War Stories

King Sy’s Mistakes

What Seymour Hersh got wrong.

In this week’s New Yorker,journalist Seymour Hersh questions the apparent success of the United States’ first major ground action in the Afghanistan war, a two-pronged “special operations” (that is, commando) attack last month on a Taliban airbase and on a complex of buildings sometimes used by Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Although the Pentagon presented the operation as successful (intelligence was collected at both sites), the sizzle of the Hersh piece is his conclusion that it was a “near-disaster” that left the U.S. military “rethinking” the future of such special operations inside Afghanistan. Because of Hersh’s reputation for good sourcing, and because his story has a level of detail not yet found in the Pentagon-approved war reports appearing elsewhere in the media, the piece has had some traction. But does it really hold up?

Hersh’s main contentions: 1) Despite Pentagon claims that the raids met no significant Taliban interference, in fact there was a ferocious firefight at Mullah Omar’s complex and 12 Delta Force commandos were wounded, three seriously. Delta was forced to abandon one of its planned objectives, inserting an undercover team into the area. 2) The airport assault was “something less than the Pentagon suggested,” producing nothing more than exciting TV footage. The Ranger parachutists featured in that footage were not the first U.S. soldiers to hit the field but came in only after a special Army Pathfinder team had been inserted and had confirmed that the field was cleared of Taliban forces. 3) The problems with both raids stem from the inability of military higher-ups to properly understand special ops missions.

Let’s have a look at these points.

Regarding 1) The Pentagon says the firefight at Mullah Omar’s complex was not major and continues to insist that no U.S. soldiers were hurt or killed by hostile fire in either raid. The Pentagon says that some Ranger parachutists received minor injuries from hard landings at the airfield, and a source told me several raiders at Mullah Omar’s complex were injured by debris sent flying by their own grenades. This source adds that there were no “friendly fire” deaths or injuries either, and that as of Nov. 6, all but two raiders were back on full-duty status.

But even if Hersh is right about the number and extent of casualties, the view that they would constitute a near-disaster is wrong. Special operations missions into bad-guy country are extremely dangerous, and their planners and participants expect casualties. Plus, post-9/11, the political tolerance for losses has been raised considerably. (And why is Hersh flogging the old standard?) Therefore, any mission in Afghanistan that didn’t result in fatalities could hardly be rated a disaster.

In the absence of official comment, there is, of course, no way to know conclusively whether the raiders succeeded in inserting an undercover team. But if Hersh is suggesting that the United States has, in general, been incapable of such covert insertions, he’s almost surely wrong. Many press reports, none denied by the Pentagon, have spoken of small teams of U.S. and British commandos operating inside Afghanistan, and the recently stepped-up U.S. bombing in support of Northern Alliance troops operating along a quickly changing front strongly suggests that U.S. operatives are designating targets from the ground.

Regarding 2) Hersh doesn’t seem to understand what the airport assault accomplished. He quotes an officer saying that it could have helped the Rangers “feel good about themselves,” but this is unfairly dismissive. The operation allowed a large number of Rangers to take (and survive!) their first-ever night combat jump, which helps their morale and combat readiness immeasurably. And it was tactical: The raid gave the United States an airfield to use in case the operation at Omar’s complex required bringing in a larger force or a large medical evacuation effort. And, most important, it was strategic: It showed the Taliban that American ground forces can occupy and hold military facilities of their choosing inside Afghanistan. In this respect, the assault was like Jimmy Doolittle’s air raid in 1942. It would have been absurd to think that any damage caused by his bombers in their “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” was going to significantly affect the Japanese war machine, but it sent an important message: Your home base is not secure.

Also, it is quite routine, verging on SOP, for a large airdrop of Rangers to be preceded by the insertion of a small unit (maintaining real-time communications with other forces and commanders) that checks out the immediate area. That advance element would not only check for opposing forces but also verify that the runways were serviceable and determine how big a plane they could handle. The Delta raiders at the Omar complex would almost surely have employed an advance party too, although it might have been tiny, and its lead time a matter of only minutes. And it is not at all unusual for Delta to employ Rangers as a protecting force. Hersh seems confused about whether this degree of support is good or bad. He writes that Delta likes to insert a team of four to six men and suggests that the use of 100 Delta raiders and 200 Rangers at Omar’s complex as their covering force was a mistake forced on Delta by the theater commander and the Pentagon. But he also claims that, as they left Omar’s house, Delta soldiers got into a firefight in which the Taliban had the tactical advantage. Presumably, at that point, the extra U.S. strength came in handy and allowed the raiders to leave without, as even Hersh concedes, taking any fatalities.

And maybe Hersh’s reporting on the numbers isn’t all that accurate. One former U.S. military man I interviewed this week, who has ample field experience working with Delta Force, estimates that the Omar raid might have involved more on the order of 18 to 25 Delta soldiers. And both he and a currently serving military officer with some knowledge of the Afghan missions flatly reject Hersh’s claim that the Omar raid was supported by 16 AC-130 gunships. And, indeed, the U.S. Air Force Web site (which Hersh apparently didn’t check) says that there are only 21 such airplanes in the entire U.S. inventory. It’s highly unlikely that the Pentagon would assign such a large percentage of a given type of asset to a single mission.

Regarding 3) Special ops folks are famous for not talking to anybody else, including their superiors. (Which is why it’s a little hard to believe any of them talked to Hersh—and, indeed, his piece doesn’t directly quote any Delta personnel.) And nowadays, there is nobody in the upper military reaches of Operation Enduring Freedom with a special ops background. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a carrier pilot, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Richard Myers was a fighter pilot who later specialized in outer space systems, and theater commander Gen. Tommy Franks was an artillery officer. So it must be conceded that as the Afghan war goes forward, top-down meddling from commanders who don’t understand special ops will be a real concern. But Hersh has failed to show that this was a factor in the war’s first special ops mission.