Just three months after the raid by Navy SEAL Team VI that killed Osama bin Laden, those same SEALs were in the news yet again--but for an entirely different reason.
On August 6, 2011, while on their way to assist an ongoing mission in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, the CH-47D Chinook helicopter that they were riding in was shot down by an RPG fired by a Taliban fire team approaching their landing zone in Tangi Valley. All 38 American and Afghan service members who were aboard perished, including 17 Navy SEALS, 5 Navy Special Operations support personnel, 3 Air Force Special Tactics Airmen and the five-man Chinook crew, marking the largest loss of life in America’s 11 years of military operations in Afghanistan. Twenty of the twenty-two SEALs and SEAL support were from SEAL Team VI (DEVGRU).
The parents of one of the SEALs killed in the Chinook attack, Special Operations Chief Aaron Vaughn, are raising questions about how the Obama administration has pushed the limits of the military’s Special Operations Forces as part of its war policy (e.g. the Feb. 20th Newsweek story, “Obama’s Secret Army”), and how constrictive “rules of engagement” intended to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people directly contributed to the deaths of all those aboard the helicopter.
Karen and Billy Vaughn are now trying to raise awareness of some of the problems that they believe continue to cause American service members to be killed in Afghanistan. And to support their case they have a copy of the redacted, now declassified CENTCOM report on the incident that they say raises more questions than it answers.
The report, made available to Breitbart News, was prepared by Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt and presented to CENTCOM Commander Marine General James Mattis.
“We were given a copy of the report, but it was months before we even looked at it,” says Karen Vaughn. “But as Billy and I started to read it and talk to others inside the community we found that many of the problems that contributed to Aaron’s death were widespread. That’s when we decided we had to speak out.”
One of the main concerns for the Vaughns is the operational tempo for special operations forces in Afghanistan. The CENTCOM report itself notes that in August 2009 the number of monthly objectives was 54. But in August 2011 – the month that the helicopter, "Extortion 17," was shot down – that number had grown to 334 objectives, more than a 600 percent increase in just two years.
Another outstanding issue is that Afghan military and police forces are involved in planning every special operations mission, creating a possible problem with operational security.
“We’re seeing the number of these green-on-blue attacks by Afghan troops rising, but these are some of the same people we’re trusting with the details of our most sensitive missions,” Billy Vaughn told me.
Another complaint heard by the Vaughns throughout the special operations community is that because so many special operations forces are in the field, they must rely on conventional forces and conventional equipment, rather than the specialized equipment typically used by special forces.
For example Extortion 17 was a CH-47D, rated as one of the least capable Chinook variants, rather than the newer MH-47s designed and outfitted for special operations. According to the CENTCOM report, Extortion 17 was originally a CH-47C model that was converted to a D-model in June 1985. As the report notes further, the CH-47D, unlike the MH-47, has no early warning system for RPGs or small arms fire.
The landing zone area in the Tangi Valley was also problematic. The area itself had been cleared by ISAF forces at least seven times. In the 45 days prior to Extortion 17’s mission, there had been three previous attempts by the Taliban to shoot down Chinooks with RPGs in the valley. The Taliban also maintained an early warning system in the area to warn insurgents of approaching ISAF forces.
These were the conditions into which Extortion 17 flew. While they were flying under the escort of two AH-64D Apache helicopters and an AC-130 gunship, because of the rules of engagement and the possibility that there were friendlies in the area, the escorts were not allowed to lay down assault fire around the landing zone.
As Extortion 17 was on its final approach to the landing zone, a Taliban crew appeared on top of a two-story qalat (a mud brick house) and fired off at least two RPGs at the helicopter. The second RPG struck near the back rotor of the Chinook, causing the crash.
Amazingly, because of the rules of engagement and the inability to determine whether there were any friendlies in the area, the Taliban team that shot Extortion 17 down was allowed to escape. The only fire from the escort craft noted in the CENTCOM report occurred several minutes after the crash to suppress any enemy attempting to approach the crash area.
That the Taliban team who killed their son was allowed to leave the scene unmolested after causing the greatest loss of life in Afghanistan since 2001 infuriates the Vaughns. The Pentagon later claimed that the man who fired the fatal RPG was killed in an air strike two days after the crash of Extortion 17.
That claim is of little comfort to Aaron Vaughn’s parents. As Billy Vaughn told me:
How the Obama administration has decided to conduct this war is nothing short of criminal. When the administration leaked the identity of the SEALs after the bin Laden raid, a target was put on their back. By increasing the reliance on special operators in prosecuting the war, but not giving them the top line equipment and personnel to support them, this administration bears responsibility for the events of that fateful night.. And the rules of engagement that let my son’s killers walk away unscratched is a betrayal of our commitment to our warriors in the field.
The CENTCOM report indicates that the Task Force Commander declined to strike the Taliban targets with the Apaches or the AC-130 gunship because they couldn’t confirm whether the group of Taliban they were following were carrying weapons. That shows the counterproductive nature of the rules of engagement, Karen Vaughn says:
When the families from the crash were meeting with the Army’s Investigation Team and Naval Officers, a father asked why they didn’t use a drone strike to take out the Taliban. A 3-star Admiral responded, “We are trying to win their hearts and minds.”
But what that Admiral didn’t realize is that the rules that restrain our troops and endanger their lives are making the task that we are asking them to accomplish virtually impossible, the Vaughns contend. The Admirals say they want to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans, but by creating impossible conditions for our troops to fight they are losing the hearts and minds of the American people.
This is what has prompted Karen and Billy Vaughn to speak out. At the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August, just a few weeks after the first anniversary of their son’s death, they spoke at a rally in support of the troops and condemned Obama for using the heroism, bravery and sacrifice of the Navy SEALs to support his political campaign.
A few weeks later, they were on Fox News, calling the administration leaks following the operation that killed Osama bin Laden “criminal” for divulging the identity of the SEAL team involved in the raid. They’ve also complained about the form letters that many families of fallen soldiers receive from the White House.
And last month they spoke at a press conference on Capitol Hill with members of Congress criticizing the restrictive rules of engagement that handcuff even America’s most elite military units.
The Vaughns maintain a website in memory of their son, Special Operations Chief (SEAL) Aaron C. Vaughn, For Our Son & For This Cause.