Extortion 17

The moon had set and the sky was black as the insurgents on a corner turret of a compound 200 meters south of the Logar River scanned the darkness for targets. Looking north, they could see the gray outlines of the mud-brick villages dotting the strip of vegetation that in daylight ran like a green ribbon through the center of the valley, but now was just another shade of black. For years the valley had been inhospitable to invaders. U.S. soldiers built a combat outpost there in spring 2009, but never succeeded in controlling more than a thousand meters around the tiny base, which they abandoned two years later. Now the Americans were back. For hours their airplanes had been circling above the valley, clearly audible in the still of the night. There were also two types of helicopter in the air: the large, twin-rotor ones, a pair of which had landed to the northeast four and a half hours previously, depositing dozens of soldiers who were now scouring a village compound; and the smaller attack helicopters, which the men on the tower had heard firing at their colleagues north of the river.

The helicopters were prize targets for the insurgents, but shooting down a blacked-out helicopter on a dark night using the rudimentary sights on a heavy machine gun or a rocket-propelled grenade launcher was not easy. The Taliban in the valley were getting closer, however. Two months previously they had volley-fired more than a dozen rocket-propelled grenades at one of the twin-rotor helicopters, forcing it to abort its mission and leave the valley.

It was about 2:39 A.M. when the men heard the distinctive sound of another twin-rotor helicopter. Searching the night sky for its black silhouette, they shouldered their rocket-propelled grenade launchers in order to be ready should it appear. The aircraft was coming from the northwest, but approaching quickly.

#

It was the middle of the night of August 5, 2011, a little more than three months since the bin Laden raid. The Ranger strike force that landed at 11:01 P.M. in the Tangi Valley of eastern Wardak province, about thirty-five miles south-southwest of Kabul, was hunting Qari Tahir, who had been the valley’s senior Taliban commander since June 6, when the task force had killed his predecessor, Din Mohammad. Signals intelligence had located Qari Tahir (also known as Objective Lefty Grove) in a compound on the river’s north side at 6:55 that evening. The strike force quickly put a plan together and, after getting it cleared through the JSOC chain of command in Afghanistan, launched from Forward Operating Base Shank in neighboring Logar province at 10:37 P.M. on two Chinooks. The forty-seven-person force landed unopposed about 2,000 meters to the east of the target compound, and proceeded to walk toward it, a patrol that took place at an altitude of between 6,500 and 7,000 feet.

The Rangers had a lot of friends in the sky: an air weapons team of two AH-64 Apache attack helicopters; an MQ-1 Predator drone; an AC-130 gunship; an MC-12 Liberty surveillance plane; and a PC-12 surveillance plane. The patrol took almost an hour to reach the target compound. Half an hour into that movement, the Apaches watched four individuals leave the compound and join four others. Armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the eight men moved off in a northwesterly direction. The Apache pilots decided the men were displaying hostile intent based on the weapons they carried. After discussing the situation with the ground force, the Apaches attacked at 11:40 P.M., firing sixty rounds of 30mm chain gun ammunition and killing five of the small group. Of the three survivors, one stayed put. The Apaches killed him a few minutes later with another sixty rounds of “thirty mike-mike.” The two who were left moved off northwest. Others joined them as they walked parallel to the river.

At 11:54 P.M. the assault force paused about 100 meters east of the compound to prepare for its actions on the objective, before moving forward and, at twenty minutes past midnight, using the seven Afghan Partner Unit soldiers on the mission, beginning the call-out. The assault force then cleared the buildings, finishing just after 2 A.M. The Ranger platoon leader also sent a small element forward to check out the site where the Apaches had killed six men.

Meanwhile, the AC-130 continued to track the two escapees from that attack. Their group had grown until it numbered thirteen men, of whom eight were seen entering a compound about two or three kilometers northwest of the Rangers’ original objective at about 1:30 A.M. The usual course of action in the case of “squirters” fleeing the objective or “movers” departing from near it was for some of the assault force already on the ground to interdict them. On other missions, the assault force kept an element aloft in helicopters that could land and intercept suspected insurgents trying to escape. In those cases, the force in the helicopters was called the airborne reaction force or immediate reaction force. But neither option was available that night. The assault force did not have time to clear the objective, sort through their detainees and the corpses of the people the Apaches had killed, and then move northwest and deal with the small but growing group of squirters and movers before daybreak. The Task Force East commander, who was also Team 6’s Gold Squadron commander, decided to use an immediate reaction force at Forward Operating Base Shank to fly in to the valley and interdict the group that had escaped the original assault force. Using an immediate reaction force this way—especially when the original assault force was not under attack—was rare. But after checking with the Ranger colonel in charge of the Afghanistan task force, at 2 A.M. the Task Force East commander ordered Gold Squadron’s 2 Troop to interdict the suspected insurgents that had gathered northwest of the objective.

With no Task Force Brown MH-47s available, two conventional Army CH-47D Chinooks flew the mission. To minimize the risk to the aircraft, however, the immediate reaction force crowded onto just one helicopter. The other flew empty and broke off a few minutes before the Chinook with the SEALs on board made its final approach. The helicopter carrying the Gold Squadron troop was flown by a mixed five-man Army Reserve and National Guard crew. Its call sign was Extortion 17. It was headed to a landing zone about a kilometer northwest of the compound in which the eight individuals had taken refuge. On the helicopter were fifteen Gold Squadron operators (including the troop’s commander, Lieutenant Commander Jonas Kelsall), five Gold Squadron support personnel, two SEALs from a West Coast team, an interpreter, and seven Afghan Partner Unit soldiers, plus a military working dog. The immediate reaction force was wheels up from FOB Shank at 2:24 A.M.

Extortion 17 was flying into a high-threat environment. On June 6, insurgents in the valley had shot fourteen or fifteen rocket-propelled grenades at another Chinook, forcing it to abort its mission to infiltrate U.S. troops. To mitigate the threat to Extortion 17, the AC-130 gunship (7,000 feet above ground level) and both Apaches were supposed to be covering its approach, scanning the ground for insurgents. At 2:38 A.M., flying in a southeasterly direction, the pilots announced they were a minute out from the landing zone. Twenty-three seconds later the Apaches announced that the landing zone was “ice,” meaning no Taliban were visible. But as Extortion 17 slowed to about 50 knots on its final approach, insurgents on a turret 220 meters to the south shouldered rocket-propelled grenade launchers and, unnoticed, took aim at the helicopter, which was now no more than 150 feet off the ground and flying across their forward field of view. Their first round missed. But the second was a better—or luckier—shot. The Apache crew members saw a red flash as the round launched, followed by another as the rocket—probably an OG-7V 40mm antipersonnel round—hit an aft rotor blade and exploded on impact, severing about ten feet of the blade. Less than two seconds later the resulting imbalance twisted the aft rotor pylon off the helicopter. The helicopter went into a violent clockwise spin, ripping off the forward pylon. Within five seconds of being hit, the Chinook fuselage fell out of the sky, crashing into the bank of the Logar River in a fiery impact that killed all aboard.

On the AC-130, they’d heard the reports of an RPG and swept the area with their sensors looking for the Chinook. They saw the fireball but initially couldn’t believe that was the helicopter. But after several long seconds of searching for Extortion 17 they realized the awful truth. At 2:40 A.M. and ten seconds, one of the Apache pilots reported: “Extortion is down.”

As is the norm in all but the largest or most vital operations, the shoot-down changed the mission focus, in this case from a raid to personnel recovery. The Ranger assault force released its detainees and moved 3,900 meters on foot to secure the crash site, arriving at 4:45 A.M., just before the arrival of a quick reaction force from the conventional Army.

Later that day JSOC’s signals intelligence assets picked up a midlevel Taliban leader saying that his fighter had shot down the helicopter, and that he was moving him to Pakistan for his own protection. The task force followed the phone on which the leader was speaking, tracking it—as well as the guerrilla leader and his RPG gunner—deeper into Wardak province. Lieutenant General Joe Votel, who had assumed command of JSOC from McRaven on June 10, ordered the task force to kill the two insurgents at the first opportunity. Task force aircraft followed the pair’s vehicle, waiting for a chance to strike without harming civilians. That came on August 8 when they stopped at a compound and wandered into some nearby trees.6 With an F-16 waiting to deliver the blow, the task force seized its chance at vengeance. Several 500-pound bombs and Apache gun runs later, both men lay dead. But their demise was little compensation for JSOC’s loss.

The downing of Extortion 17 marked the greatest number of casualties ever suffered by U.S. Special Operations Command, as well as the single biggest loss of American lives in the Afghan war. The Naval Special Warfare community reeled in shock. For Team 6, still basking in the glow of the bin Laden operation, the loss was almost immeasurable.

An investigation led by Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt, an experienced special operations aviator, soon determined the facts behind the shoot-down of Extortion 17. But in the wake of the tragedy, some saw an opportunity to make political hay. Freedom Watch, a conservative political advocacy group, held a news conference in May 2013 at Washington, D.C.’s, National Press Club with a few of the bereaved families. It was followed by a congressional hearing in February 2014. At these events critics suggested that the Obama administration had “put a target” on the backs of the Team 6 operators by identifying the unit as the one that killed bin Laden. But none of the critics produced evidence that the insurgents who downed the helicopter knew who was on board, nor did they provide proof of any conspiracy or egregious failure beyond what the investigation had revealed.

#

At the time of the Extortion 17 disaster, JSOC’s Afghanistan task force had 3,816 personnel, about 2.4 percent of the Coalition’s 155,000 personnel. The command’s cutting edge was its nineteen strike forces, divided up between the subordinate Task Forces South, Central, East, and North. The task force’s main effort was aimed at enhancing security in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, a task that fell to the Ranger-led Task Force South. Supporting efforts included: expanding what JSOC called Kabul’s “security bubble,” which was the shared responsibility of the Ranger-led Task Force Central and the Team 6–led Task Force East; “degrading” the Haqqani Network in Paktia, Paktika, and Khost provinces, which fell in TF Central’s area of operations; “degrading” Taliban and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operations in Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, which was the job of the Delta-led Task Force North; and denying Al Qaeda sanctuary in the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.

In the year preceding the Extortion 17 shoot-down, JSOC forces in Afghanistan conducted 2,824 missions, of which 2,608 were night raids—an average of more than seven raids a night. Only 301 missions involved shots fired, the vast majority of which occurred during daytime missions (one reason why JSOC was so determined to retain the right to conduct night raids). The “jackpot” rate—the rate at which the assault forces captured or killed the man they were seeking—was 1,381, or about 49 percent.9 But these numbers hid a growing disillusionment among the operators with the way the war was going. In particular, it was hard for the veterans of JSOC’s killing machine in Iraq to muster the same enthusiasm for the command’s efforts in Afghanistan.

There were signs by 2012 that JSOC personnel had given up hope of victory in Afghanistan, where, unlike Iraq, it was hard to see tangible benefits from the nightly missions in the form of a declining rate in violence. “In Afghanistan at the strike force level, at the troop level, they knew that this war is not going to end, [that] we’re not going to win,” said a Ranger officer. “In Iraq I think they knew they could win.” This view was not confined to the Rangers. “I don’t want to say Green’s morale was low, but Green was fucking bitter,” the Ranger officer said of his Delta brethren. The attitude of the Green operators in Sharana was “Fuck this, this doesn’t make a difference; these raids don’t matter.” The same was true of the Rangers. In 2011, “I have to convince NCOs to go out,” the Ranger officer said. “I have to yell at them to go on a mission. They’re like, ‘Sir, fuck this. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to do this. This raid, for this low-level IED guy is not going to change anything.’ Morale changes. They’re fucking run ragged … They don’t want to do this.”

Setting the record straight: Myths and misinformation about Extortion 17