Fog, Friction Rule Takur Ghar Battle
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 24, 2002 The fog and friction of war ruled the day when seven American special operations forces died March 3 and 4 on an isolated mountaintop in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Tommy Franks said today.
Late Friday afternoon, the commander of Central Command spoke with reporters at his Tampa headquarters and via videoconference at the Pentagon. A senior military officer who conducted an inquiry on the battle then gave a background briefing at the Pentagon, and Central Command officials released an official account of the battle.
Franks said the battle at Takur Ghar took place during Operation Anaconda when U.S. military officials sent a special operations reconnaissance element to a piece of key terrain. Reaching the 10,000-foot mountaintop, the team's assault helicopter took immediate ground fire. As it lifted out of the hot zone, a U.S. Navy SEAL, Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, was lost out the back.
In the course of the next two hours, the special operations team went back to rescue their mate, who had continued to fight until his death. A more substantial rapid reaction force then went in and with the help of close-air support secured the ridge. Seven Americans died in the fighting.
"That fight is a microcosm of men and women who wear their nation's uniform every day," Franks said. The men who fought on Takur Ghar, he said, displayed dedication to mission, bravery, selfless courage and brotherhood.
"Combat is a dirty, nasty, deadly business, and it costs us lives," he said. The battle at Takur Ghar showed heroism, fog, uncertainty, friction elements common to every war ever fought.
"This battle is characteristic of so many battles in our history where we have seen a group of wonderful people doing their job in the toughest possible terrain," Franks said. "It is the stuff of which heroes are made.
"We needed to have somebody on that hill," Franks said. "That was the mission these young people took in stride. Coupled with that is the business of brotherhood. One never leaves a brother behind."
In the end, Franks said, the bravery, audacity and tenacity of the people involved in that operation carried the day. Based on the information available to the commanders on the ground at the time, he said, "I think their judgments were good. My belief is that those commanders -- knowing what they knew at the time -- they made their decisions, followed good logic and did a good job in this operation."
"Some of the nation's finest organizations acted in no less than a brave manner in doing all that was possible to save these guys that were up on top of the hill while they defeated an evil enemy under horrendous conditions," the senior background briefer told reporters.
If the team had not lost a comrade at the beginning of the insertion, he said, they would have left and military officials would have called in an air strike.
The enemy the special operations forces faced in Afghanistan is evil, but he's not stupid, the officer stressed. That's why defense officials will not discuss tactics, techniques and procedures used in the operation.
He said U.S. Central Command launched the inquiry to learn all it could about the battle. His team interviewed participants, reviewed classified footage and autopsy reports and went to the mountain site.
"This was a stealthy in-fill to an outpost," the officer said. Takur Ghar commands a view of the entire valley below. There are sheer drops on the west and east sides of the crown of the ridge and only one place to off-load a helicopter.
Unbeknownst to military officials, he said, three feet of snow and tree foliage covered two well-fortified enemy bunkers atop the mountain. A green command and control tent was hidden in a crevice between the rocks. From above, it looked like a shadow.
"This enemy has learned how to conceal themselves from the things we have at our disposal to look for them," the officer said. "Our high-tech systems don't always defeat low-tech means."
While many things will never be known about exactly what happened, the officer noted that officials have discovered some things that contributed to the fog of war. The rugged terrain caused problems for the Navy SEALS who were using line-of-sight radios. A verbal miscommunication caused one helicopter to land in the hot zone rather than to "offset" from the site.
When the reconnaissance element first went in, it was under the cover of darkness, the officer said. As it turned out, it was emerging daylight when the battle occurred. The task force commander "anguished" over the decision to risk a daytime evacuation.
"We make decisions as leaders and this leader in particular that have life and death ramifications in this war on terrorism," he said. "These (commanders) do the best they can to protect the resources that they've been given.
"All of these soldiers, sailors, airmen out there in this fight are somebody's brothers and sons," he said. "They are a precious resource and these guys don't take it lightly. They were not going to throw more into the fray where the risk obviously outweighed the potential gain at this point."
At a news briefing earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the American deaths at Takur Ghar "are a reminder not only of the dangers that military men and women face in the war on terrorism, but the valor they display in the face of enemy fire."