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20 years

By Jon Christian Ryter
Copyright 2002 - All Rights Reserved
To distribute this article, please post this web address or hyperlink

     On March 4, 2002, the United States suffered its bloodiest military setback in the War on Terrorism when two MH-47 Chinook helicopters came under attack in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan from “cornered” Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Nine Americans perished in an intense firefight that started on a plateau in the mountain range that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan when two twin-rotor MH-47 Chinooks came under ground fire as they attempted to drop off a reconnaissance team near Gardez.

The Firefight
     Two Chinooks, part of Operation Anaconda—the attempted strangulation of the Al Qaeda and Taliban at Shad-e-Kot, near Gardez—were attempting to deploy a recon team in the lower section of two mountain ranges that separate Afghanistan from Pakistan when they came under heavy fire from Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters using small arms, machine guns and shoulder-fired grenades and anti-tank missiles. On the Afghan side, the mountain peaks range around seven thousand feet. The Pakistani range, separated from the Afghan range by a plateau that is anywhere from one mile to one-and-a-half miles wide, reach up to twelve thousand feet.
     According to the initial military media release, when the Chinooks came under fire from a hand-held grenade launcher as the helos were departing the scene, a grenade rocked one of the Chinooks so severely that 32-year old Navy Seal Petty Officer 3rd Class Neil C. Roberts fell out of the in-flight MH-47. The initial reports suggested that the MH-47 returned to retrieve their fallen comrade (whom one would logically imagine died from injuries sustained during the fall). It was reportedly when the helos returned to get the body of their fallen comrade that a 12-hour firefight ensued and six additional soldiers were killed and 10 more suffered wounds.
     Later reports confirmed what happened. Three rockets exploded near the Chinook when it was about 15 feet off the ground, causing a hatch to open. According to witnesses on the chopper, one of the soldiers on board who was not strapped in almost fell out. Roberts, who was strapped in, reached out and grabbed the GI before he could fall. But, to pull him back into the chopper, Roberts had to disengage his safety belt. Handing his rifle to another soldier, and after he had released his own safety harness, Roberts pulled his comrade to safety. Another explosion close to the chopper then caused Roberts to lose his balance and he fell—15 feet or so—to the ground below.
     According to reports from the air, Roberts—armed only with his sidearm—engaged the Al Qaeda and took out a machine gun nest before he ran out of ammunition and was captured by the terrorists on the ground.
     According to Maj. Gen. F. L. Hagenbeck, commander of the Special Forces 10th Mountain Division, Roberts—who was initially misidentified by the Pentagon as 34-year old Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman from Wade, NC—was held captive briefly during the firefight which he described as a “meat grinder.” A Newhouse News Service report initially identified the killed soldier as Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman, 34, of Wade, NC. Harriman was the casualty suffered a day earlier, and was the first fatality in Operation Anaconda.
     According to Newhouse News Service, which later interviewed General Hagenbeck, “...a rescue operation was organized...” and returned for the lost Navy Seal whose execution had already been witnessed on video shot from an overhead drone. It was already too late, but the Mountain Division was determined to get their man out of enemy hands. Pictures of the bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Somalia had to loom large in the minds of every special ops soldier that landed at Shah-e-kot. They would not leave a man behind—even one who was already dead.
     After an intense battle with the Al Qaeda that lasted 18 hours, the rescue force secured Robert’s body.

The Bush Response
     Of the Al Qaeda fighters, whom the Islamic world views as martyrs of Allah, Bush said: “These are killers. These are murderers.” To reporters in Minneapolis where Bush was speaking on education, Bush reiterated his determination to fulfill his mission of eradicating the Al Qaeda. After the body of Neil Roberts was retrieved, the military responded by dropping 15 bombs per minute on the Al Qaeda stronghold. When the airstrike was over, 350 bombs were dropped by long-range B-52 bombers and carrier-based fighter bombers. The aerial assault covered a terrain of around 70 square miles. During that assault the military used its new thermobaric bomb that kills with a massive explosive shockwave that sucks the oxygen out of the caves as it explodes, suffocating anyone who is hiding inside as it collapses the caves.
     The attack force consisted of 1,000 Afghan troops who acted as “support” for the 800 troops of the 10th Mountain Division and a complement from the 101st Airborne. With them was a unit of European and Australian commandos.

The Logic of Operation Anaconda
     During the second month of Enduring Freedom the U.S. Central Command noted that after being routed, the Al Qaeda furtively regrouped at Zhawar Kili (one of bin Laden’s primary terrorist training centers). General Tommy Franks ordered massive air strikes on Zhawar Kili over a period of several days hoping to take out bulk of the Al Qaeda. Several hundred Al Qaeda were killed but thousands escaped simply because nobody closed the escape routes before the air strikes began. As the Al Qaeda headed for the mountains in northeastern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border, Gen. Franks decided to correct his mistakes by closing and locking the doors before the party began. Franks wanted to make sure his invited guests did not leave before the fat lady sang and the last dance played out on the mile high, frigid, snow-swept plateau.
     While the fear remained that the potential existed that several Afghan warlords might provide both sanctuary in the cave networks to the Al Qaeda and also grant them safe passage through several of the cave tunnels that go completely through the mountains from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Gen. Franks counted on the Pakistani, Afghan, European and Australian commandos to bottle up the mountain passes and prevent the Al Qaeda from escaping from Shah-e-Kot when the fireworks began.
     While the US Central Command would like the public to believe that they found the Al Qaeda at Shad-e-Kot based on intelligent guesswork followed up by even better military reconnaissance nothing could be farther from the truth.

Afghan De J’ Vue
     When the Soviet Union and its Northern Alliance “partners” fought the Pakistan-backed Taliban during the late 1980s, a Soviet armored juggernaut supported by the same type of carpet bombing strategies used by the United States drove the CIA-backed Afghan freedom fighters from the lower steppes and valleys into the mountain range that separated Afghanistan and Pakistan.
     Once holed up, the Taliban made their stand and ultimately defeated the Soviet Union from the same mountain ranges where the Taliban is now making its final stand against the United States, European and Australian troops, and the Afghani forces. It is not in the least surprising that, since they were successful in defeating a superior enemy from the cave systems in northeastern Afghanistan, the Taliban would use the same tactics against the United States. What is surprising is that the United States, which created the small arms and machine gunfire gauntlet that Soviet choppers were forced to endure in order to put their troops on the ground in the impassible mountains, would do precisely what the Soviets did—and endure the same type of lethal crossfire that cost the Soviets multiple hundreds of lives with little results, making the Afghan war extremely unpopular in the Soviet Union. Ultimately, because they could never successfully rout the Taliban, the Soviets finally gave up, pulled their troops from the Afghan mountains, and returned to Russia.
     As far as the Taliban and Al Qaeda are concerned, nothing succeeds like success.
     It worked once.
     Why would it not work again?
     Particularly since it appears that the US military, based on the operational tactics used on March 4 when the MH-47 Chinooks came under attack from the cave structure that resulted in the the loss of seven American special ops team members.
     One of the things the CIA discovered in the mid-1980s was that the dual mountain range that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan presented them with a natural “ambush” site where they could snare and kill the Soviet troops while suffering minimum casualties themselves. Flying north, the peaks of the Afghan mountain range on the left averaged 7,000 feet. The Pakistani range on the right soared to 12,000 feet. Through the middle of what became the “gauntlet” is a plateau that ranged in width from a half mile to one mile. This plateau, just south of Gardez at Shah-e-Kot, became the gauntlet. On the Pakistani side of the gauntlet, lethal machine gun, mortar and shoulder-fired missile emplacements where blown into the sheer granite escarpment and were manned by Taliban freedom fighters. On the left was the gauntlet. A line of Taliban freedom fighters lined the plateau, waiting for the Soviet helicopter attack ships. As the choppers dropped down into the valley between the two mountain ranges, a mile long chain of small arms fire would rain a lethal fire on the choppers. To avoid the gauntlet, the Soviet helicopters would move right—directly into the line of even more lethal fire from the gun emplacements that were chiseled into the Pakistani mountain range on their right.
     Where the Soviet choppers experienced heavy small arms fire on the left, the fire from the right came from machine guns, mortars aimed directly at the choppers and shoulder-fired antitank missiles that could easily bring down even the largest Soviet transport choppers. This was the same gauntlet that the 101st Airborne and the 10th Mountain Division faced when the two MH-47 Chinooks came under attack on March 4. Tragically, the tactics used against the 10th Mountain Division were developed by the Central Intelligence Agency to overcome the Soviet army in the mid-1980s.
     Much of the confusion about what happened to Petty Officer Neil Roberts—and whether or not a grenade or mortar fired from the gun emplacements on the Pakistani side of the gauntlet exploded close enough to the Chinook in which Roberts was riding to cause him to fall out—was the result of type of frantic confusion that results from battle. When you come under heavy fire from an enemy, self-survival becomes paramount and during a life-threatening firefight your “world” narrows to the space which you personally occupy. Apparently the drones which video-taped the assassination of Roberts at the hands of the Al Qaeda do not give a clear picture of what happened and whether or not the Navy Seal fell from the chopper when it was in-flight or lifting off—or whether he was somehow pulled out of the MH-47 as he was tried to climb on board during the first firefight that was initiated when the companion Chinook was shot down. More likely Roberts did not reach the Chinook, which was under heavy fire when it lifted off. He was simply left behind.
     However, the long and short of the fierce, 18-hour bloody battle that the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters were not in the cave structure around Shah-e-Kot simply by happenstance. Had the Pentagon taken the time to read the CIA’s gamebook from the Soviet-Afghan War they would have realized, long before the Taliban evacuated Kabul, that the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters would regroup in the Gardez area since that is where they defeated the mighty Soviet Union.
     In the same token, by reviewing the tactics used by the CIA during the Soviet-Afghan conflict, General Tommy Franks will have foreknowledge of every strategy that the Al Qaeda will use to inflict injury on the American troops that have come to ferret them out of the caves.
     Because it worked against the Soviet Union, the Islamic terrorists who are determined to regain their grip of power over the Afghan people, believe that if they inflict enough casualties on the American military that public opinion in the United States will force the government to withdraw its troops giving the Muslim extremists a major victory in its war against America.

 

 

 

Just Say No
Copyright 2009 Jon Christian Ryter.
All rights reserved
.