A few minutes past 2 a.m. on August 6, 2011, at a dusty forward operating base 40 miles south of Kabul, Afghanistan, the rotors of two U.S. Army CH-47D Chinooks began to turn. Operating with no lights save for the faint green glow of night vision goggles and cockpit instrument panels, the two helicopters, call signs Extortion 17 (“one-seven”) and Extortion 16, lifted into the darkness and accelerated toward a destination less than 20 miles west.
Extortion 17 and its 38 occupants would not return. A Taliban fighter shot the helicopter out of the sky with a rocket-propelled grenade and all aboard were killed—the single greatest loss of American life in the Afghan war. Those killed ranked among the world’s most highly trained and experienced commandos, including 15 men from Gold Squadron of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, popularly called SEAL Team 6. Just three months earlier, members of a counterpart SEAL Team 6 squadron successfully raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden. In light of that raid’s success, the shootdown of Extortion 17 incited a flurry of conspiracy theories: The Taliban were tipped off; it was a trap; it was retribution for the killing. No evidence has emerged to support any of these claims. Instead, two rigorous U. S. military investigations followed every moment of the mission to determine what went wrong on Extortion 17’s final flight.
The mission had begun about four hours prior to the shootdown, when the two helicopters touched down side by side in Juy Zarin, a village in the bare rock-walled Tangi Valley of Wardak Province. As two U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, an Air Force AC-130 gunship, and a small fleet of unmanned surveillance aircraft orbited overhead, a platoon of the 75th Ranger Regiment and members of an Afghan special operations unit stormed down the rear ramps of the Chinooks and into the night. Their target: an Afghan named Qari Tahir and his group of fighters. Intelligence had revealed Tahir to be the senior Taliban chief of the Tangi Valley region, with probable ties to upper-echelon Taliban leadership in Pakistan. As the ground assault force rushed toward Tahir’s compound, Extortion 17 and 16 sped back to base, where they were refueled, and awaited word to extract the team, evacuate wounded, or race reinforcing troops to Juy Zarin.