“This isn’t going to be a war-stopper like Beirut or Mogadishu,” said retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, a veteran SEAL commander who headed the Naval Special Warfare Command in the 1990s. “There are probably operations going on tonight. You’re not going to see any kind of drop-off in the operational tempo.”
In the past 12 months alone, SEALs and other elite forces in Afghanistan have conducted more than 2,000 missions to capture or kill specific militants. The successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan in early May attracted the most attention, but special operations commanders say the incident was just one of a large number of similar missions.
“There were somewhere between three and four-thousand operations of this nature conducted in 2010 alone,” Adm. Eric Olson, the then-head of the military’s Special Operations Command, said at the Aspen Security Forum late last month. “The tactics of this thing were routine, the people who were involved do this every night.”
Still, Worthington acknowledged that the loss of so many SEALs--highly skilled operators who have undergone years of specialized training--will be difficult. Fifteen of the SEALs were part of the military’s Naval Special Warfare Development Group, otherwise known as DevGru or SEAL Team 6, the storied unit that tracked down and killed bin Laden earlier this year. DevGru only has about 300 operators, so Saturday’s crash wiped out a disproportionately large share of its fighters.
“This hurts, no question about it,” Worthington said. “These guys aren’t just made overnight.”
On Monday, the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan offered its fullest account yet of Saturday’s failed rescue mission. In the statement, the military said a second detachment of troops--identified by other military sources as Army Rangers--had been searching for a high-ranking Taliban leader in eastern Afghanistan’s Wardak Province when they engaged a group of insurgents armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
During the resulting firefight, the Rangers requested reinforcements, and the in-bound helicopter carrying the SEALs and other troops “was reportedly fired on by an insurgent rocket-propelled grenade while transporting the U.S. service members and commandos to the scene of an on-going engagement between ISAF and insurgent forces.” In all, 38 troops died when the chopper crashed, making the incident the bloodiest in the 10-year Afghan war and the worst ever for the elite forces.
For many in the SEAL community, the details of Saturday’s incident brought back vivid and unsettling memories of Operation Red Wings, which took place in Kunar Province, a short distance away from the Wardak crash.
The 2005 mission began the same way as Saturday’s incident, with a small contingent of elite troops, in this case a four-man SEAL detachment, airlifted into eastern Afghanistan to hunt down a senior Taliban leader. The men were discovered by three local goat herders, and the SEALs--after debating whether to kill the Afghans as a precaution--allowed the men to leave unharmed. Less than an hour later, the SEALs came under assault by an enemy force of more than 100 fighters.