The 2011 downing of a helicopter in Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of 30 American troops—including 17 Navy SEALs, a number of whom were members of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden—was not compromised but did suffer from faulty planning, a defense official said on Thursday.
Some of the families of the fallen said they appreciated the controversial hearing where the official testified. However, they said the testimony left them unsatisfied and vowed to press for more answers.
The contested mission known as Extortion 17 involved a CH-47D Chinook helicopter shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fired by the Taliban on Aug. 6, 2011. The attack occurred in Afghanistan’s Tangi Valley, a critical area south of Kabul where the enemy transited from Pakistan.
All 38 members of the crew—including 17 SEALs, five Army soldiers, three Air Force airmen, and seven Afghan soldiers—were killed in the single deadliest day for the U.S. military in the war on terrorism.
Family members of the fallen troops have raised several questions about the nature of the mission, including whether the Taliban was tipped off to the "hot landing zone" of the Chinook by the Afghan soldiers involved. The attack occurred three months after the disclosure that SEAL Team Six carried out the raid on bin Laden’s compound.
Garry Reid, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, said in a testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that the mission was not "compromised."
"There was no external coordination," he said. "There is no possibility of information going up the chain and somehow going back to the Taliban."
"[The Taliban fighter] was in a very advantageous place tactically to strike the aircraft as it approached," he added.
Reid said there was no coordination with Afghan officials because the operation followed an assault a few hours earlier by Army Rangers. The Rangers were inserted by the same Chinook helicopters tasked with inserting the SEALs.
The Washington Times previously reported on details of the mission and concerns by commanders that it was "rushed."
The Rangers set down at 10:55 p.m. on the night of Aug. 5, 2011, in the Tangi Valley to capture top Taliban leader Qari Tahir, according to military investigative files provided to family members of the fallen and shown to the Times. When the Rangers raided a house thought to be holding Tahir those inside escaped through a back door.
That is when the Rangers’ leader asked the special operations task force to send an immediate reaction force to help catch the fleeing enemy.
Extortion 17 was approaching its landing zone at 2:38 a.m. when Taliban fighters hidden on top of a building on the west side of the valley fired RPGs. The attackers had not been previously detected by two Apache helicopters, a Predator drone, or an AC-130 gunship monitoring the mission.
Reid said in his testimony that the pilot of the Chinook had "less than one second" to react to the incoming RPGs that were shot nearly head-on from a distance of less than 250 yards in the narrow valley. "Evasive action was not possible," he said.
It turned out that Tahir, the Taliban leader targeted by the mission, was not among the escapees and was in another village. He was killed in an airstrike a month after the attack.
Reid defended the decision to deploy a significant number of SEALs on one aircraft as it reflected "the best practices" of the military’s "combined joint task force" approach. He also said using a Chinook rather than a specialized chopper such as the MH-47, which has "high-tech avionics," was appropriate given the short flight route over familiar terrain.
Family members had questioned the effectiveness of the Chinook, noting that it must descend to a landing zone from a substantial height while special operations aircraft fly fast and low. The Rangers later left the valley in specialized choppers.
Crew members on the AC-130 gunship expressed concerns about how the mission unfolded, according to the investigative files. Extortion 17 was originally intended to surprise the fleeing Taliban fighters from the opposite direction used by the Rangers.
"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," the gunship’s navigator said. "So, to do an [infiltration] 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."
The AC-130 commander said there could have been better coordination between who was watching the escapees and who was surveying Extortion 17’s landing zone. "It just appeared to us the whole plan for getting into this area was rushed, I guess," he said.
Reid admitted that "we didn’t achieve the element of surprise in that valley. That was planned and anticipated."
Family members said at a press conference after the hearing that they were still frustrated by what they felt were unanswered questions, such as why seven names on the manifest of the mission were "incorrect"—the same number of Afghan soldiers who participated—and why no Afghans were interviewed for the investigation.
"We still feel positive that they could have been set up—that this was an inside thing, that they knew we were coming," said Doug Hamburger, father of Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Hamburger. "We’re a little discouraged that that wasn’t addressed."
They said they were barred from speaking at the hearing but could submit written statements. Lawmakers said other families requested that they not hold the hearing and keep the details of the operation private.
The families present also questioned why an Islamic prayer was given at a memorial service for their sons at Bagram Airfield, which they said was highly disrespectful. Reid said he was told that the commander of the Afghan Special Forces recited verses from the Koran and commemorated all of the fallen and condemned the enemy.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), chairman of the national security subcommittee and one of the key organizers of the hearing, urged the Pentagon to hold separate memorial services for U.S. and Afghan soldiers in the future.
Charlie Strange, father of Navy cryptologist Michael Strange, said he still does not understand why SEAL Team Six was publicly revealed to be behind the Osama bin Laden raid. He said Vice President Joe Biden’s acknowledgements that SEALs were involved and other administration leaks placed his son and other troops at risk.
Commanders told investigators that the Taliban had explicitly placed 100 fighters in the Tangi Valley to shoot down U.S. aircraft.
"They talk about national security—look at the History channel, Discovery channel, SEAL Team Six, SEAL Team Six, ‘No Easy Day’ movie," Strange said.
"Security? Are you out of your mind? They blew that. Joe Biden blew that in the Ritz-Carlton right after they killed bin Laden."
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates shared similar concerns about the leaks of the raid’s details in his new memoir, Duty.
"Everybody in that room agreed to keep mum on details," he wrote. "That commitment lasted about five hours. The initial leaks came from the White House and CIA. They just couldn’t wait to brag and to claim credit."
Gates at one point screamed at then-National Security Adviser Tom Donilon: "Why don’t everyone just shut the f**k up?"