On August 6, 2011, 30 US service members were killed when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter they were being transported in crashed in Wardak province, Afghanistan. It was the deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in the decade-long war in Afghanistan. 17 members of the elite Navy SEALs were killed in the crash.
Lets take a look at what was reported by the Pentagon, and then what was reported by an Air Force Officer on the scene.
But first a personal observation.
As a Special Operations Pilot with the 160th Aviation battalion in the 80’s, we were tasked with providing air support and transportation to the Special Operators, ie: Navy Seals, Delta Force, OSG’s and a few other classified units. Pilots were sent thru rigorous training in order to provide an operational platform to deliver these forces to their target.
Commanders frequently request CH-47 Chinooks to insert troops. The helicopters are capacious and fast, and they can perform well in Afghanistan’s performance-degrading high altitudes and heat. U.S. Special Operations Command possesses its own specialized Chinooks—MH-47s—flown by the ultra-secretive 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the “Night Stalkers.” The MH-47s’ modifications include inflight refueling probes, additional and upgraded sensors, more powerful engines, and more powerful defensive weapons than their conventional counterparts. Night Stalker pilots and crew rigorously train for nighttime raids.
However to utilize CH-47’s with the Gold Team is an error in judgment, operational effectiveness, and operational safety.
In reading the experience of the pilots of the downed CH 47 Extortion 17, I have to question any commanders decision to utilize National Guard and Army reserve pilots with a pilot in command of only 800 flight hours.
My second observation. What the hell is going on when you task Seal Team six with a backup support mission.
That said, Here is the “Official” Timeline of the operation.
After US intelligence services revealed a possible location of a senior Taliban leader by the name Qari Tahir in Tangi Valley, Wardak province, Afghanistan, a mission to apprehend or neutralize him was launched on the night of 5/6 August 2011 from the forward operating base in Logar Province. It was led by a platoon of 47 U.S. Army Rangers with a troop of 17 U.S. Navy SEALs kept in reserve in case of need. The Ranger platoon was transported to the area via two CH-47D transport helicopters (one of them was the accident helicopter) and supported by two AH-64 Apache helicopters and an AC-130 gunship as well as additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft (ISR). The mission was deemed high risk.
- 22:37 local time, 18:07 UTC/GMT/Zulu time the two CH-47D helicopters carrying the U.S. Army Ranger platoon departed the forward operating base.
- 22:58 5 August 2011 (Afghanistan Local time), 18:28 UTC/GMT/Zulu time the two CH-47D helicopters successfully landed and disembarked the Rangers at the designated location near the compound where it was believed Qari Tahir was located. The helicopters then successfully exfiltrated and returned to base. As the Rangers approached the target compound ISR aircraft observed several people leaving the compound.
- 23:30 one of the two AH-64 Apache helicopters observed and engaged a group of eight Taliban fighters some 400 meters northwest of the target compound killing six. A second group was observed by ISR aircraft as well but was not engaged.
- 01:00 6 August 2011 a group of Taliban fighters (who fled the compound shortly before the Rangers arrived) which initially consisted of just 2 people had by now increased in size to 9–10 fighters. The group then split into two groups, three Taliban fighters took a position in a stand of trees while the remaining 6–7 men entered a building located some 2 kilometers from the target compound. Believing that Qari Tahir may be in the group the special operations task force commander and the Immediate Reaction Force commander decided to employ reserve forces (U.S. Navy SEALs) in order to engage this group as well.
- 01:50 the Aviation Brigade Commander approved a new landing zone which would be used to infiltrate a 17-man Navy SEAL team (the landing zone had been examined for a previous mission but never used).
- 02:00 special operations task force commander and the Immediate Reaction Force commander determined that the Navy SEAL team should be supported with additional elements increasing the size of the team to 33. It was decided to use both CH-47D helicopters but the entire team would be transported in a single CH-47 with the second remaining empty in an effort to mitigate the risk of a second helicopter approaching the landing zone.
- 02:22 – 02:24 6 August, local time, 21:54 UTC/GMT/Zulu time, 5 August, the two CH-47D helicopters (one of them carrying the SEAL team) took-off from the forward operating base
- six minutes prior to reaching the landing zone the empty CH-47D left formation (as planned) and the CH-47D carrying the SEALs proceeded to the landing zone alone. The helicopter entered the valley from the northwest unlike earlier that night (during the U.S. Army Ranger platoon insertion) when it entered from the south. The helicopter flew without external lighting and made its last radio transmission stating it was one minute away from the landing zone. The helicopter then descended to an altitude below 150 feet (>50 meters) and slowed to a speed of 50 knots (58 mph, ~90 km/h) as it approached the landing zone.
- 02:38 – 02:39 August 6 local time, 22:9 August 5 UTC/GMT/Zulu time the helicopter was fired upon and shot down by a previously undetected group of Taliban fighters. The group fired 2–3 RPG rounds from a two-story building from a location some 220 meters south of the helicopter. The second round struck one of the three aft rotor blades of the helicopter destroying the aft rotor assembly. The helicopter crashed less than 5 seconds later, killing all 38 people on board. Some 30 seconds later one of the AH-64 Apache helicopters in the area reported: “Fallen Angel”. Some sources state that at the time of the shootdown the two AH-64 Apache helicopters were engaged in tracking another Taliban group and were thus unable to provide surveillance (of the landing zone and infiltration route) as well as fire support to the inbound CH-47D helicopter carrying the Navy SEAL team.
- 02:45 the Rangers secured the initial compound and detained several people and then began to move (on foot) towards the crash site
- 04:12 U.S. Army Rangers reached the crash site but found no survivors. Several minutes later a 20-man Pathfinder team (specialised in downed aircraft rescue and recovery) arrived at the site as well.
- by 16:25 all of the remains were taken from the crash site via ground convoy and transported to Combat Outpost Sayyid Abad
- in the afternoon of 6 August a flash flood swept through the area washing away parts of the wreckage. The CH-47D airframe does not contain “black boxes” (allegedly only the MH-47 variant is equipped with a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder), though they are often erroneously discussed/referenced in the media.
- the recovery of wreckage from the crash site lasted until 9 August 2011
The AC 130 gunship mentioned above was tasked with Close Air Support for the mission. Capt. Joni Marquez, the ships Fire Control Officer has a different recollection of what happened in the Area of Operations.
Capt. Joni Marquezs describes the Mission:
August 6, 2011: We were working the dark morning hours aboard an AC-130 gunship after being summoned to a mission “as almost like a 9-1-1 type of a situation.”
The gunship was ordered to fly close-in air support above Afghanistan’s dangerous Tangi Valley, in Wardak Province, assisting troops with the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment who were being fired on by eight heavily armed Taliban insurgents.
The Rangers had called in for assault helicopters to engage the enemy hiding among the rocky valley. The air weapons team fired on the Taliban fighters, but not all of the insurgents were killed as originally believed.
Marquez begged for permission to engage several times, yet was denied…
“I had the sensor operators immediately shift to the eight insurgents the helicopters had taken out,” Marquez told Circa, in her first interview about the incident. “Two were still alive.”
Marquez was the fire control officer aboard the AC-130 gunship, making sure that the sensors and weapons were aligned and allowing the crew hone in on targets.
That night it didn’t matter, because the gunship was not given permission to fire. “We had seen two of them (insurgents) moving, crawling away from the area, as to not really make a whole lot of scene,” she recalled.
Monitoring the scene from above, she relayed the scene to the ground force commander. “You have two enemy forces that are still alive,” she said. “Permission to engage.”
They were denied.
Marquez told Circa the ground commander’s decision to not allow her crew to engage the two enemy fighters sealed the fate of those involved in Extortion 17.
There was little left to do for Marquez and her team but simply track the two enemy insurgents with the surveillance equipment. She watched as the two moved tactically through the open field, making their way to a village where they began to rally more fighters.
Meanwhile, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, with the call sign Extortion 17, was called into the hours-long firefight.
U.S. Central Command’s official investigation (View the Report) concluded that a rocket-launched grenade from a Taliban fighter hit the Chinook and sent the helicopter into a downward spin. The crash killed all 38, including thirty Americans and eight Afghans. Seventeen of the U.S. servicemen were Navy SEALs. Months before, SEALs were made famous for the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“If we would’ve been allowed to engage that night, we would’ve taken out those two men immediately.”
—Retired Air Force Captain Joni Marquez
Marquez believes that had her team been allowed to fire, those deaths could have been prevented.
“They continued to essentially gain more and more force behind them because they just kept knocking on doors,” she said. “And the two personnel that initially fled ended up becoming a group of 12 people.”
Pleas and warnings from her crew to turn the Chinook back or cancel their mission went unheeded, she added.
“Whenever we reached out to the Joint Operations Center, they would essentially just push back with, ‘Find a, a good infill location. Find a good helicopter landing zone,’” said Marquez, adding that by the time Extortion 17 was coming in, everything was mired in confusion.
‘Dying on the ground’
One of the SEALs was ejected from the burning Chinook helicopter and Marquez watched from her infrared monitor as his heat signature faded from red to blue as life was slipping from his body.
“We had to sit and watch that, and I think that was one of the hardest things that I had to do,” she said. “That man was, you know, dying on the ground.” stated Marquez.
Her account is corroborated by a previously top-secret report by the Defense Department inspector general that includes interviews with some of Marquez’s colleagues on the gunship, including the commander.
“If we would’ve been allowed to engage that night, we would’ve taken out those two men immediately. I mean, it’s just one of those things where you know that it could’ve all been prevented,” she said, tearing up at times as she recollected that night.
Rules of engagement
The battlefield rules of engagement were tightened by Gen. Stanley McChrystal under President Obama in 2009, citing an “over-reliance on firepower and force protection.” The idea was that this would reduce civilian casualties and win the cooperation of locals.
But Marquez said rules of when to engage the enemy, which continuously changed depending on who was in charge, prevented her crew from doing what they knew needed to be done.
“Ridiculous rules of engagement that basically state that you can’t shoot until being shot upon. A weapon has to be pointed, and essentially fired at you, in order for you to shoot and you have the proper clearance so that you don’t, you know, go to jail, that you’re charged with a war crime,” said Marquez, who had reached out to Congress, and some of the victims’ families.
SOP – U.S. Central Command did not respond for comment about Marquez’s account or about the changes in the rules of engagement.
But Jeffery Addicott, who served 20 years as a senior legal advocate for U.S. Special Forces and is an expert in rules of engagement, told Circa that Marquez’s story is one of the most tragic for U.S. troops battling not only enemy fighters, but unrealistic rules that do nothing more than tie the hands of military personnel and endanger lives.
“In Afghanistan, we had rules of engagement that became more restrictive the longer we stayed,” said Addicott. “Right now, the rules of engagement are absolutely bizarre.”
Addicott is pushing for congressional oversight of the Department of Defense’s rules of engagement.
Here’s some of the unclassified rules of engagement for Afghanistan
• No night or surprise searches
• Villagers warned prior to searches
• U.S. units on searches
• U.S. soldiers may not fire at the enemy unless the enemy is preparing to fire first
• Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police must accompany
• U.S. forces cannot engage the enemy if civilians are present
• Troops can fire at an insurgent if they catch them placing an IED, but not if they’re walking away from placing an IED.
• Only engage an enemy fighter if you see a weapon, and they’ve fired first
Related:Pence addressed troops on NOKORs ‘provocation’
Addicott says placating foreign governments at the expense of American lives became a death sentence for some U.S. troops.
Right now, the Rules of Engagement are absolutely bizarre
—Jeffery Addicott, military lawyer
He said under the recognized “Law of war, if you do or you suspected that someone was an enemy combatant, they had a weapon, they were carrying it openly, you could kill them before they shot at you.”
He said overly restrictive rules of engagement do nothing to help the war fighter win, but are enforced against war fighters under political pressure from host nations.
“Under our current rules of engagement, you cannot shoot them until they shoot at you first. Now many people — of course people on the ground, the military soldiers — they know that this is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “And so, we basically have these rules that are made by the president.”
Marquez agrees and hopes revealing the secret of what happened the night Extortion 17 crashed will bring change that saves lives.
“I won’t rest until some kind of justice is served, in a manner of either, you know, the people that were responsible for that night, for making those calls, come forward and are honest about it,” Marquez said. “I know that’s kind of a lofty goal but, if that’s something that doesn’t happen, then obviously the ROE’s to change, for them to be realistic.”
In my humble opinion, the shoddy planning of this operation sealed the fate of those killed on extortion 17…No commander makes this many errors. It was deliberate!
Extracted from an interview with Circa News