Digging Graves

Background

Kǒng Fūzǐ, otherwise known in the western world as Confucius (551-479 BC), was a paragon of Chinese philosophers and sages and, perhaps, one of the most influential individuals in all human history.  His teachings emphasized personal morality, justice, kindness, and sincerity — but his school of thought was only one of a hundred philosophical and legalistic academies during China’s Qin dynasty.  He once warned, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Charlie Wilson

Operation Cyclone was the brainchild of Texas Congressman Charles Nesbit Wilson (also known as Charlie Wilson).[1]  It was the codename for a Central Intelligence Agency program to arm and finance the Afghan mujahideen (1979-1989) during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  It was one of the most protracted and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken.

Wilson’s idea was to funnel black money through the CIA to financially support radical Islamists who more or less worked under the control of Pakistani military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988).  We don’t know how much of this money Zia diverted to his atomic weapons project, but it may have been substantial.  Between 1980-1986, the CIA sent between $20-40 million to Afghanistan annually; in 1987, this amount increased to $640 million annually.  CIA funding continued after the Soviet Union departed Afghanistan in 1989 to support the Afghan Civil War (1989-1992).  Before Zia’s death, he successfully wooed both the United States and China into a ménage à trois — which was “just fine” with Charlie Wilson, a Democrat, who leaned in that direction anyway.

The CIA’s arms deal included the state-of-the-art Stinger surface-to-air shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapon that cost around $38,000 each.  We sent thousands of these to Afghanistan to help the Islamists rid themselves of the Soviet MI-24 (Hind) helicopter.  Once CIA operatives instructed the Islamists how to employ these weapons, no Russian helicopter was safe.  How many of these Stinger missiles remained in Afghanistan after the CIA withdrew its support is unknown.  Still, at some point, the supplies diminished — driving Islamists to employ a much cheaper and easier to obtain weapon: the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG).

The RPG fires a shaped charge explosive warhead.  There are various warheads, but the most common is the high explosive (HE) round and high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round.  Either of these is devastating to helicopters.

As it turned out, the Americans instructing mujahideen on fighting a sophisticated enemy combat force did an extraordinary job.  Radical Islamists later turned these skills toward the Americans once the United States decided to replace the Russian invaders in 2003.  Americans in Afghanistan have been digging graves ever since.

Extortion One Seven

CH-47D by LCPL D. NICHOLS/USMC

Members of the U. S. Navy’s Seal Team Six assaulted a Pakistani compound on 2 May 2011, killing the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.  It was a CIA-led operation with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) codenamed Operation Neptune Spear.  Operating alongside the Navy’s special warfare group was an element of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (Night Stalkers).  This operation ended a nearly ten-year search for bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attack upon the United States.

One month earlier, the US Tenth Mountain Division turned control of Combat Outpost Tangi over to Afghan government forces.  It was an interesting “turnover” since the Afghan Defense Force (ADF) never actually occupied the base, so Taliban forces took the initiative to seize it for their use.  There could be a connection here, but I hesitate to judge.  In any event, US forces continued to operate in the Tangi area.  By 2011, the number of Taliban in Tangi was significant.  On 8 June, Taliban ground forces engaged a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter from five or six different locations with 14 separate RPG attacks forcing the overwhelmed helicopter to abandon its mission.

At about this same time, US intelligence determined that senior Taliban leader Qari Tahir might have operated from within the Tangi Valley.  Thus, the International Security Force (ISF) command group ordered American/Coalition forces working within Wardak Province to locate Tahir and capture or kill him.

Beginning around 22:30 hours (local time) on 5 August, a platoon of 47 Army Rangers departed their forward operating base in Logar Province aboard two CH-47D aircraft.  After a thirty-minute flight, the two helicopters landed near a compound believed to be the location of Tahir.  After disembarking the Rangers, the helicopters departed the area.  It was a high-risk operation.  Two AH-64 Apache gunships and an AC-130 gunship remained on station to provide intelligence, surveillance, and aerial reconnaissance of the area.  Seventeen SEALS served as a reserve force.

As the Rangers approached the designated compound, ISR aircraft observed numerous individuals leaving the compound, but the Rangers did not engage these people.  Apache aircraft did engage a different group of around eight insurgents, reporting six of these insurgents killed in action.  Meanwhile, ISR assets continued to observe the disengaged group, estimating between 9-11 fighters.  The on-site commander believed that these individuals might include Tahir.  At 0100, the task force commander directed the SEALS to engage these suspected insurgents.  The Aviation Brigade Commander took nearly an hour to approve a new landing zone for the SEAL infiltration.  At 02:00, the task force commander decided to increase the size of the SEAL Team from 17 to 33 warriors and then, to reduce transportation time, command authority loaded SEAL reinforcements into a single CH-47D; another aircraft served as a decoy that would land at a separate landing site.

While this part of the operation was unfolding, the Taliban force split into two sections.  At around 02:15, one team of three insurgents went to a stand of trees; the other group entered a building located 1.2 miles from the original compound.  Since the Apache helicopters were involved in tracking these two groups of insurgents, they could not offer security or fire support to either of the two in-bound CH-47Ds.

Six minutes out, the decoy CH-47D split off and returned to base.  The remaining helicopter, callsign Extortion One Seven, proceeded to the earlier landing zone.  One minute out, Extortion One Seven descended to an altitude of 100 feet and reduced its airspeed to around 58 knots.  A third group of Taliban previously undetected by the Americans fired 2-3 RPGs from a two-story building.  The second round fired struck Extortion One Seven’s aft rotor assembly.  Within five seconds, the CH-47D crashed and exploded, killing everyone on board.  It took the Apache aircraft another thirty seconds to report the 47’s destruction.

The official determination in the after-action report was “wrong place/wrong time.”  Such things do happen in war.  People die.  Suddenly.  But former Navy JAG Officer, Lieutenant Commander Don Brown,[2] disagrees.  He claims the US military intentionally concealed what happened to Extortion One Seven, much in the way the Army lied about the circumstances of Patrick Tillman’s death in 2004.

After reviewing all the evidence available to him (unclassified material), Brown concluded that military command sacrificed the SEAL Team through gross negligence during mission planning and covering up what happened.  As Brown understood the facts, seven ADF personnel slipped aboard Extortion One Seven without authority (a significant security breach), men who had no role in the operation.  Moreover, the rules of engagement (ROE) precluded pre-landing suppression fire within the CH-47D’s designated landing zone.  Brown argued that a pre-landing suppression fire would have saved Extortion One Seven from destruction.

On the issue of the seven ADF personnel, Brown contends that the remains of these men were flown to the United States and cremated, as reported in the Washington Times, leading Brown to conclude, “Something went terribly wrong inside that helicopter, and whatever went wrong was most likely beyond the pilot’s control.”  Brown also raises the question about a so-called helicopter black box, which the Army contends does not exist in that model aircraft.  But Commander Brown was adamant, asking why the Brigade commander sent Rangers back to the crash site looking for something that doesn’t exist.

Brown additionally claimed that the AC-130 gunship circling above the LZ spotted suspected Taliban insurgents moving on the ground toward Extortion One Seven’s designated landing site and requested permission to engage those insurgents.  According to Brown’s investigation, the task force commander denied the gunship permission to engage.  US Air Force Captain Joni Marquez, assigned to the AC-130 gunship at the time as firing officer, confirmed Brown’s assertions, and agreed with his conclusion that denying the gunship permission to engage sealed the fate of the CH-47D.

Conclusion

The cost in American lives from the US teaching a potential enemy how to kill our sons and daughters has been too high.  It is incomprehensible that any official of the US government would plant the seeds for a lethal future conflict for no other reason than to engage in an illicit relationship with a socialite.  Worse, Wilson soon had the full cooperation of the White House, CIA, and House of Representatives.

How many graves have we dug so far in the war on terror — graves that a US Congressman helped to dig?

Sources:

  1. Bergen, P.  Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden.  Crown Publishing, 2012.
  2. Bowden, M.  The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.
  3. Carter, S.  “Retired Air Force Captain says Pentagon covered up the real cause of deadly chopper crash.”  On-air broadcast, 18 April 2017.
  4. Herring, J. K.  Diplomacy and Diamonds: My Wars from the Ballroom to the Battlefield.  Center Street Publications, 2011.

Footnotes:

[1] Wilson’s motivation for starting the so-called Charlie Wilson War was his infatuation with Joanne Herring, a quite-wealthy anti-Communist crusader.  Herring, appalled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, employed her feminine wiles in convincing Wilson to take up her cause of revenge against the Soviet Union.  Joanne Herring is also believed to have had an intimate relationship with Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq while serving as “Honorary Consul” at the Pakistani Consulate in Houston, Texas.  Osama bin-Laden may have been the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, but it may have been Joanne Herring who started it.  Treason, anyone?  Anyone?

[2] Brown served as legal counsel to Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was charged and convicted for war crimes.  Brown’s subsequent book Travesty of Justice: The Shocking Persecution of Lt. Clint Lorance was a major factor in Lorance’s pardon by President Donald J. Trump in 2019. 


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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.