Downed US Seals may have got too close to Bin Laden
Tony Allen-Mills, Washington and Andrew North, Kabul
THE first sign of trouble was a radio message requesting immediate extraction. A four-man team of US Navy Seal commandos had run into heavy enemy fire on a remote, thickly forested trail in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
Trouble turned to disaster when a US special forces helicopter carrying 16 men was shot down as it landed at the scene, killing all on board. Almost two weeks later, a mission that led to the worst US combat losses in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001 has turned into an extraordinary manhunt. It has also opened an intriguing new front in the coalition’s battle against terrorism.
The story of Operation Red Wing, a US-led search for Taliban and Al-Qaeda guerrillas in the mountain wilderness of Kunar province, contains remarkable human drama and an unresolved military mystery.
For five days amid the hostile peaks and ravines along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, a lone American commando eluded the guerrillas who had killed at least two of his colleagues and destroyed the Chinook helicopter.
When the unnamed Seal finally collapsed from exhaustion he was found by a friendly Afghan villager who summoned US forces. The subsequent search for his colleagues turned up two bodies and the manhunt for the fourth commando continues this weekend despite claims by Taliban guerrillas yesterday that he had been captured and beheaded.
“We killed him at 11 o’clock today; we killed him using a knife and chopped off his head,” declared Abdul Latif Hakimi, a Taliban spokesman who has made several false claims in the past.
Yet whatever the final death toll from the worst incident in the history of the Seals — the Sea Air Land Commandos — there were tantalising hints that the original mission had been far from routine.
According to former special forces officers and other military sources, the four-man Seal strike team may have come too close to one of the US-led coalition’s highest-priority targets — perhaps Mullah Muhammad Omar, the former Taliban leader, or even Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda. Other military sources suggested the target was a regional Taliban commander suspected of links with Al-Qaeda.
More than 300 US troops were yesterday combing the area for signs of the missing commando and the militants who apparently used a portable rocket-propelled grenade launcher to destroy the Chinook.
Other helicopters and remotecontrolled aerial drones were flying over deep, inaccessible valleys. Rainstorms were slowing the search, and there was a danger of growing local hostility after claims that up to 25 civilians died when US aircraft bombed a compound in Kunar province last weekend.
US officials insisted the compound was used by militants and one spokesman said the attack with precision guided weapons was part of an “intelligence-driven” operation.
But Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s pro-US president, warned Washington that civilian casualties could erode public support for the coalition.
It was late in the evening of Tuesday, June 28, that Lieutenant Michael Murphy and the three members of his specialist team reported an encounter with the enemy.
Pentagon spokesmen said Murphy’s unit was engaged in general reconnaissance as part of a sweep through the region amid fears that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have quietly been regrouping and are preparing for an Iraq-style insurgency.
Yet other special forces sources noted that small Seal units like Murphy’s are primarily designed for concealment and stealth, which indicated a more specific mission.
“Its insertion represented an extraordinary risk,” said the author of an influential military blog known as Wretchard. “They would be operating in an area known to be a stronghold of the Taliban, where any contact with the enemy automatically meant they would be grossly overmatched.”
Another source noted that Murphy’s unit bore all the hallmarks of a long-range sniper team sent to hunt down a particular target. US Navy Seals are trained to spend long periods operating clandestinely.
“The fact that the US did not send in several hundred troops for a sweep instead of the four-man recon team strongly suggests the team’s mission was to fix a very high target before it could flee from an airmobile assault,” Wretchard said.
Whatever the team’s real objective, it found itself trapped in heavy rain with darkness falling. Seal veterans boast that they never call for help unless absolutely desperate. Exactly what befell Murphy and his team remains unknown, but commanders at Bagram airbase near Kabul wasted no time in dispatching eight more Seals on a helicopter crewed by eight members of an elite army unit.
As it was coming in to land in the Waigal valley, near the provincial capital of Asadabad, the helicopter was struck by what officers believe was a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the cover of nearby trees.
Lieutenant-General James Conway, chief of operations at the Pentagon, described it as a “pretty lucky shot” but when communications with the Chinook were lost, commanders were taking no chances. The next wave of troops landed a safe distance away and took 24 hours to reach the site, where it was confirmed that all 16 men on the helicopter had died.
For the four Seals on the ground, a desperate battle for survival had begun. Their story may not be told in full until the fate of the fourth member of the team is clear — the one Seal who survived has been debriefed by military officers but the Pentagon has released only the barest outline of his story for fear of compromising continuing operations in the area.
From the details released, it appears that the Seals may have dumped their backpacks to move faster on steep terrain. Former special forces sources said that when facing a superior enemy, the commandos would give each other covering fire as they mounted a phased retreat.
Coalition commanders acknowledge that for all their superior weaponry and communications, US forces are at a disadvantage in fighting in the Afghan mountains.
At some point in the mountain battle, Murphy, 29, was killed. So was Petty Officer Danny Dietz, 25. But at least one of the four Seals survived.
When he was found last weekend he was several miles from the helicopter wreckage. A friendly tribal elder notified authorities that he was caring for a wounded American. The commando was airlifted to Bagram, where his injuries were said not to be life-threatening.
US officials have not yet explained how the surviving Seal might have become separated from his missing colleague. The two dead commandos were said to have been “killed in action”.
To some US military sources, the strength of the force sent into the area suggested more than a simple search for a soldier who has been missing for 11 days. The manhunt may be providing cover for what might have been the original mission — to track down an elusive “high value” target who may once again be about to slip away.