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In the hours following the September 11 attacks, the US military began planning its response.
The Pentagon has turned to its special operations forces to send a message to the Taliban.
Twenty years later, their mission remains the longest air attack ever carried out by American forces.
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A few hours after the September 11 attacks, the US military was already preparing a response against the brains of Al-Qaeda and its host in Afghanistan, the Taliban.
Policy makers 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. The White House and the Pentagon have therefore 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 in particular, for the mission. These would be the first boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
Objective Gecko was the compound of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. The White House group’s equivalent, the complex was located near Kandahar, the group’s birthplace and stronghold.
The elimination of Mullah Omar would send a powerful message about the reach of the US military. But the target presented several logistical and planning challenges.
For starters, Gecko was over 500 miles from the USS Kitty Hawk, the aircraft carrier that would serve as a floating staging base for Delta Force.
The distance meant that 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 reach the target. It would be the longest air assault in US history, a worthy successor to the Doolittle and Son Tay raids.
In addition, there were no friendly bases nearby where the assault force could seek help in an emergency. The planners therefore decided to capture an airfield a few miles away, dubbed Objective Rhino, to support Delta, if necessary. The assault force was also ready to “lift the Alamo” if things on the ground changed and prevented their exit.
A Delta Force squadron, reinforced by operators from another squadron, would fly four MH-47 Chinooks. AC-130 combat helicopters, fighter jets, and airborne transport, refueling and control planes would provide support.
In total, more than 100 aircraft would support operations at Gecko and Rhino.
A moment of unity
Just as the terrorist attacks have united the American public, the United States military, often torn by inter-service rivalries, has come together to respond in times of crisis.
“In the past, I had been on Navy and Coast Guard ships / vessels for joint training, exercises and operations. Sometimes mixing people is easier than others. we got on that ship, our Navy brothers and sisters went out of their way to make sure we knew where we were on the ship and would escort if we got lost. No hesitation, ”an operator told Insider at the retirement of the Delta Force.
“It was more important than any of us and we all knew it. The gravity and importance of what a small force was about to do in retaliation was not lost on anyone,” said the retired operator.
The ground force loaded the helicopters and took off from Kitty Hawk on October 19, flying low to avoid enemy detection and fire.
The departure was a reflection of the operators’ unity of intention in the face of uncertain conditions.
“You didn’t know what to expect or anything. There were no established bases, from FOB [forward operations bases] or other friendly forces in the region, ”added the retired operator Delta. “No one had a hint of hesitation. We were attacked and we were going to retaliate with them by sending a clear message. “
After many hours of anti-aircraft fire and extensive air supply, the Night Stalkers carrying the ground force reached Gecko.
Disaster nearly struck when an MH-47 struck the enclosure wall, then, in the sandstorm created by the task force landing, and nearly crashed into another helicopter.
“Once the pilots realized this, they picked up power and took a flight path away from the complex over Kandahar City,” the retired operator said.
Gunfire erupted from the town, but MH-47 surrounded and made another attempt to land. “During this attempt, it struck a ridge line, causing more damage to the helicopter, ripping off and leaving part of the landing gear,” added the retired operator. The helicopter crashed but was able to take off later.
Once on target, Delta operators flooded the complex and struck their designated areas, smashing exterior walls and interior obstacles and engaging the enemy. For nearly an hour, they searched the compound for Mullah Omar and useful information, but the Taliban leader was long gone.
Before leaving the complex, Delta Force operators left American flags and NYPD and FYPD stickers, leaflets and patches to remind the United States of America’s long range.
‘Loud and clear’
The Pentagon and the US intelligence community knew from the start that eliminating the Taliban leader was a long plan, but the mission was just more than a raid on a high-value target. It was meant to be a message to a group that housed America’s enemy number one, and in that regard, the raid was a success.
In addition, it has helped build the confidence of the 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. The JSOC was created after this mission to centralize and enhance the capabilities of US special operations.
This failure remained a sensitive point for the Unit and the military. But Gecko has shown that the sacrifices during Eagle Claw were not in vain. Their mission deep in Afghanistan – the close call with the MH-47 in particular – was a reminder of the uncertainty and danger their predecessors faced in order to demonstrate the resolve of the United States.
It was important to send this message “loud and clear” after the 9/11 attacks, the retired Delta operator said. “The other thing that was not lost at that point was all the work, time and sacrifice that created the JSOC, starting with the lessons learned in Operation Eagle Claw, had gone reunited. “
The missions of US special operations forces increased as the global war on terror continued, but action against Objective Gecko remains the longest air assault in US history , reflecting the scale of their challenge.
Twenty years later, the US mission in Afghanistan is widely viewed as a failure, exemplified by the recent chaotic withdrawal, but further reflection on the war could lead to a fuller recognition of the troops who fought the Taliban in its early days.
The Pentagon recently enhanced the awards won by US troops during the “Black Hawk Down” incident, the 1993 mission in Somalia where a small US force held firm against all odds.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a Special Operations Defense Journalist, Hellenic Army Veteran (national service with the 575th Navy Battalion and Army HQ) and graduate of Johns Hopkins University.
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