Extortion 17’s landing zone — a spot never before used by the Americans.
Two Taliban fighters armed with rocketpropelled 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.”
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 MH47G 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 Thirty U.S. troops were killed Aug. 6, 2011, when an American helicopter was shot down southwest of Kabul during a night mission. mission.
Moments after the shoot-down, an Apache pilot pinpointed the source of the rocket-propelled grenade, but could not fire.
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 threeminute 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.
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.