Magazine article The New Yorker

Escape and Evasion

Magazine article The New Yorker

Escape and Evasion

Article excerpt

Early on the morning of Saturday, October 20th, more than a hundred Army Rangers parachuted into a Taliban-held airbase sixty miles southwest of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. A military cameraman videotaped the action with the aid of a night-vision lens, and his grainy, green-tinted footage of determined commandos and billowing parachutes dominated the television news that night. The same morning, a second Special Operations unit, made up largely of Rangers and a reinforced Delta Force squadron, struck at a complex outside Kandahar which included a house used by Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.

In a Pentagon briefing later that day, General Richard B. Myers, of the Air Force, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported that the Special Operations Forces "were able to deploy, maneuver, and operate inside Afghanistan without significant interference from Taliban forces." He stated that the soldiers did meet resistance at both sites, but overcame it. "I guess you could characterize it as light," he said. "For those experiencing it, of course, it was probably not light." He concluded, "The mission over all was successful. We accomplished our objectives."

Myers also told reporters that the commandos were "refitting and repositioning for potential future operations against terrorist targets" in Afghanistan. But at a second briefing, two days later, he refused to say whether commando operations would continue. "Some things are going to be visible, some invisible," he said.

Myers did not tell the press that, in the wake of a near-disaster during the assault on Mullah Omar's complex, the Pentagon was rethinking future Special Forces operations inside Afghanistan. Delta Force, which prides itself on stealth, had been counterattacked by the Taliban, and some of the Americans had had to fight their way to safety. Twelve Delta members were wounded, three of them seriously.

Delta Force has long complained about a lack of creativity in the Army leadership, but the unexpectedness and the ferocity of the Taliban response "scared the crap out of everyone," a senior military officer told me, and triggered a review of commando tactics and procedures at the United States Central Command, or CENTCOM, at MacDill Air Force Base, in Florida, the headquarters for the war in Afghanistan. "This is no war for Special Operations," one officer said--at least, not as orchestrated by CENTCOM and its commander, General Tommy R. Franks, of the Army, on October 20th.

There was also disdain among Delta Force soldiers, a number of senior officers told me, for what they saw as the staged nature of the other assault, on the airfield, which had produced such exciting television footage. "It was sexy stuff, and it looked good," one general said. But the operation was something less than the Pentagon suggested. The Rangers' parachute jump took place only after an Army Pathfinder team--a specialized unit that usually works behind enemy lines--had been inserted into the area and had confirmed that the airfield was clear of Taliban forces. "It was a television show," one informed source told me. "The Rangers were not the first in."

Some of the officials I spoke with argued that the parachute operation had value, even without enemy contact, in that it could provide "confidence building" for the young Rangers, many of whom had joined the Army out of high school and had yet to be exposed to combat. "The Rangers come in and the choppers come in and everybody feels good about themselves," a military man who served alongside the Special Forces said. Nonetheless, he asked, "Why would you film it? I'm a big fan of keeping things secret--and this was being driven by public opinion."

Delta Force, which is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has a mystique that no other unit of the Army does. Its mere existence is classified, and, invariably, its activities are described to the public only after the fact. "Black Hawk Down," a book by Mark Bowden about the Special Forces disaster in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, in which eighteen Rangers and Delta Force members were killed, took note of Delta's special status. …

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