CHI­NOOK

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics -

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.”

As­sess­ment

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.

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