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In late June 2005, media sources recounted the tragic story of nineteen U.S. special operations personnel who died at the hands of insurgent / terrorist leader Ahmad Shah--and the lone survivor of Shah's ambush--deep in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush. The harrowing events of Operation Red Wings marked an important--yet widely misreported--chapter in the Global War on Terror, the full details of which the public burned to learn.
VICTORY POINT reveals the complete, as-yet untold, story of Operation Red Wings (often mis-referenced as "Operation Redwing"), and the follow-on mission, Operation Whalers. Together, these two U.S. Marine Corps operations (that in the case of Red Wings utilized Navy SEALs for its opening phase) unfurl not as a mission gone terribly wrong, but of a complex and difficult campaign that ultimately saw the demise of Ahmad Shah and his small army of barbarous fighters.
This page gives an abbreviated, general overview of what is contained in the book VICTORY POINT, which documents Operation Red Wings and Operation Whalers in detail. The discussion here also addresses facts about Operation Red Wings often omitted, exaggerated, and in some cases fabricated (as is unfortunately the case with some military operations). Read VICTORY POINT for the detailed story. Then, if interested in reading more about facts of Operation Red Wings having been exaggerated, omitted, and in some cases fabricated, read here for a discussion..
VICTORY POINT documents two United States Marine Corps operations, Operation Red Wings and Operation Whalers, that took place in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province in the summer of 2005. (View shaded relief map of Afghanistan, found on page 7 of VICTORY POINT). The overarching mission 'umbrella' driving these two and preceding operations was to ensure stability in this restive part of Afghanistan for the country's forthcoming National Parliamentary Elections (which took place successfully, virtually without incident, on 18 September, 2005). Only a strong voter turnout in all provinces would legitimize these elections to observers throughout the world and most importantly to the people of Afghanistan. Because the Kunar proved the most volatile of Afghanistan's provinces with respect to terrorist and insurgent activity in 2005, securing this province was key to ensuring strong turnout and hence validated elections. A failure in Kunar, even though just one of thirty-four Afghan provinces, could be used by those seeking a resurgence of the Taliban to convince the country's population that their's was the only viable route into the future. For the immediate run up to these elections in the Kunar, the job of crushing the threat to peaceful elections and maintaining overall stability in the province fell on the shoulders of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment (with support from units of other services).
To really understand the operational construct of Red Wings (often mis-referenced as 'Operation Redwing' and sometimes as 'Operation Red Wing'), one must understand the military situation in Afghanistan and in the Kunar in 2005. With the greater Taliban virtually eliminated within a few months of the start of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the United States Military and Coalition partners embarked on a long term nation building and counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign. While kinetic operations still took place after the first part of the war (a "kinetic operation" is one where things are being shot, blown up, etc.), the focus transitioned from destroying the enemy to helping an ally--by working with local populations to build infrastructure, gain trust for the nascent government, and turn the region from one friendly to entities such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda, to one of stability and growth--and one friendly to the United States and Coalition partners.
The 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment (3/3) had been in place in eastern Afghanistan for a number of months already by January, 2005. Despite a large area of operation, the battalion was achieving success in a number of operations at all scales throughout not just the Kunar Province, but neighboring provinces as well. Those of the battalion, like all U.S. Marines, had been "brought up" as warfighters to work in a construct known as a MAGTF (pronounced Mag-Taff), or Marine Air Ground Task Force, where all functions of a warfighting unit are under the helm of one commander, and all are tightly integrated--as all components, from logistics, to headquarters and supply, to infantry, to aviation, etc. are Marines, and they have all worked and trained together as one task force long before ever deploying to a combat zone. In the case of 3/3, however, they deployed not as a MAGTF, but as a standard infantry battalion, with no organic aviation assets, no artillery assets, etc. They would be integrated into a "joint task force" to work with units of other services. I won't get into the often confusing specifics here, as I devote the better part of Chapter 3 of VICTORY POINT to the command structure in Afghanistan in 2005, but it required the staff of 3/3 to adapt and develop creative methods to undertake large operations. One of their greatest successes came with creating a model that integrated special operations forces ("SOF" - e.g. Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs) into their operations, which availed not just the skill sets of these units to the operation, but supporting SOF assets that by doctrine, could not be directly tasked to a conventional force such as a Marine Corps infantry battalion.
In February, 2005, 3/3 conducted Operation Spurs to root out insurgents and terrorists in the infamous Korangal Valley. Named in honor of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team (3/3 used sports-team names--primarily Texas sports teams--for their large scale operations), the battalion staff integrated Naval Special Operations Forces (NAVSOF, i.e. SEALs) into Spurs. The staff of 3/3 designed Spurs as a multi-phase, intelligence triggered (meaning they would launch the operation upon gleaning intelligence that known or suspected militants were present in the target area) operation where 3/3 would maintain de facto "OPCON" or operational control over the entire mission, despite doctrine that outlined that special operations forces could not work "in support of" a conventional operation. The plan for the early phases of the operation had Marines working with SEALs to take down insurgents, then the Marines would continue "presence" operations for upwards of a month or more, undertaking MEDCAP (Medical Capability) missions--providing healthcare for the locals--and bringing in PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) that would build roads, schools, etc. ("Nation Building")
Inserting by day via U.S. Army CH-47 Chinooks, the Marines of 3/3 cordoned off target zones while U.S. Navy SEALs conducted "hard hit" raids and captured a number of known and suspected target individuals. Once the SEALs left the Korangal after the initial phases of Spurs, the Marines of 3/3 remained for weeks. Spurs was a tremendous success, and one after which operations would be modeled into the near future, including April 2005's Operation Mavericks, May, 2005's Operation Celtics, and an operation that 3/3 began working on that they named in honor of the Dallas Stars professional hockey team. 3/3 would never conduct Operation Stars, however, due to intelligence driving the specific planning for the operation "drying up." The "shell" of the op would be handed over to the battalion replacing 3/3, the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment, 3/3's sister battalion, where it would become Operation Red Wings.
A side note on 3/3 and the Korangal Valley after Operation Spurs: One of the most wanted terrorist / insurgent leaders in the area was a man based out of the Korangal Valley known as Najmudeen. Special Operations forces had been trying, through direct action "hard hit" raids, for over 18 months to get Najmudeen, who was responsible for countless IED, mortar, and rocket attacks throughout the eastern Kunar Province. In the wake of Operation Spurs, Marines of 3/3 continued to conduct "presence" operations in the dangerous Korangal, camping in the snow for weeks, forcing Najmudeen into hiding, where he fell ill. He finally cried uncle, and gave himself up in early April, 2005. This was a tremendous, albeit virtually unknown, victory in the Global War on Terror in that Najmudeen was one of the most wanted targets not just in the Kunar, but in all of Afghanistan. In the weeks that followed Najmudeen turned over a tremendous amount of actionable intelligence to the battalion.
Below is a link to a .pdf of what the Marines call a "command chronology," which is basically a battalion 'diary.' Portions are blacked out for security reasons, but most of what readers of this site will find interesting is still in there. It gives a great, blow-by-blow overview of what life is like for a Marine infantry battalion working in Afghanistan, and those interested in an official document outlining the naming and development of ops (noted above) up to Red Wings may find it useful. This doesn't cover their entire deployment, but the deployment from January, 2005 through June of 2005, when they turned over with 2/3.
The 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment relieved-in-place (RIPed) 3/3 in late May through early June of 2005. During this process, 3/3's battalion staff (Intelligence Officer, Operations Officer, Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, etc.) finalized turning over information and intel that they'd been sending 2/3 for months. This included everything necessary to continue planning 3/3's shell of an operation: Stars. 2/3 looked to undertake the planning of that operation along the same lines that 3/3 had developed Spurs, Mavericks, and Celtics, but with some slight variations.
3/3 had established a vigorous operational tempo in the area, keeping pressure on the enemy even during the harsh winter months, and the leadership of 2/3 looked to continue that pace without even a hint of interruption. With Najmudeen gone, Captain Scott Westerfield, 2/3's intelligence officer, scoured intel fed to him by 3/3 to identify others who might try to take Najmudeen's place. One name stuck out to him from incident reports (reports of IED attacks, mortar and rocket attacks, and small ambushes) in the area: Ahmad Shah, AKA "Ismail." Westerfield didn't know much about him, other than that he was a relatively small time operator from the area, but surmised that he had big goals, and would be aggressive in his attempts to support a possible Taliban resurgence, and in that vein, disrupt the elections through terror strikes.
A major breakthrough in Westerfield's and his staff's intel on Shah came after 2nd Lieutenant Regan Turner gathered a wealth of HUMINT (human intelligence) on the insurgent, including his place of birth, full name, his allegiances, where he operated, and other vital intel. With Turner's information and other intelligence (described in detail in VICTORY POINT), Westerfield identified four "named areas of interest"(NAIs) (MAP) in the Sawtalo Sar / Korangal Valley / Shuryek Valley region (oblique terrain model of region) where Shah most likely used as safe areas and IED factories. Diligently gathered and processed intel revealed that Shah had up to twenty fighters with him.
The stated goal of Operation Red Wings was to "disrupt ACM [anti-coalition militia] activity" in the region, with Shah and his cell being the focus of the operation, as they were responsible for current strikes. Shah himself was considered an HPT--a "high payoff target," (specivically "high payoff" to the operation, not throughout the area of operation, Afghanistan, or USCENTCOM) in that killing or capturing him would virtually ensure that his cell would disintegrate. (Members of his "army"fought with him because he paid them, as is typical with these cells. No Ahmad Shah, no paycheck. Back to Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi, wherever).
Images of enemy cell leader Ahmad Shah (click for lager versions of each):
2/3's planners took the Stars model and, based on Westerfield's intelligence reports, developed an operation named Red Wings--also named after a hockey team, the Detroit Red Wings.
The plan would have a six-man Marine Scout / Sniper team walk under cover of darkness to the first of two designated observation posts near the summit of Sawtalo Sar (MAP), from where the Marines could get "eyes on" individual target structures within each of the NAIs, positively identify Shah and his men, and then radio the exact location of the targets. The main assault would occur at night (for maximum surprise), and as intel evolved with the development of the operation, that night looked more and more like one with virtually no lunar illumination (late in the month of June, 2005), requiring the battalion to utilize the aviation assets of the 160th Special Operations Air Regiment (Airborne), AKA "The Night Stalkers." The main assault would have a team of twenty Marines from 1st Platoon, Company E, 2/3 raid the identified target structures, inserted by MH-47s of the 160th, while a company sized element would provide outer and inner cordon, they too inserted by MH-47s of the 160th. After taking down Shah's cell, Marines would remain in the area for weeks, undertaking a variety of presence missions (general patrols, medical capability, and general humanitarian assistance), and then wind down the operation. This was similar to the Stars model, only they would simply task a SOF aviation element, not a ground element.
However, during the time when 2/3 was relieving 3/3, other command echelons were turning over--commands at the senior level of the coalition in Afghanistan, including both conventional forces and of special operations forces. The new special operations task force commanders adhered to a much stricter interpretation of special operations doctrine, and would not allow 2/3 to have access to special operations aviation assets unless they included a SOF ground unit for the opening phases of the operation--and handed command and control over to SOF during these first phases. In order to proceed with the operation, the battalion was forced to include a special operations ground unit. Conventional Army aviation assault support (troop and equipment transport) available to the Marines in their joint environment could not, by doctrine, operate in those low lunar illumination conditions, otherwise, the Marines would have used conventional aviation and maintained solid command and control over all phases of the fully conventional operation.
As a result, the battalion kept their overall plan, but the surveillance team of the initial phase would not be Marine Scout Snipers walking in under cover of darkness, rather, a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team, who chose to insert by helicopter (at night) to a location within just one mile of a populated area (although sparsely populated, populated nonetheless). This was a substantial deviation to the plan, as the original reconnaissance and surveillance team for Red Wings was to be a standard Marine Scout / Sniper team "plussed up" with two other Marines for added security, and battalion planners felt that a helicopter insert would compromise the mission by revealing coalition force presence in this area. The plan then had U.S. Navy SEALs conducting the direct action portion of the raid with U.S. Marines undertaking the cordon portions of the operation. The Marines would then continue with their original plan after the raid. The details of the planning of Red Wings are comprehensively discussed in VICTORY POINT.
The four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team inserted on a saddle between Sawtalo Sar and Gatigal Sar (MAP) late in the night of 27 June 2005 and then moved north toward Observation Post-1. Late in the morning of 28 June 2005, the team was soft compromised (discovered by unarmed local civilians) near OP-1, and soon thereafter a team of Shah's men numbering approximately eight to ten in strength (including Shah) ambushed them. Shah's attack 'funneled' the team into the northeast gulch of Sawtalo Sar on the Shuryek Valley side of the mountain. The SEALs, who carried a relatively low power (5 Watt) PRC-148 radio attempted repeatedly to establish communication with combat operations centers, but couldn't effectively gain 'solid comms' due to the radio's low power exacerbated by the terrain. Major Tom Wood, 2/3's operations officer, personally ensured before the launch of the operation that the team had a number of 10-digit grid reference points (of pre-selected targets) in the area to call a precision artillery strike from a two-gun 105mm Howitzer battery at a Camp Wright, a forward operating base at Asadabad. However, without solid communication, no call-for-fire could be made. Weeks after the SEAL team ambush, during Operation Whalers, a Marine Scout / Sniper team was similarly ambushed on the slopes of Sawtalo Sar, not far from the site of the SEAL team ambush. The team leader, Sergeant Keith Eggers, called an artillery strike, and the ambush ended immediately with 105mm Howitzer rounds erupting on the enemy's positions. This, by the way, was one of the most gripping parts of the book for me to write.
I should note that the SEAL team also carried an Iridium 9505A satellite phone as a backup to the 148. They were widely reported to have carried a cellular phone with them as backup, which is incorrect. A satellite phone is not a cell phone, and there was no cellular service at this very remote location in 2005 (although due to American and Coalition rebuilding efforts, cellular service is now available in very far-flung corners of Afghanistan--but even today, I doubt that cell service would be available in the NE Gulch of Sawtalo Sar). As discussed in VICTORY POINT, during their attempts to establish solid comms with the combat operations centers, the team used the Iridium. I personally own an Iridium, and while I'm glad I have one as I can place a call from literally anywhere in the world (except Libya and North Korea, by international treaty), the service has its problems. First of all, you need a really good view of the clear sky--Iridiums don't work near buildings, tall trees, and in steep gullies like the Northeast Gulch of Sawtalo Sar. You may be able to get a call out for a short period of time, but once the satellite handling your call passes behind a ridge, and no others are available to which to pass the call (the calls are handled by a constellation of 66 low earth orbit satellites which pop up above and drop below the horizon constantly), then the call ends. Iridiums also have a peculiarity that I don't quite understand, but have experienced: they sometimes only work as half duplex communications devices, meaning only one way at a time, that is I can hear you but you can't hear me, and vica-versa. In VICTORY POINT, I describe how 1st Lieutenant Rob Long, while in one of the combat operations centers, listened as this happened to the SEALs. Each time this happens, the user must end the call and re dial, and placing a call on a military Iridium requires the user to first dial a cumbersome series of digits before the actual number.
The ambush against the SEALs was overwhelming, with Shah's team broken into three to four groups, each firing downward at the SEALs with AK47 fire, PK light machine gun fire (plunging, interlocking machine gun fire, a devastating method of attack), rocket propelled grenade fire, and possibly 82mm mortar fire. Of the four, only one survived and made his way to the village of Salar Ban, where he was taken in by a villager who had become friends with Marines at Camp Blessing (some miles away, at the village of Nangalam). Hours after the ambush, a quick reaction force was launched, and one of the two MH-47s of the QRF was shot down by a rocket propelled grenade round near the original insert point, killing all on board. This was a lucky shot, really. Helicopters in the area were frequently shot at with rocket propelled grenades. Here is is an incident report (when page opens, scroll to bottom to read incident report) just a couple days before the MH-47 shootdown. Here is another (on the same day of the shootdown, just a few hours earlier). In total, 19 special operations personnel died that day: 8 Army special operations aviators, and 11 Navy SEALs (8 on the helicopter and 3 from the R and S team). One of the many myths of Operation Red Wings is that there was an RQ-1 Predator UAV on station providing feed of all of this to the combat operations centers. This is a myth more in military circles than civilian ones, but a myth nonetheless. UAVs in 2005 were hard-to-get assets and were reserved only for the highest priority missions (which Red Wings was not, until the ambush and subsequent shootdown of the helicopter, when it became Red Wings II). Here is a (still classified, but released on Wikileaks, like the two incidents noted above) incident report detailing an aerial search by an AH-64 of the area after the shootdown of the MH-47. Note there is no mention of a UAV, Predator or otherwise . Below are some other reports discussing the incident, which list aircraft used. Never is a UAV listed. Note, that while there are some errors (it was Turbine 33, not Turbine 89, and there was no survivor recovered) due likely to the fervor of the moment, these reports are very precise when listing TYPE of aircraft. If you go through other after actions noted on Wikileaks, you can see when they have air requests for UAVs - like here, during Operation Pil, when Combined Joint Task Force 76 (CJTF76) redirected BOAR 05 (an A-10) and Predator (a UAV) to engage a group of enemy who launched a rocket attack against Camp Blessing on 18 OCT 2005.
Here are the four above noted reports released by Wikileaks pertaining to Red Wings:
AFG20050628n116 (New page will open, then scroll to bottom of it to read incident report)
AFG20050628n117 (New page will open, then scroll to bottom of it to read incident report)
AFG20050628n118 (New page will open, then scroll to bottom of it to read incident report)
AFG20050628n120 (New page will open, then scroll to bottom of it to read incident report)
With the MH-47 shootdown, Operation Red Wings became Operation Red Wings II, and efforts at that point focused on rescuing any survivors and recovering any bodies of those killed, as well as recovering any gear of value. During the earliest moments of Red Wings II, no one at either of the combat operations centers (one in Bagram for the SEALs and one in Jalalabad for the Marines (with a special operations / conventional operations liaison team in Jalalabad)) knew the fate of the four of the reconnaissance and surveillance team, or if any crew or passengers survived the MH-47 crash.
A large force of Marines and special operations troops pushed into the Korangal and Shuryek valleys and an array of aviation assets plied the skies above for the search and recovery effort in Red Wings II. Shah and his men absconded into Pakistan, hence the overall goal of Red Wings was achieved (disrupting Anticoalition activity). But it was a pyrrhic achievement, and a temporary one at that. Shah and his men recovered virtually all of the SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team's equipment, including 3 SOPMOD M4s (fitted with M203 40mm grenade launchers), rounds for the M4s and rounds for the grenade launchers, a Leupold sniper spotting scope, hand grenades, night vision goggles, four tactical helmets, a GPS, the intact PRC-148 radio, and among many other items, a computer with an intact hard drive that contained sensitive and classified information--all of which was shown on a video produced in Pakistan and distributed throughout the world. The weapons recovered by Shah would presumably be used against American and Coalition partner forces, as well as Afghan military and civilian targets. International news media outlets focused on the tragedy, and Shah, a once unknown local Taliban aspirant, gained worldwide recognition overnight. Islamic fundamentalist fighters from throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East flowed in to join his ranks, and his attacks began anew just weeks after Red Wings.
In my research into the 24 July 2005 Pech River Road IED Strike noted above, I found that while the Marines were recovering the HMMWV (Humvee) after the attack, Shah's men were, unknown to the Marines, watching them, and recording them--through a spotting scope, likely the Leupold scope they pillaged from the SEALs, as no video Shah produced prior to the ambush utilized a spotting scope.
See a (rather chilling) side-by-side view Here of a screen grab of video shot by Shah's men through the spotting scope and a photograph by Marines at the IED strike site.
I wish I could write more and give more details, as I've really only glossed over the important points (I'd say I've presented about three or four percent of what is covered in VICTORY POINT), but the full story is in VICTORY POINT, and I'd like to get on to presenting some new imagery--brand new and never before published until this site--and then get on to addressing a few points raised by people about Red Wings, and then give a quick overview of Operation Whalers and make a few concluding remarks.
I receive a large number of inquiries about imagery and maps pertaining to Red Wings. I spent quite a bit of time creating the maps in the book (a few of which I've put on this site, in .jpg form), but unfortunately, the book's format only allowed for a relatively small reproduction size. Quite a few people have also asked about the digital elevation models I originally included on this page (in early 2006), and I have gone back and made some more, in larger sizes.
This is a planimetric view (looking straight down) of the Sawtalo Sar region, showing the Korangal Valley, the Shuryek Valley, and the villages of Salar Ban and Chichal. Note that the villages, while small in population, occupy a much greater area than depicted on this image. Refer to VICTORY POINT for detail on these locations.
You may want to refer to the topographic map, found on Page 91 of VICTORY POINT, for more detail.
Click image for large version.
This is an oblique view, looking west, of the Sawtalo Sar massif, the Korangal Valley, and the detail of the western 'wall' of the Shuryek Valley, including the Northeast Spur and Northeast Gulch. Refer to VICTORY POINT for detail on the helicopter landing zones, etc. Note that the villages, while small in population, occupy a much greater area than depicted on this image.
You may want to refer to the topographic map, found on Page 91 of VICTORY POINT, for more detail.
Click image for large version.
This is an oblique view, looking west, of the Northeast Gulch and Northeast Spur on Sawtalo Sar, showing the upper reaches of Salar Ban and the two designated observation posts. Shah and his men 'funneled' the SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team into the Northeast Gulch during the ambush. Refer to VICTORY POINT for detail on the helicopter landing zones, etc. Note that the villages, while small in population, occupy a much greater area than depicted on this image.
You may want to refer to the topographic map, found on Page 91 of VICTORY POINT, for more detail.
Click image for large version.
A somewhat hypothetical graphical interpretation of an ambush such as unfolded against the SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team on the Northeast Gulch of Sawtalo Sar. This is a view of the Northeast Gulch (see above graphic for terrain features), with hypothetical plunging, interlocking fires (red arrows) from three positions onto a team (blue arrow). This is an incredibly overwhelming and effective ambush technique.
You may want to refer to the topographic map, found on Page 91 of VICTORY POINT, for more detail.
Click image for large version.
Panchromatic (black and white) imagery of the Northeast Gulch of Sawtalo Sar. This imagery was made on 17 June 2005, ten days prior to the insert of the SEAL team. All grids and symbology removed, and no scale given.
You may want to refer to the topographic map, found on Page 91 of VICTORY POINT, for more detail.
Click image for large version.
The best I can do to show the location of the above imagery. I can't quite get the Google Earth view angle and elevation to be the same as the sensor platform's (because I don' t know it), so it is an approximation, but based on terrain features, I think a pretty good one.
You may want to refer to the topographic map, found on Page 91 of VICTORY POINT, for more detail.
Click image for large version.
A view in the Northeast Gulch during the ambush. This is a still capture of video footage shot by one of two videographers with Ahmad Shah during the ambush. While not able to identify specific terrain features during this video, the slopes and aspects match up to topographic maps and terrain digital elevation models.
Click image for large version.
In the book, I included an image taken on 4 July 2005, of the remains of a rotor assembly of the downed MH-47 and the Shuryek Valley. In the oblique view above, I have the location of the MH-47 shootdown noted. I continue to read that the initial phase of Red Wings, the ambush, and the shootdown took place in the Korangal Valley. While two NAIs were in the Korangal, none of the events of Red Wings, save for the search effort, took place in the Korangal. All the events took place on the Shuryek Valley side of the upper Sawtalo Sar massif. Click the image to the left to see how I determined location by matching key terrain features between photos and Google Earth.
As I noted at the beginning of this page, I continue to receive questions about a few specific points of Operation Red Wings. These stem from inaccurate reporting, exaggerations, and omissions. I'll go over them one by one:
For a more in-depth discussion of Operation Red Wings Misinformation, please read this page (after you read the below section first.)
The name of the operation was Operation Red Wings (and then Operation Red Wings II, as described in VICTORY POINT, and briefly above). Up until the publication of VICTORY POINT, most media outlets and even the Navy referred to this as "Operation Redwing," and some "Operation Red Wing." While 'textually' close, this was a stunning error. As explained above, this naming convention began with the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment (3/3) naming their larger-scale operations after sports teams, primarily Texas teams: Spurs (a Texas [San Antonio] basketball team), Mavericks (a Texas [Dallas] basketball team), and then the Celtics (a Massachusetts [Boston] basketball team), and then their final operation was to be named after the Stars, a Texas [Dallas] Hockey Team--(3/3's commanding officer was from the Houston area of Texas). As described in VICTORY POINT, and above, the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment, when they relieved-in-place the 3rd Battalion, inherited the "shell" of Operation Stars, but modified it, including its name--but would stick with a hockey team name, just not one from Texas. During the planning, Major Tom Wood, 2/3's operations officer, handed the task of compiling a list of possible hockey team names to 1st Lieutenant Lance Seiffert, an assistant operations officer, who then produced this list (he was gracious enough to send me a photograph of it from his archived 2005 deployment notes for my research of VICTORY POINT). Starting from the top, Wood and the staff eliminated using the New York Rangers because they worried that there might be confusion with U.S. Army Rangers operating in the same region. They then eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks (the Army flew Blackhawk helicopters in the area of operation, and wanted to not introduce any confusion with regard to them). Next on the list was the New Jersey Devils, but 2/3's higher command was "Task Force Devil" (I describe the overall command structure in Afghanistan in detail in VICTORY POINT). Then the next on Seiffert's list was the Detroit Red Wings, and Red Wings posed no potential confusion, so that is what they chose: Operation Red Wings.
A further note on nomenclature: After Red Wings, in continuing the naming convention that 3/3 began, 2/3 chose the name Whalers for their next big operation, after the Hartford / New England Whalers hockey team. There was also a plan in the works for Operation Bruins, but after Whalers, the battalion began naming operations after Dari words for animals (Dari is one of two main languages spoken in Afghanistan), such as Operation Pil (Elephant), and Operation Sorkh Khar (Red Donkey). As part of their accelerating counterinsurgency campaign, 2/3's operations always included a large contingent of local Afghan National Army soldiers, to whom United States hockey teams meant nothing, hence a local connection with the Dari animal terms.
I should note that I didn't go into this much detail in the book on the name, because it was a pretty straightforward and simple part of the story, but I've received enough emails that I see that some people might want further clarification.
"A Marine Corps operation that integrated special operations assets for the opening phases of the mission" is the best description of Operation Red Wings. Strictly speaking, Operation Red Wings evolved as a joint operation, one involving conventional Marine, NAVSOF, and Army special operations personnel (and conventional Army and Air Force assets, and of course, the attached conventional Navy Corpsmen). As detailed in VICTORY POINT, and described briefly above, the battalion needed helicopter support that, due to the low lunar illumination available during the the designated start of the op, could only be provided by the 160th, a SOF asset. Due to higher command mandates rooted in a strict adherence to special operations doctrine, the battalion could only get this asset if they integrated a SOF ground force into their operational plan, and give that SOF ground unit command and control over the operation for SOF phases of the operation. Red Wings II actually had many more units from various services, both conventional and SOF, to aid in the search and recovery effort.
The 'narrative' of this operation, virtually from the first media reports, painted Red Wings as solely a special operations mission, incredibly without mentioning Marine Corps involvement, or discussing the preceding operations after which Red Wings was modeled. I've seen other articles that claim that the four-man team was sent in on a covert mission to kill (or even capture) Ahmad Shah. Yes, the opening surveillance and reconnaissance phase of the operation had to be covert. Once the main team (of 20 SEALs, backed by over one hundred Marines) inserted to conduct the direct action phase against Shah and his men (intel stated that Shah had up to twenty fighters), then the four-man team would have been employed to aid the main force. However, they were certainly not sent in on their own to undertake a "kill/capture" operation against a leader with up to five times the strength of the SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team.
Ahmad Shah was not one of Osama bin Laden's lieutenant's, neither was he an HVT (high value target), nor even an MVT (medium value target). Based on the evolving nature of the area of operation, the upcoming elections, and the fact that 3/3 had forced Najmudeen's surrender (creating a terrorist / insurgent power vacuum in the area), 2/3 labeled Shah an HPV (a "high payoff target"), not to be confused with a high value target, for reasons described above. In fact, Ahmad Shah was barely on the "radar screen" of 3/3 during their Afghan tour. However, in the wake of the Red Wings tragedy, articles like this one (first published in the Times of London), fueled a litany of exaggerated speculation--that persists to this day. Others have stated that Shah was in fact a right hand man to Osama bin Laden. The reality, based on information acquired in-the-field by Regan Turner (and other intel sources), and analyzed and processed by Scott Westerfield and Westerfield's intel staff, was that Shah (his full name was Ahmad Shah Dara-I Nur - "Ahmad Shah of the Valley of the Enlightened Ones;" he came from an isolated valley in neighboring Nangarhar Province), was not directly tied to either the Taliban or Al Qaeda prior to Red Wings (and Osama bid Laden very likely never heard of him, until maybe news of the ambush and shootdown). After Red Wings, he was found to be supporting a local man in Nangarhar aligned with Al Qaeda who sought Shah's help (financial) to win a seat in the national parliament. Shah's closest affiliation was with Gulbadin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami Gulbadin (HIG), based in the Shamshatoo refugee camp outside of Peshawar, Pakistan (which does, in fact, have loose ties to what was / is left of the Taliban and Al Qaeda at that time). Really, Shah was just another of what the battalion knew as ACM, or Anti-Coalition Militia--of which there were twenty-two distinct groups operating in the Kunar at some level (mostly very small levels). Now, that's not to say that Shah didn't aspire to be a big player in a desired Taliban resurgence, and that is exactly what Turner discovered through hard-won ground HUMINT work. I found the story of Regan Turner uncovering the background of Ahmad Shah to be fascinating--although he thinks that it was no big deal. It was one of my favorite parts of VICTORY POINT to write.
And one other note on the myth of Ahmad Shah being a big player: As noted above, there was no Predator UAV put on station for this op. Were Shah anything but a small time player (regardless of his big aspirations), there would have been a UAV either on station, or "orbiting," ready to get pushed into the AO.
Initial intel, prior to the launch of Red Wings, put Shah's force at up to twenty ACM. This intel came not from one source, nor one type of source, but from multiple, cross referenced sources. Furthermore, the small villages of the Korangal Valley / Sawtalo Sar / Shuryek Valley region--throughout the mountains of the Kunar, for that matter--cannot sustain numbers larger than twenty for very long; it is a logistical impossibility. The locals there can barely subsist, much less feed and house a small army.
Among Shah's group were two men who each carried, in addition to a weapon, a video camera. Two videos of the ambush were made--one that was used as a propaganda video, showing footage of the ambush and then the weapons and gear pillaged from the SEALs, and another that was never released, or at least not broadly released (not on the internet, at least that I know of). I was able to get the second video; both were authenticated by the military--even without that nod, their authenticity is obvious.
Number of men under his command represents the "currency" of the insurgent or terrorist--the more fighters, the "wealthier" the commander, especially if evidence of these numbers are distributed on the internet and other media. Osama bin Laden was known to hire 'extras' for videos produced of him milling about to project that he maintained direct control over a much larger personal force than he actually did. While none of the fighters on Shah's videos were ever considered 'extras'--it was an actual ambush--the highest number of men that can be counted at any one time (including videographers) is six. There was a reason Ahmad Shah had not one, but two videographers with him, and that reason was to show his "wealth" as a terrorist, to ensure that all in his team were documented doing what they did. But even without the videos, the military established the number at 8 to 10--based on analysis of a type of signals intelligence gathering during and immediately after the ambush, as well as human intelligence gathered in Pakistan. I don't discuss in detail this intel, because it is sensitive (the way the signals intelligence was gathered), and also, with regard to the human intelligence gathered in Pakistan, the collections involved special operations units.
The number in Shah's group seems to be a big issue with some individuals. I think that the narrative of a four-man Navy SEAL team being deployed to take on a group of hundreds under the leadership of the right-hand man of the world's most wanted individual has all the makings of an edge-of-your-seat military action thriller. But it doesn't happen in reality. And it certainly wasn't the case in Red Wings.
Regardless of number of men, Shah and his fighters had the SEALs surrounded (by up to 180 degrees), and fired at them from superior (higher elevation) positions with weapons of heavier caliber than the SEALs' .223 (5.56mm) caliber weapons. Shah himself fired at them with a PK medium machine gun, which fires a 7.62 x 54mm round. The PK is loosely comparable to the M240, the medium machine gun used by U.S. Marine infantry that fires a 7.62 x 51mm round (it replaced the M60 machine gun). Shah also had at least one RPG gunner, a number of men firing AK47s (7.62 x 39mm round), and possibly an 82mm mortar operator. The 82mm mortar HE round (high explosive) alone can wipe out a team much larger than four men, even if they are somewhat dispersed. I had the unfortunate experience in the spring of 2009, while at a forward operating base that sits up against the Pakistani border in the Kunar, to come under 82mm mortar attack. Thankfully, none of the rounds landed closer than 150 meters to any personnel. I took a look at one of the impact craters after the attack, and was surprised by how large a radius of destruction that an individual 82mm mortar round caused.
The only surviving member of the four-man team, Marcus Luttrell, wrote a brief (2 1/2 page) after action report. In it, he stated that he estimated that the reconnaissance and surveillance team was ambushed by 20 to 35 ACM. Twenty was the number that was initially released by CJTF-76 Public Affairs, and that is why the earliest media reports used the number twenty (in the Time magazine article, they state "...probably 5 to 1" as related to the four-man team - meaning 20). Further analysis, the results of which never made it into the press (derived from analysis of signals intelligence gleaned during the ambush and human intelligence derived in Pakistan after the ambush, and videos of the actual ambush) stated the number to be between eight and ten.
But as time progressed, the number quickly inflated from twenty. Some sources state up to 200. I've seen figures even higher than this. Ever since a blunt education by Marines in Afghanistan on the subject, I've been ever-skeptical of stated enemy numbers. While I was in Afghanistan on my first embed, the Marines taught me about "Afghan Math" - "Just divide by about ten to get the real number " is the governing directive of "Afghan Math"--when reading enemy numbers in press reports or when the enemy tries their brand of PsyOps over two-way radios ("we have fifty men waiting to ambush you" usually means, maybe, five). I experienced this during my first tag-along with Marines in combat in Afghanistan--listening to a "Taliban commander" talking to Marines over an Icom late one night (on a ridge across the Pech River Valley from Sawtalo Sar). I couldn't figure out why everyone was laughing. I wasn't laughing. Turns out "they" didn't have even five, just the guy on his Icom two-way radio. Of course, he never attacked us, other than verbally.
I wish I could find a written counterpart to a news story I saw about an ambush in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan, where the stated number of enemy combatants was 300. I was instantly skeptical of that number, and then the newscast ran an interview of an Army AH-64 Apache pilot who engaged the enemy from the air and had an exponentially better view of the overall battlespace than those on the ground. He stated that he'd never seen so many enemy massed in one location, and thought that there must have been "about thirty." Afghan Math.
After that first Afghan Math experience with the "Taliban commander" on the Icom, I gleaned a much better understanding of Afghan Math during Operation Pil, in late October, 2005. I was talking with one of the lieutenants at a patrol base a few miles east of Sawtalo Sar when I heard whizzing and cracking over my head, and then the crack-crack-crack of distant machine gun rounds unleashing what had already passed just feet above us. Rounds splintered branches and thudded into rocks. After the Marines took cover and quickly unleashed an overwhelming volley of return fire, I asked how many enemy had attacked us, thinking the number to be at least fifteen. The answer--from a seasoned Scout / Sniper team leader: Two. Two guys, each with a PK machine gun, at two locations, coordinating plunging, interlocking machine gun fire focused on our camp. Thankfully, this attack didn't injure or kill anyone, although there were some close calls.
The bottom line with respect to the four-man SEAL team is that they were vastly outgunned and out positioned, by an enemy that had excellent cover from the thick forest surrounding the Northeast Gulch, who knew the terrain well, and who coordinated a fierce combined arms attack utilizing a variety of powerful weapons systems (much more powerful than anything the SEALs had). Whether eight to ten or eight hundred to one thousand, it didn't matter. This was an overwhelmingly powerful ambush, especially given the RPG and PK fire, and the steep, narrow, funnel-like terrain.
After Red Wings, due to the media spotlight glowing on Shah, other extremists came to join his ranks, bringing his estimated force up to 100--"up to" being the operative term. Really, it was probably in the range of 60 to 80 (maybe), but never in one place--the total distributed throughout tens of miles of terrain. So his numbers went from about a dozen to a few dozen. Even if the number was one hundred fighters total, they would face off against a force of Marines and attached Afghan National Army soldiers that comprised a force totaling in the hundreds during Whalers. And this is how modern military operations are planned--that if they are to be kinetic, stack the odds in our favor with overwhelming numbers.
In the end, it could only take one terrorist / insurgent to launch an 82mm mortar or 107mm rocket attack against a school used as a polling place for the upcoming elections, killing dozens (which did not happen), garnering media attention that would just aid the IO campaign (information operations) of Ahmad Shah. The point is that even one terrorist can do a lot of harm, and one is one too many.
How and why have the facts of Red Wings been so exaggerated and important points omitted? Read a discussion here.
So with those main points addressed on Red Wings, I'll just briefly cover Operation Whalers.
A truly distributed operation, one that employed a number of conventional units (Army artillery, Army transport aviation, Air Force resupply, Air Force Attack Aircraft, Army helicopter gunship, Afghan National Army soldiers, and others) as support for the Marines of 2/3, Whalers evolved as a conventional only, yet complex scheme of maneuver warfare throughout all the valleys surrounding Sawtalo Sar--the Korangal, the Shuryek, the Narang, and the Chowkay. Whalers was an operation that ultimately yielded victory over Ahmad Shah, through moments of incredibly tough fighting, that fighting being against a tough and motivated enemy, but also against the austere terrain and elements of the Hindu Kush. Just how did the battalion ultimately prevail over Ahmad Shah, just in time for National Parliamentary Elections? Read about it in VICTORY POINT.
As a result of the successful Operation Whalers, the elections in Kunar proceeded with great success. This represented a huge victory not just for American and Coalition forces, but for Afghanistan and that part of the world. With continuing progress, successes like these will continue to pay dividends for the United States and the world for decades to come.
But Whalers was a hard-fought mission, one that almost didn't even start. In order for infantry to be able to operate, aviation must be available for casualty evacuation, resupply, etc. The higher command structure was so concerned about another helicopter shootdown that they were loath to approve aviation assets for virtually any mission type that posed even a remote chance of an incident. This was one of the enduring negative reverberations of the Red Wings tragedy. However, through diligence, tireless resolve, and a lot of creative solutions to a seeming unending array of hurdles, Whalers proceeded, and the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Regiment prevailed--despite an emboldened and strengthened enemy and an operational environment made frustratingly burdensome and complex by a higher command gun shy due to what had happened during the opening phase of Red Wings.
I cross referenced details on each part of the book from several participants. There was at least one item I wanted to put in the book concerning the delay in the launch of the QRF during Red Wings, but while the source from which it came is as rock solid as sources get, I couldn't corroborate it with another source, so I left it out of the book. I also relied on after action reports (when I could get them) over press releases and articles written in the general media.
Here is VICTORY POINT'S Table of Contents and Index.
I'm an independent author / photographer who covers a broad spectrum of topics, and during the years 2004 through 2011 I focused heavily on Marine Corps infantry and aviation subjects. "Independent" (some call it "freelance") means that I paid my own way to Afghanistan and Iraq (and other places), and then either get reimbursed weeks after my return by a magazine, or through book royalties (years later).
This project began for me in March of 2005 when I traveled to the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC), located in California's eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, to conduct field research for a newspaper article. The 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment was undertaking their predeployment training for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan at the MWTC while I was there. I spent time with the Marines of 2/3 in the mountains of the base and asked battalion leadership if I could join them in Afghanistan as an independent writer / photographer and they agreed.
Formal approval from the Department of the Navy, HQMC, for the publication of material in VICTORY POINT.
My author profile at Penguin Publishing
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