutes and loaded them on one conventional CH-47, call sign Extortion 17, for the brief flight piloted by a seasoned National Guardsman and a younger reservist.
At that point, it was a far more risky flight than the insertion of Rangers 3 hours earlier. The Rangers had the benefit of surprise. Extortion 17 did not. It was flying into a firefight, with the noise of Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships and drones above telling everyone in the valley that a military operation was underway.
It lifted off a forward operating base at 2:22 a.m., held for several minutes at one point, then announced it was one minute out at 2:38. At that moment, Extortion 17 slowed to 58 mph, at no more than 150 feet, approaching a spot framed by trees and mud-brick huts, and “sparkled” by the infrared designator on an AC-130 gunship.
In darkness, the Taliban fired two or three rocket-propelled grenades, a Soviet-designed OG-7 anti-personnel version that is accurate inside 170 yards. The shooter had positioned himself well within the weapon’s effective range.
One of the rocket-propelled grenades clipped a rotor blade and sent the Chinook into a violent spin, then fiery crash. Within 30 minutes, bragging about the hit from Taliban fighters started appearing on communications nets.
The command press office in Kabul at first told reporters that Extortion 17 was on a rescue mission. But the Rangers did not need rescuing. They had secured the target compound and were chasing squirters.
“A reactionary force is usually sent in as a rescue, meaning our guys are in trouble and you send them in,” Mr. Hamburger said. “You don’t send a reaction force to stop a group of the enemy escaping out the back side of the village, especially in a dangerous valley in a dangerous entry like they were doing.”
The Colt report supports Mr. Hamburger’s position. The special operations command in Afghanistan rarely assembled a reaction force, much less the elite SEAL Team 6, for the chore of chasing fleeing Taliban fighters.
A Colt investigator asked the task force operations officer, “How often do [you] employ the [immediate reaction force] on a target?”
“Rarely sir,” he answered. “It is rare to have a separate IRF element that is planned like this one.”
Likewise, an officer in the combat aviation brigade that provided Extortion 17 said he knew of no previous mission to send a reaction force to catch squirters.
“It has not happened sir,” he told Gen. Colt.
This officer said Extortion 17 already had taken off before he had a chance to tell the brigade’s top officer. There was little intelligence information about the landing area, except that it was 2.5 miles from the compound raided by the Rangers.
“I think he [the commander] called directly to try to get more information,” the officer told Gen. Colt.
The officer then acknowledged that the brigade never fully assessed the possible dangers that could await Extortion 17.
“But the immediacy of it, we didn’t delve as much as we needed to into the threat at that location,” he said.
Some family members believe the Americans were betrayed by the Afghan government, that someone tipped off the Taliban.
One reason they cite is that the Taliban had begun planting loyalists inside the international security force to kill Americans, a practice known as “green on blue” assassinations.
They say SEAL Team 6 had a target on its back since it became known through various Obama administration leaks to the press that the unit killed bin Laden three months earlier.
Commanders told Gen. Colt’s investigation team that the Taliban put 100 fighters into Tangi Valley for the express purpose of bringing down U.S. aircraft. A flight with 17 SEALs would be a coveted target.
Then there is the fact that a group of Taliban fighters, equipped with hand-held radios, shifted positions and gathered near Extortion 17’s landing zone — a spot never before used by the Americans.
Two Taliban fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades just happened to be stationed in a high turret less than 150 yards from Chinook’s “hot landing zone,” or (HLZ).
One paragraph in the Colt report grabbed the families’ attention. In it, crash investigators were interviewing the top leadership of the joint special operations task force that put together the mission. One of them was asked about a manifest.
“Yes, sir,” a commander answered. “And I’m sure you know by now the manifest was accurate with the exception of the [redacted] personnel that were on. So the [redacted] personnel, they were incorrect — all seven names were incorrect. And I cannot talk to the back story of why.”
The “seven,” family members say, refers to the Afghan soldiers. The open Colt report makes no reference about why the manifest was inaccurate. Military censors redacted any reference to the Afghans. Some families believe the task force at the last moment was forced to remove seven Afghans whose names remained on the manifest and replace them with seven others.
Senior Afghans had been aware of the mission because each operation must be approved by a joint operational coordination group made up of Americans and Afghan national security forces.
A Central Command spokesman declined to discuss the issue.
“My thought is they were being set up by the Afghanistan military,” Mr. Hamburger said. “I really have a feeling that is why the Afghans were switched at the last minute. That is why they were not on the manifest. I think that our military discovered that and did not want to disclose that truth to the families. I don’t know that for sure, but you just add everything up that wasn’t right with the mission that night, it really worries you.”
Gen. Colt wrote that he believes the Taliban stood ready to fire for one simple reason: The 3-hour Ranger operation, with aircraft continually buzzing overhead, alerted every enemy in the area that more helicopters might be on the way.
“The [Apache helicopters’] early arrival at both HLZ [redacted] coupled with earlier kinetic engagements of enemy elements, likely provided early warning to Taliban fighters that additional helicopters may be inboard to the area,” he wrote.
The wrong aircraft
Family members also believe the SEALs took off in the wrong aircraft.
The CH-47D, a conventional helicopter flown by a non-special operations pilot and co-pilot, is fine for ferrying cargo and troops to uncontested areas.
But to insert commandos into a “hot” zone, specialized choppers such as the MH-47 and MH-60 flown by special operations pilots should have been used, family members say. Army Special Operations Aviation aircraft fly fast and low, while the CH-47D descends to a landing zone from a significant height, making it an easy target.
A special operations commander told Gen. Colt that, of the CH-47D, 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 officer said conventional choppers make commandos less effective.
“It’s tough,” he told Gen. Colt. “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.”
Unlike the MH models, the CH-47D was not equipped with any defensive alert system against rocket-propelled grenades.
Gen. Colt’s own final report shows that MHs have a better track record, at least in the 45 days before the shoot-down.
On June 6, two CH-47s inserting troops into Tangi Valley aborted the mission after encountering fire from rocket-propelled grenades. Later that night, an ARSOA MH-47G encountered the fire while inserting troops to the same landing zone and reported no damage.
It is notable that the command sent the combat rescue, and ordnance disposal teams, to the crash site in MH-47s, not CHs, and that the 47 Rangers left the Tangi Valley in special operations choppers.
Mr. Hamburger said he was told that no MH models were available when Extortion 17 was tapped for its doomed flight.
The Colt report states that surveillance aircraft, likely a Predator drone, stayed fixed on the squirters and did not shift to 17’s landing spot to look for the enemy.
But Mr. Hamburger said a soldier told him he watched a Predator video feed of the shoot-down at a nearby base. If true, the father wants Central Command to turn over the video.
Mr. Hamburger cites as another motive for his push to obtain more information the rules of engagement for U.S. troops. He wants them changed.
Gunship crews cannot fire on fleeing Afghans before confirming they are carrying weapons, even though they obviously are Taliban fighters.
Such rules inhibited the Apaches and the C-130 gunship that night. The special operations commander in Kabul wanted to authorize a strike on the squirters, “but was unable to determine whether the group was armed,” the Colt report says. The commander then ordered the ill-fated SEAL mission to help the Rangers round up every one. More aggressive rules of engagement might have removed any need for the mission.
Moments after the shoot-down, an Apache pilot pinpointed the source of the rocket-propelled grenade, but could not fire.
“Due to [rules of engagement] and tactical directives, I couldn’t fire at the building where I thought the [shooter] was, so I aimed directly to the west of the building,” the pilot told Gen. Colt.
Mr. Hamburger also said the mission did not follow protocol. The flight included no “stacked” escort of Apaches and a C-130 gunship that would put more eyes on the landing zone to look for shooters. The command relied on the gunships that had been sent with the Ranger team, but they had two tasks and paid more attention to the first — watching the squirters.
There appears to be a discrepancy between Gen. Colt’s public 27-page report and what Apache pilots told him during his probe.
The AH-64 Apaches serve as the Chinooks’ bodyguards during a typical troop insertion, escorting them to the landing zone and then targeting enemy on the ground.
But Extortion 17 had no Apache escorts.
Gen. Colt’s report said that special operations commander at headquarters did not order the Rangers’ two Apaches, equipped with night-vision goggles and night-gun sights, to move to Extortion 17’s landing zone. A Ranger commander on the ground took it on himself to issue that order, he wrote.
But the interview transcripts show a more complete story, one that troubles the families who believe Gen. Colt left the wrong impression.
During his investigation, Gen. Colt himself told the special operations commander: “I’m just going to give you the feedback. The [Apache] 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 [hot landing zone] and the [infiltration] route, it was a secondary task to them.”
The pilot of one of two Apaches, called Gun 1 and Gun 2, assigned to protect the Rangers told Gen. Colt they never broke off to inspect the landing zone for threats as Extortion 17 got closer — until it was just three minutes out.
“Honestly, sir, I don’t think anybody had really looked at the LZ,” said the pilot of Gun 1. “I mean, at any time if we would have found these squirters, or they would have found weapons, we were — the way I was understanding it, we were going to be clear to engage due to the fact that they had weapons, but we had to [positively identify] them first.
“So we hadn’t started looking at the LZ yet, just due to there was so much more of a threat to the east with the squirters,” the pilot said. “I would say that on the three-minute call is when Gun 2 started. looking at the LZ, giving an LZ brief op. I would say that was the first time that we really had eyes on the LZ.”
Planning for an immediate reaction force is supposed to be in conjunction with the main mission. It was not. Planning began at shortly after 1 a.m. and lasted less than an hour.
The AC-130 commander said no one properly coordinated who would watch the squirters on the valley’s east side and who would move west to watch Extortion 17’s back.
“That coordination probably could have gone better, could have been better and, I think, I’m not sure, it just appeared to us the whole plan for getting into this area was rushed, I guess,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s the case, but that’s kind of one thing that I thought might have been done a little bit better.”
The gunship’s sensor operator said, “It just didn’t feel comfortable to us to bring another helo in, especially not having a ground team down there securing an LZ for them.”
In the families’ eyes, the mission was snakebit from the start: using sing the wrong aircraft; flying into an uninspected and unwatched landing zone infested with Taliban fighters assembling a plan and a reaction team in minutes for an action that should have been conducted hours earlier.
The Times asked a special operations officer for his opinion. He is on active duty and cannot speak on the record.
“In this case, the CH-47 was used in a completely inappropriate manner given its design and the result was the deaths of everyone aboard,” the officer said.
“Tier 1 personnel must be employed with careful planning,” he added. “The cost and time to train them means that using them in such a haphazard manner as a reaction force in this context places critical personnel at too great a risk, especially in this concentration on such a noncritical mission.”
SEAL Team 6 and Army Delta Force are considered Tier 1 personnel as the armed forces’ most elite counterterrorism units.
Asked how a Taliban at night could hit the 98-foot-long Chinook, he said, “I never questioned how he could aim. There’s is no such thing as ‘pitch black’ and the CH-47 airframe is a loud, enormous target.”
Gen. Colt’s legal adviser began one interview session with ground troops by saying, “Obviously, we got a general officer appointed duty investigation by CENTCOM to make sure we have all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed and our report is going to be as accurate and complete and unlikely to be second-guessed by a bunch of folks outside the military.”
A month after the worst day in the war, the U.S. gained revenge of a sort. The NATO command in Kabul announced that it had killed Tahir with a precise airstrike as he stood outside with a fellow terrorist.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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