The Chinook CH-47 transport helicopter was carrying U.S. and Afghan military forces on a night-raid mission in the Tangi Valley of Afghanistan’s Wardak province around 1 a.m. on August 6, 2011, when Afghan insurgents shot it down using a rocket-propelled grenade. Thirty Americans and eight Afghans were killed in the attack and the helicopter’s subsequent crash. Seventeen of the U.S. servicemen killed were Navy SEALs, including 15 commandos from the Gold Squadron of the elite Naval Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), better known as SEAL Team Six. The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which proved to be not only the costliest day in Team Six history but also the single deadliest day for U.S. forces during the war in Afghanistan, which by that point had lasted nearly 10 years.
The Tangi Valley, located along the border between Afghanistan’s Wardak and Logar provinces some 80 miles southwest of Kabul, is a remote, inaccessible area known for its resistance to foreign invasion. Alexander the Great suffered heavy troop losses there during his campaign in Afghanistan in the fourth century B.C. In the 1980s, mujahideen fighters in Wardak and Logar provinces devastated an entire division of Soviet fighters.
In 2009, U.S. forces from the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army established a base in the Tangi Valley area after it became clear the Taliban had taken advantage of low coalition presence there to establish a stronghold within striking distance of the Afghan capital. As the United States and NATO allies began a drawdown of their troops in the spring of 2011, U.S. forces turned over the Tangi Valley outpost to their Afghan counterparts. They continued to run operations in the area, however, using helicopters and special operations forces to combat groups of insurgents in the region.
Under cover of darkness on the night of August 6, 2011, a special ops team that included a group of U.S. Army Rangers began an assault on a Taliban compound in the village of Jaw-e-Mekh Zareen in the Tangi Valley. The firefight at the house went on for at least two hours, and the ground team called in reinforcements. As the Chinook CH-47 transport helicopter (call sign: Extortion 17) carrying 30 U.S. troops, seven Afghan commandos, an Afghan civilian interpreter and a U.S. military dog approached, the insurgents fired on the helicopter and it crashed to the ground, killing all aboard.
Of the 30 Americans killed, 22 were Navy personnel, and 17 were SEALs. These included two bomb specialists and 15 operators in the Gold Squadron of DEVGRU, or Team Six, the highly classified unit that conducted the raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan the previous May. None of the operators killed in the Afghan helicopter crash had been involved in that mission, officials said. In addition to the SEALs, the others killed in the Chinook crash included five other Naval Special Warfare (NSW) personnel, three Air Force forward air controllers and five Army helicopter crewmembers.
The attack on August 6 was the most devastating day in SEAL Team Six history, as well as the single largest loss of life for U.S. forces since the war in Afghanistan began in October 2001. More than twice as many NSW personnel died in the Wardak crash than were killed on June 28, 2005, during Operation Redwings. That day, eight SEALs and eight members of the members of the Army’s 160th Special Forces Operations Regiment (SOAR) were killed when insurgents shot down their Chinook helicopter in Kunar province, near Asadabad. Three SEALs involved in a firefight on the ground were also killed, in what would stand as the deadliest day in NSW history since the Normandy landings on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
“No words describe the sorrow we feel in the wake of this tragic loss,” General John R. Allen, senior commander of the international military coalition in Afghanistan, said after the crash. “All of those killed in this operation were true heroes who had already given so much in the defense of freedom. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten.”
As funerals for the fallen sailors and other servicemen took place throughout the United States, a team of specialists conducted an official investigation to determine the cause of the crash. The resulting report, delivered in October 2011, concluded that a Taliban fighter shot down the Chinook with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) as the helicopter neared its landing zone, and that “all operational decisions, linked to the incident, were deemed tactically sound.”
Some later questioned the official narrative of the Extortion 17 crash, even suggesting the attack could have been an inside job, with Afghan forces tipping the Taliban off about the mission beforehand. Others criticized the planning and execution of the mission, including the decision to fly the helicopter into an area where it could be easily shot down and the use of a conventional helicopter rather than one designed for special operations missions. Family members of some of the SEAL Team Six operators killed in the crash, along with some military personnel, claimed that the U.S. government had turned the members of the elite unit into a target by revealing their role in the bin Laden raid. A congressional oversight committee even held a controversial hearing into the events surrounding the crash in early 2014.
Though the U.S.-led coalition formally ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014, the war has continued for more than two years beyond that point, marking its 15th anniversary last October. As of 2016, some 9,800 U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan. The Department of Defense estimates the total number of U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan at 2,254. Meanwhile, the civilian toll of the war grows ever higher; one estimate, by the organization International Physicians for the Prevention of War, put the total number of Afghans killed in the first 12 years of the conflict at some 220,000.
The life of a SEAL is full of pain, fear and exhaustion. Find out more about The Making of a SEAL.
Inspired by real SEAL Team Six missions. SIX airs Wednesdays at 10/9c.