In this week’s New Yorker,journalist Seymour Hersh questions the apparent success of the
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
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
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
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
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
And maybe Hersh’s reporting on the numbers isn’t all that accurate. One former
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.