How the Army’s elite Delta Force pulled off a record-setting mission against the Taliban only weeks after 9/11

September 11 attacks
  • In the hours after the September 11 attacks, the US military began planning its response.
  • The Pentagon turned to its special-operations forces to send a message to the Taliban.
  • Twenty years on, their mission remains the longest air assault ever conducted by US forces.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Hours after the September 11 attacks, the US military was already planning a response against the masterminds in Al Qaeda and its host in Afghanistan, the Taliban.

Policymakers and military planners discussed several courses of action. CIA and Army Special Forces teams would infiltrate from the north and south and work with local anti-Taliban forces.

But something more was needed. So the White House and Pentagon decided on a daring special-operations raid deep into enemy territory.

They turned to Joint Special Operations Command, and the Army’s elite Delta Force specifically, for the mission. They would be the first boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

Objective Gecko

Delta Force during Operation Gecko in Afghanistan
Delta Force operators boarding an MH-47 during Operation Gecko to fly to Objective Rhino.

Objective Gecko was the compound of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. The group’s equivalent of the White House, the compound was located close to Kandahar, the group’s birthplace and stronghold.

Taking out Mullah Omar would send a powerful message about the US military’s reach. But the target presented several logistical and planning difficulties.

To begin with, Gecko was more than 500 miles from the USS Kitty Hawk, the aircraft carrier that would serve as a floating staging base for Delta Force.

The distance meant the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the “Night Stalkers” would have to fly for more than five hours over enemy terrain to just reach the target. It would be the longest air assault in US history, a worthy successor of the Doolittle and Son Tay raids.

In addition, there was no friendly bases nearby where the assault force could go for help in case of an emergency. So planners decided to capture an airfield a few miles away, dubbed Objective Rhino, to support Delta, if needed. The assault force was also prepared to “Alamo up” if things on the ground changed and impeded their exit.

A Delta Force squadron, reinforced by operators from another squadron, would fly in on four MH-47 Chinooks. AC-130 gunships, fighter jets, and transport, refueling, and airborne-control aircraft would provide support.

All in all, more than 100 planes would support the operations at Gecko and Rhino.

A moment of unity

Army Rangers Rhino Afghanistan
US Army Rangers jumping at objective “Rhino.”

Just as the terrorist attacks united the US public, the US military, often riven by inter-service rivalries, drew together to respond in a moment of crisis.

“In the past I had been on Navy and Coast Guard vessels/ships for joint training, exercises and operations. Sometimes the blending of folks is easier than others. The moment we got on that ship our Navy brothers and sisters went out of their way to ensure we knew where we were on the ship and would escort us if we were lost. No hesitation,” a retired Delta Force operator told Insider.

“This was bigger than any one of us and we all knew it. The gravity and importance of what a small force was getting ready to do in retaliation was not lost on anyone,” the retired operator said.

The ground force loaded up on the helicopters and took off from Kitty Hawk on October 19, flying low to avoid detection and enemy fire.

The departure was a reflection the operators’ unity of purpose in the face of uncertain conditions.

“You had no idea what to expect or anything. There was no established bases, FOBs [forward operations bases] or other friendly forces in the area,” the retired Delta operator added. “There wasn’t an ounce of hesitation by anyone. We were attacked and we were going to hit them back sending a clear message.”

Striking back

Afghanistan Rhino Gecko special operations
The routes on the night of the mission.

After many hours, anti-aircraft fire, and lots of air-to-air refueling, the Night Stalkers carrying the ground force reached Gecko.

Disaster almost struck when one MH-47 hit the compound wall and then, in the sandstorm created by the task force’s landing, and came close to crashing into another chopper.

“Once the pilots realized it, they powered out and took a flight path away from the compound over the city of Kandahar,” the retired operator said.

Gunfire erupted from the city, but the MH-47 circled and made another attempt to land. “During that attempt it impacted a ridgeline, causing more damage to the helo, ripping off and leaving some of the landing gear,” the retired operator added. The helicopter crash-landed but was able to take off later.

Once on target, Delta operators flooded the compound and hit their designated areas, breaching exterior walls and interior obstacles and engaging the enemy. For the better part of an hour, they searched the compound for Mullah Omar and useful intelligence, but the leader of the Taliban was long gone.

Before leaving the compound, the Delta Force operators left American flags and NYPD and FYPD stickers, leaflets, and patches as a reminder of the US’s long reach.

‘Loud and clear’

82nd Airborne paratroopers board C-17 during Afghanistan evacuation
US Army 82nd Airborne paratroopers board a US Air Force C-17 at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, August 30, 2021.

The Pentagon and US intelligence community knew from the start that taking out the leader of the Taliban was a long shot, but the mission was just more than a high-value target raid. It was meant to be a message to a group that harbored America’s number-one enemy, and in that regard the raid was a success.

In addition, it was a confidence-booster for JSOC and Delta Force. Delta had played a key role in Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980. JSOC was created after that mission to centralize and improve US special-operations capabilities.

That failure remained a sore point for the Unit and the military. But Gecko showed that the sacrifices during Eagle Claw weren’t in vain. Their mission deep inside Afghanistan – the close call with the MH-47 in particular – was reminiscent of the uncertainty and danger their predecessors faced in order to demonstrate US resolve.

It was important to send that message “loud and clear” after the September 11 attacks, the retired Delta operator said. “The other thing that was not lost in that moment was all the work, time and sacrifice that created JSOC, starting with the lessons learned during Operation Eagle Claw, had come together.”

US special-operations forces’ missions only multiplied as the global war on terror went on, but the action on Objective Gecko remains the longest air assault in US history, reflecting the scale of their challenge.

Twenty years on, the US mission in Afghanistan is widely seen as a failure, epitomized by the recent chaotic withdrawal, but further reflection on the war may lead to fuller recognition for the troops who took the fight to the Taliban in its opening days.

The Pentagon recently upgraded the awards earned by US troops during the “Black Hawk Down” incident, the 1993 mission in Somalia where a small US force held their own against daunting odds.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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The final scramble out of Kabul required skills only commandos have, special-ops veterans say

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A US military Black Hawk helicopter over Kabul, April 29, 2021.

  • In the final weeks of August, US troops and international allies scrambled to get evacuees out of Afghanistan.
  • Getting foreign citizens and at-risk Afghans out was tricky, requiring many of them to make it through Taliban-held areas.
  • Key to those operations were special-operations units, which got outside the wire and extracted people in risky conditions.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The lighting speed of the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan caught the US and its allies ill-prepared.

The resulting evacuation was marred by confusion, mistakes, and tragedy. But not all went wrong. US and coalition forces managed to get roughly 115,000 people out of the country, including US citizens, third-country nationals, and vulnerable Afghans and their families.

Key to the evacuations were special-operations units, which were able to go outside the wire and extract people in risky conditions.

The special-operations face of the evacuations

Army soldier during evacuation from Kabul, Afghanistan
An 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper supports evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, August 22, 2021.

There were several special-operations units assisting the US troops during the evacuations, including elements from Joint Special Operations Command – likely Navy SEALs from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group or Delta Force operators, helicopters from the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers,” and Air Commandos, such as pararescuemen to provide medical support and combat controllers to provide air traffic control and call in close air support if needed.

It is also safe to assume that the 75th Ranger Regiment had a presence – probably a platoon or company – at the airport to support any special-mission units.

The US military initially said it wasn’t conducting any rescue operations outside the wire, but reports indicate that US troops, operating under CIA control, were sent to aid the evacuation of US citizens and high-risk Afghans in the city.

Several factors allowed special-operations units to spearhead evacuation efforts in parts of the city held by the Taliban.

First, the leadership on the ground hailed from the special-operations community, ensuring similar mindsets that could help smooth out any friction during planning and execution.

The overall commander of the US ground force, Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, is a former Delta Force operator who commanded at all levels in the Unit, including as its top commander. Donahue now commands the 82nd Airborne Division and was the last US troop to leave Afghanistan.

chris donahue last US soldier
US Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue was the last US service member to leave Kabul.

Moreover, Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, is a former officer in Naval Special Warfare Development Group, previously known as SEAL Team 6. He was responsible for the special-operations units on the ground.

Second, special-operations forces are better equipped and suited for precision, time-sensitive operations in semi-permissive or non-permissive environments. From recruitment to selection to training, special operators are conditioned to operate in ambiguous and fluid environments.

Although the US military and State Department were working with the Taliban to evacuate people, uncertainty about the intentions of the Taliban or factions within it added to the complexity, as did intelligence suggesting that ISIS-K, a local affiliate of the terrorist group, would try to take advantage of the confusion to launch attacks. A bombing by ISIS-K outside the Kabul airport killed 13 US service members and hundreds of Afghans.

Preparation for unconventional warfare is emphasized from the recruiter’s office to the retirement ceremony, a former Green Beret told Insider. “We thrive in the unstructured situations the folks on the ground in Kabul faced.”

Finally, special-operations units have worked with their Afghan counterparts for years and were in a good position to use these relationships to facilitate evacuations.

For years, US special operators trained, advised, and fought alongside their Afghan counterparts, often with devastating effectiveness. Afghan special-operations forces were probably the units most hated by the Taliban.

“It’s also about human relationships. We fought alongside these guys for decades. Many bled besides us. Others saved our lives and facilitated our mission on a daily basis. These relationships don’t fade away just like that,” the former Green Beret said. “When the whole shitshow started unfolding, vets who had maintained contact with their Afghans were in a very good position to try and exfiltrate them and their families.”

Instrumental in the evacuations

afghanistan us evacuation
US Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie enters a plane evacuating people, at Hamid Karzai International Airport, August 17, 2021.

US and coalition special-operations forces’ ability to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport, find US citizens, third-country nationals, and Afghans, and escort them to safety was instrumental in saving thousands.

“US special-operations forces reached out to help bring in more than 1,064 American citizens and 2,017 SIVs, or Afghans at risk, and 127 third-country nationals, all via phone calls, vectors, and escorting,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who is responsible for military operations in the region as head of US Central Command, said on August 30.

But US and Coalition special-operations units were not alone in their efforts outside the wire.

Members of the Taliban “were actually very helpful and useful to us as we closed down operations,” McKenzie added.

Afghan special operators from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s now-defunct intelligence service, also assisted evacuation efforts from within Kabul.

Trained by the US intelligence community, these Afghan units were able to operate behind enemy lines far easier than US or coalition troops.

The Afghan special operators’ language skills, physical appearance, and familiarity with the area enabled them to operate seamlessly in Taliban country and facilitate or conduct the extraction of large numbers of people.

A coalition of special operators

Danish soldier during evacuation from Kabul Afghanistan
A Danish coalition service member holds a Danish flag for identification during evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, August 21, 2021.

International special-operations units were also pivotal in the evacuation.

Most countries that participated in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban sent military forces to evacuate their embassies and the Afghans who had cooperated with or worked for them.

The UK, Canada, France, Spain, Australia, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Slovakia were some of the countries that deployed troops for the evacuations.

All of those contingents included special operators who were responsible for providing security or going outside the wire to rescue or transport people. They also worked with US commandos.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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Mexico’s most dangerous job is only getting more deadly, and I’ve seen up close how bad it’s getting

Border wall sign protesting violence against journalists in Mexico
A painting reading “140 journalists murdered in MX” on a section of US-Mexico border fence in Tijuana in Baja California, Mexico, May 14, 2018.

  • Mexico has for some time been the deadliest country for journalists outside of active war zones.
  • Attacks on Mexican journalists are often linked to their work on the nexus of politics and crime.
  • The trend is only getting worse, and its one that journalist Luis Chaparro has seen first-hand.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Mexico City – In 2017 I published a story detailing how former Chihuahua’s state governor Cesar Duarte bought several properties in Texas while he was in office.

Duarte was accused of diverting about $320 million in government funds in 2016. By the time the story was published, he was on the run and wanted by Interpol.

I have never received a more direct threat for my work than the one I received after publishing that story.

There is no country more deadly for journalists than Mexico, and year after year it is only getting worse. This is in part because of rising violence in Mexico related to organized crime, but corrupt politicians are often to blame.

Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said violence against journalists in Mexico is made worse by deepening ties between criminal organizations and politicians.

Mexico Miroslava Breach Javier Valdez journalist killing protest
Candles burn in front of pictures of slain journalists Miroslava Breach, left, and Javier Valdez during a demonstration against the killing of journalists, outside the Interior Ministry in Mexico City, May 16, 2017.

“The most dangerous situation for journalists is when they touch in any way the interests at the crossing of organized crime and politics,” Hootsen told Insider.

The week after the story about Duarte made it to the front page of renown Mexican investigative magazine Proceso, a car was parked in front of my house in Ciudad Juarez for a full week. Inside, a man sat, night and day, with a revolver on his lap.

I didn’t think he was actually there to harm me – otherwise he would have – but it was a demonstration of how easy it was for them to get to anyone in their way.

I notified the Committee to Protect Journalists at the time, and what happened “is a perfect example of the dangers for journalists when covering politics and crime,” Hootsen said.

That same year, Miroslava Breach, an editor for a local newspaper in Ciudad Juarez and correspondent for the national daily La Jornada, was shot dead outside her house in Chihuahua City while taking her child to school.

Later investigations found that she was murdered for revealing how the Juarez cartel was appointing mayors in several municipalities in Chihuahua.

A former mayor was arrested and sentenced to eight years behind bars for ordering Breach’s murder. Despite justice being done in that case, violence against journalists has only continued.

Protest against violence against journalists in Mexico
Friends of Mexican journalist Jacinto Romero Flores at a protest in demand of justice for his murder, in Orizaba in Veracruz, Mexico, August 19, 2021.

This year alone, six journalists have been murdered throughout Mexico.

The latest was Jacinto Romero Flores, a reporter from the southeastern state of Veracruz, who covered politics for a radio station in the municipality of Zongolica. Flores was shot several times and killed while driving his car.

According to local press reports, Romero Flores received several threats on his phone after airing a story about police abuse against residents of the Texahuacan municipality.

Few weeks before the assassination of Romero Flores, ruthless crime group Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación publicly threatened a well-known television news anchor, Azucena Uresti, for her coverage of that organization.

In a video posted on social media by alleged members of the cartel, a man who identified himself as Ruben Oseguera, the head of the cartel, made a direct against Uresti.

“Wherever you are, I will find you and I will make you eat your words even if I’m accused of femicide,” the man identified as Oseguera is heard saying as at least six men armed with assault riffles stand around him.

Mexico has been the deadliest country for journalists, outside of those at war, for some time.

Protest against violence against journalists in Mexico
A woman at a protest against of the killing of journalists in Mexico, in Mexico City, March 25, 2017.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared the war on drugs in 2006, the number of journalists murdered and disappeared in Mexico have risen steadily, according to figures collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

2019 is the deadliest year on record, with 11 journalists slain. At least nine journalists were killed with firearms in 2020.

To date, almost 50% of those murders have no known motive or, if the perpetrators are known or suspected, there has been no sentence. (Duarte was arrested in Miami in 2020 on corruption charges.)

“We have to recognize that it is hard to know exactly where is the line of politics and narcos when it comes to the motives of these murders,” said Hootsen. “Mexico has lost much of its rule of law, and the present administration is not doing a good job, if any, to support mechanisms to protect journalists.”

Mexico has procedures that are meant to protect journalists. Most of them involve the state sending a state or municipal police officer to monitor a journalist’s safety for 24 hours.

The Mexican government said in July that it had increased the number of journalists in its protection program by 80% since December 2018. In many cases, however, government protection has not stopped hitmen from killing their target.

“In many cases threats have been reported previously and those journalists have been incorporated to a state protection system and even then they have ended up murdered,” Hootsen said.

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3 movies that the US Army’s elite Green Berets say actually show what their jobs are like

Close quarters combat rehearsal
Green Berets storm a room while practicing close-quarters combat.

  • Hollywood has a reputation for distorting and misrepresenting how the military actually operations.
  • But some movies get right, depicting how US troops conduct themselves and perform their missions.
  • Several Green Berets told Insider which ones they thought reflected the Special Forces experience.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Hollywood is usually quite off the mark when it comes to war and the military, but there are a few films that actually reflect the Army Special Forces experience, according to Green Berets themselves.

“Military movies have always been a challenge for me to watch. Having been in the military for quite a few years, my eyes are drawn to the slightest details, such as dialogue, uniform accuracy, and character representation. Special Operations movies, the few that have been made, are even more difficult for me to enjoy,” a retired Green Beret told Insider.

Hollywood often tries to convey a message about war or politics through war films, and that usually leads to an unrealistic film rife with big and small inaccuracies.

“Little effort is placed on accuracy and quality acting when dealing with military subjects. There are, of course, exceptions, but most of the films are set during World War II, a war that even Hollywood celebrates as justified and necessary,” the retired Green Beret added.

The three films below, which depict three different conflicts, are among the best war films out there, several current and former Green Berets told Insider.

’12 Strong’ (2018)

12 strong
“12 Strong.”

In the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, small teams of CIA paramilitary officers and Green Berets inserted into Afghanistan and linked up with local anti-Taliban groups.

Supported by US airpower, the intelligence officers and commandos were able to defeat Taliban and Al Qaeda in a few weeks. The commandos’ flexibility and ability to deal with partner forces and with ambiguous situations were key to the success.

“12 Strong” is “a more recent film about a Special Forces detachment that infiltrates Afghanistan early in late 2001. I think this movie has good acting, represents Green Berets well, and most importantly it’s based on a true story,” the retired Green Beret said.

This film is particularly relevant today, with the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan after a very short campaign – the same way they were ousted from power nearly 20 years ago.

A retired Delta Force operator told Insider that “12 Strong” was “a good movie as far as Hollywood goes.”

The movie depicts an Operational Detachment-A – the smallest Green Beret element – and its mission “in a realistic way,” the retired operator said.

“Not many people know that a 12-man ODA can be broken down into two or even smaller teams in order to enable and lead more guerrillas. That inherent flexibility in SF [Army Special Forces] is what makes them so good,” the retired Delta operator added. “But the movie has a poignant aspect with everything that is going on in Afghanistan at the moment.”

‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001)

black hawk down nikolaj coster waldau
Nikolaj Coster Waldau as Delta Force sniper Master Sgt. Gary Gordon in “Black Hawk Down.”

“Black Hawk Down” puts the viewer on the ground in Mogadishu, Somalia, alongside Task Force Ranger as they tried to stop a brutal civil war by capturing the Somali warlords.

On October 3, 1993, the Task Force’s Delta Force operators and Rangers got into a hellish battle within Mogadishu after the Somali militiamen shot down two MH-60 Black Hawks with rocket-propelled grenades.

What followed was hours of street-to-street combat as the American commandos tried to hold off thousands of Somali militiamen and fighters.

“Black Hawk Down is a classic one. Although the movie doesn’t accurately depict what went down on the ground, it is fairly close for Hollywood,” a retired Delta Force operator who also served in the Army Special Forces told Insider.

“What makes it a good movie and distinguishes it from other war movies is the violence of action. The producers and directors did a really good job at capturing that. I think they had help and advising from SOF [special-operations forces] veterans,” the operator added.

The commandos involved received dozens of awards for valor during the battle, including two Medals of Honor. The Pentagon recently reviewed the awards and upgraded dozens of them.

‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)

Martin Sheen in the jungle with Dennis Hopper
Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now.”

Set during the Vietnam War, “Apocalypse Now” is a classic and celebrated war film.

Col. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, is a Green Beret officer who was tasked with taking the fight to the Viet Cong but went too far and created an army of indigenous people who thought he is a god.

Attempts by the US military to rein Kurtz in fail, so they send a young intelligence officer, played by Martin Sheen, to find him, bring him back, or kill him.

“You can’t go wrong with Apocalypse Now. The movie is an epic. The plot, acting, theme are on point. Everything is on point, except perhaps that it runs a little long. It shows unconventional warfare, the bread and butter of SF [Special Forces], and what an SF guy can do,” a National Guard Green Beret told Insider.

“Hero or villain, Col. Kurtz shows the [Army Special Forces] Regiment’s capabilities and the force-multiplier aspect of SF,” the Green Beret added.

Reception was mixed up its release, but it is now considered a classic by many cinephiles. In 2000, the Library of Congress included the film in the US National Film Registry, which identifies movies worth preservation.

John Milius, who wrote the script for “Apocalypse Now,” “is one of the few people in Hollywood that has an interest in the military and representing it well on the big screen,” the retired Green Beret added. “Hollywood doesn’t care for war flicks for the most part. Just reflect back to 1989 when ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ took best picture over ‘Born on the Fourth of July.'”

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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India is updating its air force for a modern war, and China isn’t its only concern

Indian Air Force Rafael fighter jet
A newly inducted Indian Air Force Rafael fighter jet on October 6, 2020.

  • The Indian air force is in the midst of a massive modernization and expansion effort.
  • India has focused on archrival Pakistan for decades, but it is now contending with a much larger foe: China.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Earlier this month, at the end of India’s annual Independence Day parade in New Delhi, the Indian Air Force showed off its aircraft inventory in multiple flyovers of the Rajpath, a ceremonial boulevard in the capital.

The flyovers included transport aircraft, helicopter gunships, fighters, and fighter-bombers. It was the latest show of force for a military branch that, like its naval counterpart, is in the midst of a massive modernization and expansion effort.

Focused for decades on the threat from archrival Pakistan, India is now preparing its air force to fight another much larger foe: China.

With roughly 2,000 combat aircraft from its air force and navy, China has the largest aviation force in Asia and the third largest in the world. Worse for India, China’s increasingly close relationship with Pakistan is resulting in closer military cooperation, including joint development of fighter jets.

Faced with the potential for an air war against two enemies, the IAF is increasing its size and capabilities.

A significant inventory

Indian MiG-29 fighter jet
Indian Air Force personnel next to a MiG-29 fighter jet, October 4, 2013.

With well over 1,000 aircraft itself, the IAF is by no means small. Since India’s independence, it has mostly fielded Russian aircraft made entirely in Russia or licensed for local production.

Even today, the biggest fleets in the IAF inventory are those of the MiG-21, MiG-29, and the Su-30MKI – a version of Russia’s Su-30 made specifically for and by India. (India signed a contract for the Su-30MKI in the 1990s and has built more than 200 of them domestically since the mid-2000s.)

The service also has some European models, such as SEPECAT Jaguars and Mirage 2000s, which are the IAF’s primary strike platforms. But those aircraft, which were acquired in the 1980s, are showing signs of age, and the IAF plans to retire them by 2030.

India’s MiG-21s, first introduced in the 1960s, are also expected to be retired by 2030 – even the modernized MiG-21 Bison models. The jet has a poor safety record; as of 2013, more than 480 of India’s MiG-21s had been involved in accidents that had caused over 200 deaths.

Threats on two fronts

Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30MKI
An Indian Air Force Su-30MKI at Lajes Field in Portugal, July 13, 2008.

The Su-30MKI purchase was more than just a general upgrade. It came after the Pakistan Air Force in 1982 accepted the first of 28 US-made F-16s, which seriously increased the PAF’s capabilities a decade after it last fought the IAF.

The US paused F-16 deliveries in 1990 because of Pakistan’s nuclear program, but they resumed in 2005, and the PAF now has some 75 F-16s. Their use is conditional and closely monitored by the US, but Pakistan would likely have no qualms about using them in an all-out war.

In 2019, a series of skirmishes between India and Pakistan included airstrikes on each other’s territory and resulted in one MiG-21 Bison being shot down by PAF fighters, possibly by an F-16. It was the first time since 1971 that air attacks had been conducted across the Line of Control.

During the Cold War, China sold Pakistan its J-6 and J-7 fighters, which were Chinese copies of Russia’s MiG-19 and MiG-21. The PAF has also benefitted from Pakistan’s closer ties with China in recent years.

India Kashmir MiG-21 Bison crash
Civil-defense personnel remove the wreckage of an Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison after it crashed in Kashmir, August 24, 2015.

Their air forces regularly conduct joint exercises, and they have even jointly developed a fourth-generation multirole combat aircraft, the JF-17, of which Pakistan has over 100.

China and Pakistan are now planning upgrades to Pakistan’s JF-17 fleet, and China has announced the sale of 50 Wing Loong II combat drones to Pakistan. Pakistan may also acquire Chinese strike aircraft.

China’s own air force also poses a threat to the IAF. Particularly worrying for India are the J-10 and J-11 fighters and the J-20 stealth fighter.

The aerial threat from China was abundantly clear after last year’s deadly standoff along its disputed border with India.

India has a longer history of air operations in the area, but China is rapidly building and expanding air bases and defenses along its western borders.

A major modernization

Indian Air Force Rafale fighter jet
An Indian Air Force Rafale fighter jet lands in Bangalore, February 3, 2021.

Appreciating the threats, the IAF has committed to modernization.

In 2016, India signed a contract with French firm Dassault Aviation four 36 Rafale multirole fighters. Twenty-six of them have been delivered so far, and some have already been deployed to counter possible Chinese aggression.

The IAF has also purchased 15 CH-47 Chinook helicopters and 22 AH-64 Apache gunships, both of which have also been deployed to the border region.

India has developed its own lightweight fighter jet, the HAL Tejas, and has about 20 in service. The original order for 40 fighters was supplemented by an additional order of 83 improved Tejas Mark 1A variants, with a second production line built to speed up production.

To meet its needs in the near-term, India is buying another 21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30MKIs. It is also upgrading its MiG-29 fleet and modifying its Su-30MKIs to be able to fire Brahmos cruise missiles.

Indian Air Force Tejas fighter jet
An Indian Air Force Tejas during the Aero India 2021 air show in Bangalore, February 4, 2021.

The IAF is also seeking 114 medium multirole combat aircraft.

The US-made F/A-18E/F and F-15, the French-built Rafale, the European-made Eurofighter Typhoon, and Russia’s MiG-35 and Su-35 – all twin-engine jets – are in the running, as are the single-engine Swedish-built JAS 39 Gripen and US-built F-21, a version of the F-16 designed specifically for India.

India also has a number of high-profile domestic projects in development. It plans to fly a prototype from its own fifth-generation stealth fighter program by 2025 and recently unveiled an unmanned fighter jet program.

India has relied on foreign suppliers for much of its military hardware – especially Russia, with which it has a longstanding but increasingly fraught relationship – but many of the new acquisition efforts will require some degree of local production as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” program aimed at boosting domestic manufacturing.

Amid ongoing tensions with China and renewed uncertainty about the future in Afghanistan, India’s efforts to expand and modernize its air force show how serious it is about countering the threat from its two most contentious neighbors.

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The first enlisted woman to fly in a B-2 explains how she keeps the stealth bomber in the air and ready to fight

Air Force Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Lambert B-2 stealth bomber
US Air Force airmen perform a post-flight check on a B-2 Spirit after it landed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, April 28, 2021.

  • As a dedicated crew chief, US Air Force Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Lambert has spent thousands of hours working on the B-2.
  • But it wasn’t until April 31, 2021, that Lambert was able to board the stealth bomber and fly in it.
  • She earned the flight as the winner of the Thomas N. Barnes Crew Chief of the Year Award, which rewards the best dedicated crew chief with an incentive flight.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When US Air Force Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Lambert enlisted in 2013, she went out to the flight line at Whiteman Air Force Base and was told to pick which aircraft she wanted to work on.

The B-2 Spirit – America’s stealth bomber – stood out.

“I got brought out to the hangar and introduced to this oddly shaped black aircraft,” says Lambert, now a dedicated B-2 crew chief in the 509th’s Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, which services the military’s fleet of 20 operational B-2s.

The rare flying-wing design distinguishes the B-2 from other bombers. The unusual paint job and curvy triangular shape add to its mystique. “There’s no tail on it, so most people think it flies on pure magic,” Lambert says.

Lambert chose the B-2 and got to work learning what it takes to maintain one of the $2 billion stealth bombers. Designed by Northrop Corporation (now called Northrop Grumman) during the Cold War, the B-2 can release up to 40,000 pounds of both nuclear and conventional munitions.

That and the bomber’s long range and low observability make it arguably the most capable warplane in the world.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Lambert B-2 stealth bomber
Lambert approaches a B-2 on the flight line at Whiteman Air Force Base, April 28, 2021.

Lambert now oversees the day-to-day maintenance of her aircraft, named the Spirit of New York.

She leads three other servicemen in inspecting the aircraft before and after flights and by bringing in the necessary shops and teams to service the plane, from its hydraulics and environmental components to its flight control and communications systems.

For two years, she has watched the Spirit of New York take off and land, launching it from its dock – she and other maintainers are the last to touch the aircraft – and “catching” it upon its return. The pilots communicate over the intercom. She watches the black saucer-shaped plane whizz into the sky and quickly turn into a tiny black dot.

Lambert and her team service the bomber at Whiteman, where she and the aircraft are based, and when it deploys around the world. It’s not part of her job to know where the Spirit of New York has been or where it’s going, however.

“We put all the time in standing there for an hour and a half and getting these guys ready to go,” she says. “We see the runway and are told what order they’re going to be [taking off] in. Then we say ‘Hey, it’s up.’ But we never know where it’s going or what it’s doing.”

Air Force Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Lambert B-2 stealth bomber
Lambert boards a B-2 for her incentive flight at Whiteman Air Force Base, April 30, 2021.

But on April 31, Lambert boarded the B-2 she has spent thousands of hours working on and actually flew in it.

She had earned the flight as the recipient of the annual Thomas N. Barnes Crew Chief of the Year Award, which honors the best dedicated crew chief with an incentive flight. She beat about 200 other enlisted airmen who were also nominated.

Her Spirit number, 760, marks her as the 760th person to fly in a B-2. While there are 10 active duty women B-2 pilots, Lambert is the first enlisted servicewoman to fly in one.

The night before her incentive flight, she only slept four hours. Taking off was a surprise. Despite the aircraft’s hulking figure – it is 17 feet tall, has a 172-foot wingspan, and weighs ​​160,000 pounds unloaded – she didn’t feel a thing.

She credits the extra smooth ride to her pilot. He was the mission commander on the aircraft, and it was his last official flight in the bomber.

She appreciated seeing the flight controls in action. “They are really cool because of how they move and keep the jet from corpusing, like a dolphin going in and out of the water,” she says.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Lambert B-2 stealth bomber
Lambert hugs members of her squadron before boarding a B-2 for her incentive flight, April 28, 2021.

Another new experience came during aerial refueling. They caught up to the tanker and talked to its pilot through their intercoms while getting into its air stream.

“The B-2 has a lot of lift. We’d get sucked in and do these square movements,” she says of the refuel experience. “I’m looking at the boom operator, and we’re close enough that I can see his face. It was insane.”

They hooked up to the KC-135 Stratotanker and took on some 10,000 pounds of fuel before disconnecting to continue their flight.

It was particularly surreal to go from her normal position – standing on the ground talking to the pilot over the intercom as he lands – to having her fellow maintainers catching her.

Maintainers normally greet returning pilots with sharp salutes and handshakes or fist bumps, a ritual that Lambert has now seen on both sides.

When the Spirit of New York landed, a crowd of 50 people – including many she works with every day, along with her former commanders and flight chiefs and her husband – were there waiting.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Lambert B-2 stealth bomber
Lambert and Maj. James Powers, Eighth Air Force executive officer to the commander, next to a B-2 at Whiteman Air Force Base, April 30, 2021.

She’s grateful for the experience and to be back to her regular duty. She runs a tight ship, striving to have the cleanest jet and crew station.

Just four of the active-duty crew chiefs at Whiteman are women, and Lambert has worked 12-hour days for one and a half years straight, regularly coming in on weekends and days off, to get her job done.

“My name is on that aircraft,” she says, “and if I’m going to put my name to anything, it’s going to be as perfect as you can get it.”

Now her goal is to get her maintenance crew to also have the chance to earn an incentive flight and experience what she did.

Lambert recently took her first leave in more than two years, but she stayed local. She hasn’t flown since her B-2 experience. She knows the next trip won’t be as exciting as the last.

“I don’t think anything’s going to be that smooth,” she says.

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A former ‘Night Stalker’ explains how US military pilots plucked Americans from hostile territory in Kabul

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A US Black Hawk helicopter over Kabul on April 29, 2021.

  • As the US raced to get people out of Kabul before the August 31 withdrawal deadline, many were unable to make it to the airport.
  • Amid the scramble, US troops conducted missions to extract people from around Kabul using ground vehicles and aircraft.
  • Air operations in an urban area are inherently dangerous, but the US has a unit that specializes in such missions.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As the August 31 deadline to evacuate all US troops and citizens, their Afghan partners, and other foreigners in Afghanistan approaches, US and coalition forces are racing to get as many people as possible out of the country.

But reaching the airport in Kabul is far from easy, as shown by the suicide attack there on Thursday killed 13 US troops and scores of Afghans.

For the past week, the CIA and US troops, as well as other coalition special-operations units, have been conducting sorties within Kabul to extract US citizens and others unable to make it through the city.

In addition to ground convoys, the US military conducted several helicopter extractions from sites around Kabul, according to the Pentagon. In one such operation, US forces moved some 350 US citizens to the airport.

The US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment is the unit the military often turns to for such evacuations, especially from hostile territory. The “Night Stalkers,” as they’re known, were deployed in Kabul.

The most dangerous terrain

A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.
A US Chinook helicopter near the US Embassy in Kabul, August 15, 2021.

Night Stalker pilots pride themselves on being able to be anywhere at any time, plus or minus 30 seconds, but flying over an urban environment is particularly dangerous for helicopters because of the myriad places from which they could be targeted.

To be effective in an environment like Kabul, they would have to make several considerations when designing their missions. To begin with, route planning would be key.

“Flying in the urban terrain is the toughest of all environments. Planning is critical for rotary-wing operations, and navigation is very difficult in urban terrain. The enemy will create a nonlinear operational environment using urban terrain for cover and concealment,” retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Coker told Insider, referring to an environment where threats of different kinds come from different sources.

Coker, a Night Stalker pilot and author of “Death Waits in the Dark,” served for 30 years and completed 11 combat deployments.

Operations in an urban environment are also inherently dangerous because they significantly increase the risk of friendly fire incidents. The challenge is considerably greater during night operations, which special-operations units frequently conduct to leverage the advantage they have with night-vision and thermal devices.

CH-47 Chinook helicopter loaded onto C-17 in Kabul
A CH-47 Chinook from the 82nd Airborne Division is loaded onto a US Air Force C-17 in Kabul for return to the US, August 28, 2021.

There are ways to mitigate the risk.

The Night Stalkers would seek to know beforehand where the evacuees will be in order to account for things such as power lines or other overhead wires and structures like cell towers.

Planning also allows for de-confliction with other aircraft in the area and to assess the potential for collateral damage if they encounter resistance and have to open fire.

In addition, they would have to know of any key terrain nearby, such as hills, that could be an emergency rendezvous point for medical support or for rearming and refueling.

“Detailed planning is key. Aviators must know and understand the scheme of maneuver for the ground force,” Coker told Insider.

US forces also provide air assets with items like colored cloth or infrared strobes so aircraft can “positively identify their location for day and night operations. If they do not look like the good guys, they are the bad guys,” Coker said.

The worst-case scenario

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, load people being evacuated from Afghanistan onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.
US Air Force personnel load Afghan evacuees onto a C-17 at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, August 24, 2021.

There are ongoing threats to the airport in Kabul. On Monday morning, the US military shot down a number of rockets targeting the airfield.

Another consideration for any evacuation by helicopter – whether it’s with the more cumbersome MH-47 Chinook or the more agile MH-60 Black Hawk – is the presence of man-portable air-defense systems, known as manpads.

These shoulder-fired missiles can easily bring down a plane or helicopter. A covert CIA effort to provide such missiles to the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s was devastatingly effective against Soviet aircraft, helping force the Soviets to withdrawal from Afghanistan altogether.

The Night Stalkers know this danger very well. In 1993, during a daytime operation by Delta Force and Rangers in Mogadishu, two MH-60 Black Hawks were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades, igniting a deadly, hours-long battle known as the “Black Hawk Down” incident.

Coker himself has faced the danger of manpads. During a daytime combat mission in Iraq in 2004, his AH-6 Little Bird was shot down by insurgents. Miraculously, he and his co-pilot survived and escaped the wreckage to be picked up by a Delta Force element.

Aircraft being shot down is perhaps the worst-case scenario for any helicopter evacuation. The US doesn’t believe ISIS-K, the terrorist group behind the suicide bombing at the airport, has manpads capable of downing US military aircraft, according to Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command.

US Marine during Kabul Afghanistan evacuation
A US Marine provides over-watch during evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, August 21, 2021.

“We know that ISIS would like to get after those aircraft if they can,” McKenzie told reporters on Thursday. “They have taken shots at our aircraft on occasion without effect. We think that’s going to continue.”

The risk of a lucky hit, which could take down an aircraft carrying hundreds of people or troops, is always a consideration. “Military aircraft have a variety of self-defense systems,” but charter planes and other aircraft without such systems are “more vulnerable,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie said US troops monitor the Kabul airport’s approach and departure patterns “religiously” at day and night to spot any threats. US and coalition aircraft already deploy countermeasures, such as flares, during landing and takeoff there.

“US military helicopters have Aircraft Survivability Equipment to defeat” infrared missile systems, such as the SA-7 and SA-14, Coker said. “The helicopter countermeasures use both passive and active ASE to protect against these weapons systems. Using terrain, speed, and low flight altitudes are key to urban operations.”

US forces and their partners on the ground in Kabul remain on high alert for more attacks as the withdrawal wraps up.

The Night Stalkers’ mission won’t end once all evacuees are at the airport, however. As the US and coalition troops depart, the special-operations elements there are likely to be the last out, covering their conventional brethren before finally withdrawing.

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The US military is trying to weed out extremists, and special-ops vets say all units have some ‘more fringe’ members

Capitol attack riot
Pro-Trump riots after braking into the US Capitol, January 6, 2021.

  • The January 6 attack on the Capitol building heightened US military concern about extremists in its ranks.
  • Having radicals in uniform isn’t a new problem, but it is one that could weaken unit cohesion.
  • “If tribes were to be created, then, yes, we might have a problem,” a former Navy SEAL officer said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In the days after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the US military woke up to the fact that it had an extremism problem.

As the FBI and Justice Department began to hunt for those responsible for the events of that day, it became increasingly evident that many of the rioters were members of the military or veterans.

The Pentagon was so concerned about the spread of extremism within its ranks that it ordered a “stand down,” directing commanders to sit down with their troops and talk about extremism.

Soon thereafter, President Joe Biden declared domestic extremism a national security threat and issued a strategy for combatting it.

The overwhelming majority of conventional and special-operations troops oppose radicals within their ranks, but those radicals do exist.

Radicalized service members

Samuel Lazar, Capitol riot
Accused Capitol rioters have been charged with federal crimes, including assaulting officers.

Several current and former military service members, including active-duty officers and special-operations veterans, participated in the sad events of January 6.

A special-operations Psychological Operations officer – who had resigned her commission before the events – led 100 people from North Carolina to DC but, according to reports, didn’t participate in any violence.

A former member of the 75th Ranger Regiment has also been accused by a federal judge of using his special-operations training and experience in the attack against the Capitol building.

The former Ranger, who had three combat deployments to Afghanistan, allegedly organized other rioters and was looking to create a hometown militia.

An active-duty Marine Corps major was arrested and accused of attacking Capitol police officers and helping fellow rioters enter the building. The major, a field artillery officer, completed several combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He now faces several federal charges, including assault.

A woman rioter who was shot and killed inside the building by Capitol police was an Air Force veteran.

In total, about 50 of the more than 400 people the Justice Department has charged in relation to the incidents of January 6 are active-duty, national guard, reserve troops or veterans.

To be sure, there were radicals in the military before the assault on the Capitol, but the events of that were a perfect storm that brought many of them together.

christopher hasson
Firearms and ammunition cited in the case against Christopher Paul Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant.

For example, in January 2020, a Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described “White Nationalist” pleaded guilty to federal charges after being arrested while stockpiling weapons, drugs, and extremist literature.

In June 2020, an Air Force security forces sergeant was arrested and accused of ambushing and killing a deputy and wounding two other officers with an improvised explosive device in California.

“It’s hard to rationalize serving and protecting your country but also hating and opposing the very democratic process that makes it what it is. Our presidents are elected by a democratic process that, however imperfect it is, is sacred. It’s not up to us to question a president’s legitimacy after the American people have voted him to office,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

Military service members are allowed to participate in political organizations and attend political events when off duty, but active-duty troops are prohibited from sponsoring partisan groups or initiatives.

“Every unit has a few guys who are a bit off. Doesn’t mean they are bad dudes or they have done anything illegal, but they are a bit off in some regards – more secluded, more fringe with their beliefs or ideologies,” a Navy SEAL operator told Insider.

It isn’t just the US military that has issues with radicals in its ranks.

The German military has long struggled with extremism. Last year, it dissolved and reorganized the Kommando Spetzialkrafte – its tier-one special-operations unit, equivalent to Delta Force and SEAL Team 6 – because right-wing radicals had infiltrated it. More than 70 commandos in the 300-strong unit were suspended or kicked out of the German army.

A number of British troops have been investigated over concerns about far-right activity, and the Canadian military has cracked down on “hateful conduct” out of concern about infiltration by neo-Nazi and other groups. These events show that radicalization is an international issue.

Extremism and special-operations

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A member of SEAL Qualification Training Class 336 receives a Special Warfare pin, known as a “Trident,” during their graduation ceremony, April 15, 2020.

The radicalization of current and former US service members didn’t start in the lead-up to January 6. It has always been there, albeit at a very small scale relative to the size of the US military.

The road to radicalization is paved with conspiracy theories. It’s the allure of knowing something others don’t, of being the keeper of a secret, that drives many people to such theories.

“If you think about it, it’s contradictory to promote, support, or actively participate in insurrection while you serve in the military. First thing you do when you enlist is you take an oath to the Constitution of the United States. Not to the president or any other political figure, but to the Constitution,” a Navy SEAL operator told Insider.

Soldiers at class on extremism in US military
US soldiers at a class on extremism in the ranks at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, March 18, 2021.

Many people entertain some conspiracies, such as the existence of aliens or the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. Most don’t take them seriously enough to act on them, but that can change when special-operations troops – who are highly trained and taught to be aggressive and take the initiative – embrace fringe conspiracy theories, such as QAnon.

“And when the president, who is our commander-in-chief, mind you, acts against or tries to subvert the Constitution, then you have the right, and duty, I would add, to decline to follow such an illegal order,” the Navy SEAL operator said.

The long-term negative effects of radicalization on combat effectiveness are hard to assess, the former SEAL officer said, but one consequence could be weaker unit cohesion.

“If tribes were to be created, then, yes, we might have a problem,” the former officer added. “But this is the military, not your high-school football team. Discipline and good order are paramount even in special-operations forces.”

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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Special-ops veterans feel frustrated about Afghanistan and want answers for the ‘scandal’ that kept them there for 20 years

Afghan flag Pekha Valley Nangarhar Province Afghanistan
An Afghan flag at an observation post in Pekha Valley of Nangarhar Province, October 19, 2017.

  • After 20 years of operations, US forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.
  • In recent days, the Afghan government has collapsed and the Taliban has swept across the country.
  • The events have frustrated US special-ops veterans, some of whom question why they spent 20 years fighting there.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After almost 20 years of operations, the US began its withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this year, precipitating in recent days the fall of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s reconquest of the war-ravaged country.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, US special-operations forces, alongside members of the US intelligence community, were the first in, partnering with anti-Taliban guerrillas and defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban after a short campaign.

Throughout two decades of war, special-operations forces were at the tip of the spear, conducting raids, capturing high-value targets, trying to win over the population, and training and advising the Afghan military and police.

As usual, their contribution was disproportionate to their numbers, and they often achieved wonders with a few men. But as the years passed, the US military lost focus on why it was there in the first place.

Why are we here again?

A US Army Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan
A US Army Special Forces soldier on an advising mission in Afghanistan, April 10, 2014.

The US went to Afghanistan with the goal of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing the country from being used as a base for future terrorist attacks against the US.

The Taliban was only relevant as it was hosting of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fighters. Initially, the US wasn’t planning to do any nation-building.

“After 9/11, we went into Afghanistan after Al Qaeda to ensure they could not use Afghanistan as a staging base and prevent further attacks. For nearly 20 years we have attacked and attacked relentlessly. Additionally, we have funded, equipped, and trained [hundreds of] thousands of Afghans to protect themselves. For this, I am proud,” John Black, a retired Special Forces warrant officer with several deployments to Afghanistan, told Insider.

“I am disappointed in Afghanistan and its failure to be able to secure itself after we told them we were leaving in 2014,” Black said.

US Navy SEALs in Afghanistan
US Navy SEALs discover a cache of weapons during a mission in the Jaji mountains of Afghanistan, February 12, 2002.

Fred Galvin, a retired major and former Marine Raider, told Insider that the “time and sacrifices” of those who fought in Afghanistan were not wasted but that Americans do need to hold to account lawmakers who imposed rules of engagement that “favored the enemy.”

Senior military leadership who promoted an unwinnable hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency strategy should be held accountable too, Galvin said.

Hearts-and-minds strategies involve efforts by one side in a conflict to persuade the local population that it is a better partner than the enemy, often as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.

The US failures in Vietnam and Afghanistan are perhaps the two most well-known examples of such a strategy, but it has seen success elsewhere – by the British against communist rebels in Malaysia and Oman, for example.

“Everyone, EVERYONE knew that would never work, and the officers who ordered the immoral hearts and minds [strategy] – especially those officers who retired and immediately went to board of director memberships at defense firms and coerced their former subordinates they left in the Pentagon to go along with the 20-year spending scandal – need to be exiled to Kandahar,” Galvin added.

Marine Corps Special Operations Command marine sandstorm in Afghanistan
A Marine with Marine Forces Special Operations Command takes cover from a sand storm in Farah province, Afghanistan, February 28, 2010.

After years in Afghanistan, and as an insurgency ravaged Iraq, the US’s goal in Afghanistan shifted from counterterrorism to nation-building, a tough proposition even in a cohesive, “normal” nation, which Afghanistan isn’t.

“Afghanistan is a tribal culture. Therefore few have love of ‘country.’ Their idea of country is lines someone else drew in the sand,” Black said. “It’s impossible to win against an idea or belief. The Taliban and others will continue to spread and hopefully we can look at containment, rather than defeat.”

“We should have left after a few years, leaving behind a small CT [counterterrorism] contingent to deal with any bad guys. We should have also trained only a few number of loyal Afghans, like the commandos and some other special units, and avoid[ed] any nation-building dreams,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

A sour aftertaste

US Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan
US Special Forces soldiers and Afghan National Interdiction Unit agents board CH-47 helicopters for an operation in Helmand province, September 12, 2016.

The US withdrawal and the rapid collapse of the Afghan military has left many veterans of the conflict wondering what their sacrifices were for. In some cases, they’ve questioned in whose interests their commanders were acting.

Galvin and his MARSOC Fox Company, a Marine special-operations unit, were falsely accused of killing civilians while fighting off an ambush in March 2007. Seven Marine Raiders were prosecuted and ostracized, despite all available evidence indicated they acted within the laws of war, before finally being acquitted years later.

“Afghanistan was the ultimate military scandal fueled by retired generals influencing those in the Pentagon and lawmakers to spend, spend, spend forever,” Galvin told Insider. “America should never forget this, and the people must exercise their freedoms by removing and punishing the military officers and lawmakers who profited through the needless loss of lives, limbs, and trillions of American dollars.”

The killing of Osama bin Laden and degradation of Al Qaeda are often pointed to as important accomplishments in Afghanistan, but that is little consolation for some who fought there, especially as the future now looks dire for Afghans, with the Taliban expected to reverse any progress made over the last 20 years.

US Air Force pararescuemen board US Army CH-47F Chinook helicopter
US Air Force pararescuemen board a US Army CH-47F Chinook after an exercise at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 14, 2018.

“It definitely hurts to see the country collapse in such a short amount of time after all the blood, sweat, and tears we shed. I get the arguments that it wasn’t for nothing and that we made Americans safer and the Afghan people better off, at least for a few years, but it just feels bad right now,” the former Navy SEAL officer said.

Other special-operations veterans say it wasn’t all for naught. Black said he would remember his time in Afghanistan “with great love and sadness.”

“I have many trips and built incredible friendships there. My teammates and I fought hard and were very triumphant in battle,” Black added.

While many veterans may be upset or feel that their comrades fought and died for nothing, “that is the wrong way at looking at it,” Black told Insider.

“For nearly 20 years the US and its partnered forces fought tirelessly to help the people of Afghanistan, and for that we can be proud,” Black said. “In the end, we would much rather fight the Taliban in Afghanistan than in our home country. And for nearly 20 years there has not been a major successful attack against the US. We pray for the Afghan people and hope for peace in a war-torn land.”

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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With new medals 30 years after ‘Black Hawk Down,’ members of Army’s secretive Delta Force say they’re the ‘same deadly fighting machine’

US troops in a Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu, Somalia
US troops in a Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu, Somalia, September 2, 1993.

  • The US Army recently upgraded dozens of awards given for valor during the October 3, 1993, special-operations mission in Mogadishu.
  • The operation, recounted in the 2001 film “Black Hawk Down,” is widely remembered for how it went awry.
  • Thirty years on, former Delta Force members remember it with frustration about the limitations they faced and pride for the odds they overcame.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Almost 30 years ago, members of the special-operations unit Task Force Ranger fought for their lives in one of the toughest battles since the Vietnam War.

The battle in Mogadishu, Somalia – popularized by the movie “Black Hawk Down” – was so fierce that it resulted in two Medal of Honors and dozens of lesser awards.

Now the US Army has upgraded 58 of those awards to the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor under fire, and two others to the Distinguished Flying Cross, which recognizes heroism in aerial combat.

Task Force Ranger

US Army Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu Somalia
A US Army Black Hawk gunner covers a Cobra gunship during a patrol over Mogadishu, October 17, 1993.

Task Force Ranger was the best the US military had to offer.

A few hundred strong, the task force comprised Delta Force’s C Squadron, Bravo Company from the 3rd Ranger Battalion, small elements of Air Commandos, a four-man reconnaissance and sniper team from SEAL Team 6, and helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers.”

Operation Gothic Serpent, their mission in Somalia, was a US-led effort to stop the civil war in the East African country by capturing warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, a key player in the conflict, and his lieutenants.

The task force had been operating in Somalia for some time before the fatal battle on October 3, 1993. On that day, Delta Force operators, Rangers, and Night Stalkers conducted a daytime raid to capture Aidid’s lieutenants, who were meeting in downtown Mogadishu.

Although the mission started smoothly, it was upended by a series of mistakes and bad luck – most notably, the shoot-down of two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

Black Hawk helicopter shot down in Mogadishu Somalia
Children walk on the rotor of a US Black Hawk helicopter downed in Mogadishu, October 14, 1993.

What was meant to be a quick in-and-out direct-action raid ended up being an hours-long personnel recovery mission conducted under fire in an urban environment.

Somali militiamen shot down the first Black Hawk, call sign Super 61, using a rocket-propelled grenade, killing the two pilots and gravely injuring the rest of the crew. As Delta Force operators and Rangers rushed to the downed Black Hawk, Somali fighters shot down Super 64, again with an RPG.

At the first crash site, US troops’ efforts to extricate the two dead pilots were frustrated by intense Somali resistance.

At the second site, two Delta Force snipers, Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart, volunteered to be inserted and hold off the Somalis until a rescue operation could be mounted. They died defending Super 64, and both received the Medal of Honor.

In the end, 19 American soldiers were killed, including six Delta Force operators, and 73 were wounded. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Durant, one of the Black Hawk pilots, was captured.

Somalis with US soldiers camouflage in Mogadishu
Somalis hold a pair of camouflage pants said to be from a US soldier killed during fighting in Mogadishu, October 3, 1993.

“I was there in Somalia the day after the battle of the Black Sea,” retired Delta Force operator George Hand told Insider, using another name for the battle.

“Coming in from Egypt, there was much to ponder about the mental state of our comrades. How would they be, what would they be like – aloof, angry, frightened?” Hand added.

“To my utter surprise, there was none of that from any of the men. The only thing I would say was that they played an inordinate rate of very rigorous volleyball. I had never seen a combat team ever fare so well through such trauma.”

“I credit the maturity of the operators and the Unit’s selection process,” Hand said. “These men went through sheer horror for many hours on end but managed to complete the day with comparatively light casualties.”

Hand, author of “Brothers of the Cloth,” a brilliant account of Delta Force missions and men, spent 10 years in Delta Force, completing deployments to Latin America, the Balkans, and Somalia, among other places.

The aftermath

US Army Rangers withdrawal from Mogadishu Somalia
US Army Rangers walk to a military transport plane during their withdrawal from Somalia, October 21, 1993.

Only hours after the battle ended, reinforcements arrived in the form of Delta Force’s A Squadron and additional Rangers. Their initial mission had three components: rescue Durant, recover the bodies Gordon and Shughart, and continue the hunt for Aidid.

In the end, political backlash at home over the operation and its casualties forced Task Force Ranger to stand down. Delta Force’s A squadron conducted a few missions, but the Somalis ultimately handed Durant over after diplomatic negotiations.

“It’s not a secret that we did a lot of things wrong in Somalia. We didn’t fully utilize the assets we had at our disposal for honestly bullshit reasons,” a retired Delta Force operator said, referring to the Clinton administration denying the use of AC-130 gunships and M-1 Abrams tanks in Mogadishu.

“But that didn’t stop us from taking it to them. People say that we lost in Somalia because we suffered too many KIAs [killed in action]. But we did degrade Aidid’s ability to operate while devastating his militiamen,” the retired operator added.

US Army soldier in Mogadishu Somalia
A US soldier walks by a Somali during a patrol near Camp Victory Base, near Mogadishu, November 14, 1993.

The few hundred US commandos fought thousands of Somali militiamen, killing hundreds – some reports claim thousands – and wounding many more.

That the US forces accomplished the objective of capturing Aidid’s lieutenants is often forgotten, the retired operator said, “so I guess it’s something that the task force’s fighting spirit is universally recognized after so many years.”

Delta operators in Somalia wanted to get back into the fight “as quickly as possible,” and volleyball was their outlet, Hand said. “When they saw that there would be no more city combat, they played constant, rigorous volleyball to ease off the kettle.”

That three soldiers from Delta Force’s Special Unit received grave injuries during and after the battle and recovered is also often overlooked, Hand added.

“They returned to the US to be fitted with prosthetic limbs and returned to the front line of battle to join their crew. That’s the American fighting man, and as long as he is held to the same rigorous standards as always, we will field the same deadly fighting machine,” Hand said.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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