WASHINGTON — Was the mission doomed from the start? Were Taliban fighters tipped off? Were fallen servicemembers treated with dignity and respect?
A congressional oversight committee held a controversial hearing Thursday to get answers to questions surrounding the high-profile shoot-down of an American helicopter in Afghanistan and the way that the remains of the fallen servicemembers were handled.
On Aug. 6, 2011, an American CH-47 Chinook helicopter with the call sign ‘Extortion 17’ was shot down by Taliban insurgents while transporting a fast-reaction team of special operations forces to assist Army Rangers in a battle against insurgents in Wardak province.
The event raised many questions over the planning and execution of the SOF mission, as well as the way that memorial ceremonies and the transfer of remains were conducted. Even the decision to hold a hearing and decision about who was allowed to testify were controversial.
“If I did not believe that a majority of families wanted a forum like this to exist, we would not be conducting this hearing,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the chairman of the oversight committee, said in his opening remarks.
“There are other families and their representatives who have contacted the subcommittee and expressed grave concern about this hearing. They’ve asked for privacy and they seek closure. So … we should acknowledge that not all of the families affected by this tragedy support these proceedings,” said Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.
Another source of controversy surrounded the decision not to allow family members of the fallen servicemembers to testify. Five defense officials spoke at the hearing. A plan to have a second witness panel comprising some family members was abandoned in favor of having them submit written statements expressing their concerns, Foreign Policy reported.
“We have tried our best to treat all the families’ interests equally knowing that there’s a wide ranging spectrum of perspectives given the sheer number of families and people that are engaged in this,” Chaffetz said at the beginning of the hearing.
The crash killed 30 U.S. servicemembers, including 25 special operations personnel, some of whom were part of SEAL Team Six, the unit that carried out the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Five Army National Guard and Reserve crewmen also died, as well as eight Afghans who were part of the team carrying out the mission.
The shoot-down of ‘Extortion 17’ constitutes the greatest loss of American life from a single battle in the history of the Afghanistan War. It is also the most disastrous incident in the 27-year history of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Another point of controversy was the tactics employed during the operation, including the decision to fly into an area where the aircraft could be easily shot down.
Garry Reid, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said that the task force employed “sound tactics,” but acknowledged that the unit did not achieve the element of surprise because the preceding battle likely put the insurgents on a heightened state of alert and other aerial assets failed to identify the Taliban who were positioned to shoot down the aircraft.
Another decision that was criticized was the choice of using the conventional Chinook instead of the one designed for special operations missions.
Reid said that no U.S. military aircraft has effective countermeasures for RPGs, and that using a different aircraft wouldn’t have made any difference in the outcome.
Some lawmakers asked if Afghan forces tipped off the Taliban before the mission took place, enabling the insurgents to prepare to ambush the aircraft.
Reid said that was highly unlikely because no Afghans were informed of the mission ahead of time except the members of the team, and there were no external communications before the mission was launched.
Events surrounding memorial ceremonies and the way that the remains were handled upset some families of the fallen servicemembers. Some were angry that the military filmed a memorial ceremony in Afghanistan without their permission.
Reid said that that was routine practice until the policy was changed by U.S. Central Command last year.
Another source of concern were reports that an Afghan colonel who spoke in Arabic at the memorial ceremony in Afghanistan insulted the fallen American servicemembers. Reid said it was his understanding, based on talking to those who listened to the remarks, that the colonel praised the fallen servicemembers and denigrated the enemy, but that the colonel’s remarks were “subject to interpretation.”
Others were upset about the fact that when the caskets of the fallen members of the team were returned to Dover, they were draped with 30 American flags as well as eight Afghan flags.
Air Force Col. John Devillier, commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, said that decision was made because officials could not identify the remains and distinguish between the Americans and the Afghans until a medical examiner looked at the bodies.