Death on Takur Ghar


Source: Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Review of a Deadly Afghanistan Battle Finds Lapses”, The  New York Times, 25 May 2002.

At the end of May 2002, information was disclosed about the single worst  fight to date in Afghanistan. It was the most calamitous rescue mission since the failed raid in Mogadishu in 1993.

An official review of the Afghan battle has been classified. The review contains recommendations for improvement of “tactics, techniques, and procedures” used by Army, Navy, and Air Force Special Operation forces. 

No command changes have been instituted as a result of the report. “From what I know now, based on the information available to the commanders on the ground at this time, I think their judgments were good,” Gen. Tommy Franks said at a news conference on 24 May.

The basic facts are these.

Reconnaissance and surveillance of a mountain peak known as Takur Ghar failed to spot an Al Qaeda bunker. It was hidden in the rocks, trees, and snow of the 10,000-foot high mountain.

Shortly after 3 a.m. on 4 March, a black Chinook helicopter, carrying a Navy Seal reconnaissance team to the ridge top, was struck by machine gun fire and a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the bunker.

Oil and hydraulic lines were severed inside the Chinook and one of the Seals, Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts, slipped on the oil and fell from the chopper. He dropped five to 10 feet to the snow below.

The damaged helicopter then crashed four miles away. A second Chinook arrived to pick up the crew and commandos, and a mission to rescue Roberts was put into motion.

Meanwhile, on Takur Ghar and unbeknownst to his comrades, Roberts was killed by Qaeda gunmen.

A rescue helicopter landed where the first had been fired upon. It too was attacked. An Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman was killed. The Navy Seals on board were stranded..

In response to this new crisis, Army Rangers were sent via Chinooks to rescue the Seals. By this time, the Seals had retreated down the mountain.

Due to miscommunication, the Ranger’s Chinook landed directly in the hostile zone. Again, the Americans landed in the middle of enemy fire. Four Rangers were killed.

After dawn, F-15 and F-16’s bombed the Qaeda bunker. Additional Rangers arrived and attacked the enemy position.

During the fight, an Air Force search-and-rescue specialist,, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham died from gunshot wounds.

Officials estimate that from 15 to 35 Qaeda fighters were killed.

“It’s very difficult, sitting in an air-conditioned environment with good lighting, to fully appreciate all that happens on the battlefield,” said General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. Pace commanded a marine platoon in Vietnam. “It is an enormously complex, chaotic environment people shooting at you, things going ‘bang’, vision obscured, and there’s a lot of things that you don’t even know about.”