The Final Flight of Extortion 17

It was the deadliest helicopter crash in the history of U.S. special operations. Why did it happen?

The Chinook's cargo capacity, speed, and high-altitude performance make it the ideal support aircraft for Special Operations teams in Afghanistan. Here, a CH-47D Chinook flies over the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, California. (Ed Darack)
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But U.S. forces didn’t know about every fighter during the raid, and they lost track of at least two—one of whom fired the deadly shot. Since the shootdown of Extortion 17, the military has continued to gain vital experience and equipment to enable an ever greater understanding of an enemy force, aiming to know every combatant and potential combatant and his weapon system before a raid. According to Glover, improved systems in place enable U.S. forces to monitor a target for days or even weeks prior to an operation, so they theoretically will know of even well-hidden potential RPG shooters throughout a village before transport helicopters first touch down.

The military has worked diligently to more tightly integrate gunship escorts with transport craft, according to Brady. While classification veils the specifics of these tactics, particularly for special operations raids, manned gunships can detect potential threats through a range of sensors and immediately attack if needed. Another tactic sometimes employed by gunships, according to Glover, is a show of force, in which pilots and crew fire into an empty field or stand of trees just before a transport helicopter prepares to land, using the sound of a gun alone to keep enemy heads down and fingers off triggers.

The two military investigations, one conducted by United States Central Command and one by the multi-service Joint Combat Assessment Team, pored over the details of the crash with excruciating focus and concluded that no planners or participants bore any fault regarding the circumstances leading to the shootdown of Extortion 17. Though both noted that airborne sensor coverage and closer AH-64 gunship escort should be considered in future operations, nothing could have kept the shooters from firing their RPGs that night. The Joint Combat Assessment Team report further noted that despite a robust deck of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, none identified the location from which the shooters fired prior to the helicopter downing. 

The shooters’ origin remains a mystery. The two may have been those who escaped Apache cannon fire, or they may have split away from either of the groups that formed after the start of the raid. The duo may also have had no ties to Tahir or any of his suspected fighters, and attacked the helicopter on their own. Should the Apache pilots have fired into the stand of trees after the two fighters ducked out of sight? Should the Apaches, or the AC-130 overhead, have fired upon the groups of suspected Taliban that gathered in the village after the raid began?

Restrained by strict rules of engagement in force at the time, the helicopter crews could not have fired without a strong indication of hostile intent. Afghanistan has long been a counter-insurgency campaign: The United States’ strategy has been to win Afghan trust through cooperation and aid. Having studied and directly observed the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan, I’ve watched commanders and individual American troops consistently lean far to the side of restraint to encourage Afghans to side with American interests long after U.S. forces have left. Because unarmed villagers, unaffiliated with the Taliban, could also have been in those trees and among the groups milling about the village, the gunships could not have fired. Following a “scorched earth” tactic may have killed the two shooters—and possibly a greater number of innocents—prior to Extortion 17’s return that night, but counterinsurgency doctrine dictates that such tactics lead to potentially far worse long-term consequences. 

With a keen understanding of the propaganda value of downing Coalition helicopters, the Taliban single them out as targets. Classified reports, published by Wikileaks, teem with notes from pilots and crew of all types of military helicopters who saw RPG attacks throughout the war. According to one Army report, in the three months prior to the Juy Zarin raid, as many as 17 RPGs were fired at helicopters over Wardak and Logar provinces, a relatively small part of the country. And while all military helicopters carry countermeasures for guided missiles, nothing can interdict the dumb luck of an unguided RPG round sailing through the air. The vast majority miss. “Chance is still part of the battlefield,” says Brady. “For every one that gets lucky, there are hundreds, even thousands, that zip by you.”

“As we’ve seen a number of times, there’s a point that a lucky shot is going to get you and there is only so much you can do to mitigate it,” says Glover, the Marine aviator. “To remove the risk of rocket-propelled grenades downing helicopters in Afghanistan 100 percent, you’d have to remove the opposable thumbs of every fighting-age male in the objective area, and that’s not how we win a counter-insurgency.”    

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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