Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at RAND. She has been an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center. Her book about the U.S. Army Special Forces, Masters of Chaos, was a New York Times bestseller; her second book, Tell Me How This Ends, was a New York Times notable book. She received the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Reporting on National Defense in 2005. She has conducted field research on special operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Latin America, and elsewhere. One Hundred Victories is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and in bookstores.
Just before winter set in, Jimenez’s company was granted permission to run a commando operation to support the local police and stability operations in lower Kunar. They were going after the insurgent camp in Maya village at last. The conventional forces agreed to supply the needed air support and surveillance assets in early October 2011. Matt and his team were ecstatic. The intelligence reporting was ample and consistent: insurgents used this village on the Pakistani border as a major way station to stage attacks in two districts and beyond.11
The commandos and the special operations team partnered with it, ODA 3313, submitted their “concept of operations,” or CONOP, which described the purpose of the mission, the detailed plans for conducting it, and the types of support that would be required. The team received the green light to launch. The major issue was where the helicopters would land. This was tricky because the Afghan and Pakistani governments did not agree on the exact location of the border, which had never been formally demarcated. To make sure they were landing on the Afghan side of the border, the team studied two sets of images. Then the soldiers hit the shooting range, which was about fifty yards from their dining room and gym at Camp Dyer, on their patch of the Jalalabad base, for some last-minute nighttime target practice, as they always did before missions. They drove to the flight line and boarded the two Chinooks that would ferry them in. As they approached the landing site, insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades, and the pilots decided to abort rather than risk losing the birds. The commandos and the team returned to Camp Dyer. They would let the area cool off for a bit, and make another try after the insurgents’ attention had turned elsewhere.
In late November, the mission was reapproved. The commandos and their special operations team brushed off their plan, updated it, and rehearsed it. It was officially called Operation Sayaqa. Sayaqa was Dari for “lightning,” which was the motto of the 1st Afghan Commando battalion, or kandak. This was the original Afghan commando battalion and therefore the most experienced one. It was based in Kabul, but the company that was on active rotation lived at a forward base in the barracks beside the team at Camp Dyer.12
Once again, the team and the aviators surveyed the possible landing sites. The pilots pushed for a site close to the village, but the team selected a site that was a bit flatter and with fewer obstacles to navigate in the nighttime insertion. Given the steep terrain, it was still going to be a two-wheeled landing. The Chinooks would touch down on their back wheels, keeping their noses in the air, and open their rear hatches for the commandos and teams to offload, before taking off again.
On the day of the mission, November 25, the weather threatened to scrub the launch, but it lifted by nightfall. At 8:30 p.m. they loaded into the ramshackle base trucks. Eddie Jimenez and his sergeant major, Rotsaert, accompanied the team and the commandos to the airstrip to see them off, as they always did. After the birds lifted off, Jimenez returned to the operations center at Camp Dyer to monitor the mission. He would spend the night in the bare-bones center, watching the video feed and listening to the satellite radio communications. Jimenez’s bedroom was across the hall, in a room that doubled as his office and private conference room. Their boss, Bob Wilson, would also be watching from his base at Bagram, along with those on watch duty at the CJSOTF down the street at Camp Vance.
It was cold, about 30 degrees, and there was very little moonlight, as the moon had not yet risen. The half-hour flight due north of Jalalabad to the staging base at FOB Joyce, just south of Asadabad, passed without incident. The two Chinooks made several trips to ferry all the commandos and the team first to the base and then on to their destination, Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) Khoda, deep in the mountains. Hovering like a giant mechanical insect, rotors chopping the thin air, the first Chinook tilted back and delicately touched its tail wheels down. The Americans and Afghans released their harness belts and jumped out of the rear hatch as it yawned open. The team’s chief warrant officer, Mike, was the first to unload with his portion of the team. They fanned out to secure the landing zone for the rest.
Mike was the ground commander for the operation. There were fifteen Americans in all: ten members of his special forces team plus a Special Operations Team–Alpha (SOT-A) signals intelligence specialist, an Air Force combat controller, two navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal experts, plus an army combat cameraman. Two or three Americans were distributed among each of the four thirty-man Afghan commando platoons, as was the team’s usual practice. Those in the second group disembarked, hoisted their packs and weapons, and set off at a quick clip so that the troops would not be all bunched up on the landing zone. They went forward about 150 meters and began conducting searches of the woods and manmade structures to clear the area.
Mike’s plan was for the entire force to stay together and move around the bowl from west to east and then enter Maya. They had landed about a kilometer and a half from the border, southwest of Maya. They were at roughly the same altitude as the village, but the undulating terrain meant that they would need to go down and climb again to reach it. The mountains right behind Maya, on the border, rose straight up about 2,000 meters in sheer cliffs.
Mike sent the first group down into a hollow to clear a cluster of buildings, and then moved off the landing zone to make way for the two final drops. They all started moving around the bowl. As he reached the ridgeline, Mike heard machine-gun fire. The troops clearing the small village below were being shot at. Mike peeked up over the knoll, and the fire suddenly shifted to his location. He called the battalion on the radio and told the assistant operations officer, “Hey, we are sitting here near the Pakistani border taking fire. There’s fire coming from the Pakistani border. You need to make sure the border coordinations were done.” The major agreed to contact the conventional two-star command, Regional Command–East, which was the entity responsible for making sure the Pakistanis were informed of impending operations.
The accuracy of the machine-gun fire led Mike to believe that the shooters were wearing night vision goggles. The team, per procedure, was wearing infrared strobe lights that helped their own aircraft avoid hitting them. He instructed the team members to turn them off.
A few moments later a barrage of 60 mm mortars landed about twenty-five meters from Mike, who immediately called the battalion back to let them know the team was now receiving mortar fire. He requested permission to fire on the targets that were shooting at them.
The Chinooks had already lifted off, but the men on the ground were not alone. Their overhead support consisted of a lumbering but heavily armed AC-130, two AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships, and two F-15E fighters on station higher up, in addition to an MC-12 King Air plane loaded with additional intelligence and surveillance sensors. Mike did not have a direct line of sight to the origin of the fires, but the AC-130 crew told him they saw the fire coming from the mountaintop behind Maya. It was too dark and too far for the men on the ground to see the location with their NODs, but the air crew described the structure on the mountain that was firing in their direction. A fort, which had not existed a month before, was surrounded by men with guns who were visible through the plane’s thermal and infrared sights.
The combat controller suggested to Mike that they request a show of force from the F-15E Strike Eagle. Mike agreed and told him to call the jets. Less than a minute later, the F-15E swooped down with a deafening roar, screaming through the narrow valley between the team and the mountaintop that was firing on them. “I think anybody would know what this means,” Mike said. “It is US forces there and please stop firing.” The “or else” was hardly implicit. Yet, much to his surprise, a few minutes after this bone-rattling display of superpower might, another mortar landed right between Mike’s group and the one behind him. The team’s positions had been bracketed, and the next mortar would almost certainly hit them. Mike had the SATCOM line open to the battalion, which heard the huge explosion through the phone. Mike then requested permission to fire, which Lieutenant Colonel Wilson approved immediately.
Mike had requested the F-15E show of force as an extra step, one not required by standard procedure. But now, knowing that he did not have a minute to spare, he quickly relayed Wilson’s approval to the combat controller, who in turn radioed the AC-130 with the request to target the location that had fired the mortars. Recalling that critical juncture, Mike said later, “If [the fire] had continued we would have definitely taken multiple casualties. It would have been a mass casualty exercise after that.”
The AC-130 came in for the kill, firing its fearsome side-mounted 105 mm cannon at the mountaintop structure that was the source of the attack. About that time the Apaches returned; they had flown back to Asadabad to refuel about twenty-five minutes earlier. The Apaches began scouring the valley and identified more targets, along with the AC-130, which reported a lot of people running around the mountaintop.
The first strike did not end the firing. Mike and his team soon realized that the fire was coming from more than one location, as two more mortar rounds landed about twenty-five meters away from the lead group. These team members and commandos happened to be inside clearing a building, preventing certain injury or death, given the proximity of the fire. Twenty-five meters is considered “danger close” for an exploding mortar. The AC-130 immediately identified the second mortar location and moved in to shoot at the target. Enemy fire then ceased for the time being, and the battlefield fell silent.
By that time, the full force had reached the edge of the bowl. Mike was concerned that his lead element would not be safe crossing the exposed area leading into Maya village. He called the battalion and told the operations officer that even though they faced no imminent threat, he wanted to destroy the target that had previously fired on his men to ensure he would take no casualties. Wilson approved, and the second location was engaged again. It was about 1 a.m.
To reduce the risk to the commandos, Mike had also ordered that they not use white lights in their searches and that they throw away their chem lights—gel-filled plastic tubes that glowed green when cracked, a cheaper tool for identifying friendly forces than the strobes. As usual, the commandos had tied chem lights to their vests.
At 1:44 a.m. the AC-130 crew radioed that they spotted people moving around the target on the mountain top. “Do you want to engage?” they asked. Mike called the battalion; the reply was no, cease all fire unless you are getting directly shot at. “Come up on the Iridium [satellite phone],” Mike was told.
He called the battalion back on the handheld satellite phone. This phone was less iffy than the SATCOM 130 system, which also required them to stop and unfold a spiderweb antenna. But it was also a direct line between the team and the battalion for sensitive communications, since the other command centers monitoring the operation could not hear this conversation. Wilson told Mike that the team had been engaging Pakistani forces. Mike’s principal concern throughout the battle had been making sure he was following procedure to guarantee the safety of his men and that of the civilians in the village. He had not had the time to think much about who was shooting at him. The machine guns had been firing indiscriminately into the village. He had initially assumed they were under fire from the Taliban, because none of their maps showed Pakistani outposts in that area. He had heard from the team at Penich about being regularly mortared, and there were reports that the Taliban in the area had a DShK machine gun. Still, he was not overly surprised by this news. Both the machine-gun fire and the mortar fire were more precise than the Taliban’s normally was.
Given this new information, Wilson told Mike that if anything else happened, Mike would have to paint him a precise picture before he would be able to approve any subsequent fire. There was discussion of an emergency exfiltration to get the troops out, but it was decided that they would stay and clear the area at daybreak. It would be better at this point to continue the mission and do a thorough search to see what turned up.
At about 4:44 a.m., the team started receiving recoilless rifle rounds, fired from a location on the mountains above Maya that was about two and a half kilometers north of the structures that had already been targeted. The Apaches were also fired on by RPGs as they searched an area to the west of the village, in a place where the team and the commandos had caught a high-value target (HVT) some weeks before. In neither case was the fire effective, but Mike reported it to the battalion to keep them informed. Whoever was firing at them, or around them, had not been deterred by the fireworks of the previous hours.
Mike gathered his men and the commandos into a strong point location, a building on the edge of Maya, to wait for daybreak. From this defensible location they would search the entire village. Starting at 7 a.m. he began to send out recon teams to search different locations one area at a time. The MC-12 plane overhead carrying fullmotion video, thermal, and other sensor gear relayed what was going on up on the mountaintop, one kilometer away and two kilometers straight up. Mike could see smoke rising from the two smoldering ruins, but that was all. The air crew reported that the Pakistani soldiers had placed their weapons on the ground and moved away to the back side of the ridgeline so their movements would not be interpreted as threatening.
Officers back at the battalion operations center requested that he call again on the Iridium, at which point he was told the Pakistanis would be flying in on two helicopters, armed UH-60s, to investigate what had happened. They demanded that the two Apaches be pulled back from the border to the Kunar River. Mike was uneasy, thinking that his troops might be shot at, but he ordered everyone inside. The Pakistani choppers came in and landed on the back side of the mountain. They stayed about twenty minutes, loading up their dead and wounded. Twenty-four had been killed, and thirteen were wounded.
Mike was glad they had been allowed to stay, because of what they learned and found that morning in Maya. His team and the commandos conducted a thorough search while he and the commando commander talked to the elders. “They were quite relieved that we were there,” Mike said. The elders wanted someone to see what they had been living through. One of the elders told him, “This happens all the time.” For the last six months, the villagers told him, when they ventured out to get water, tend their goats, or work in their gardens, they would be shot at from the mountains above. One elder said his daughter had died of gunshot wounds the previous month, and they had gone to complain to the governor in Khas Kunar, to no avail. The elder alleged that the Pakistani border guards fired on them to allow the Taliban to come into their villages and stash their weapons there. The Taliban had even raped two girls in the valley. The warrant officer surveyed the village and found a bullet-pocked house with a mortar round in its roof.
Meanwhile, the team and the commandos had unearthed an astonishing array of weapons and munitions from multiple caches around the village. They found AK-47s, PKM machine guns, RPGs and launchers, Pakistani uniforms, and the 7.62 ammunition for the Pakistani G-3 rifles. The quantity of ammunition was mindboggling. There were more than 15,000 rounds in all, including 2,000 DShK rounds; 9,000 PKM rounds; 3,000 Pakistani rifle rounds; and mortars. 13 The operation’s haul had more than confirmed Maya’s status as a major insurgent hub. Mike felt sorry for the elders. They had not wanted the Taliban to make use of their village, but they had no means of resisting and no one had come to help them.
It was afternoon by the time the team finished the site exploitation in Maya and was ready to exfil. When Mike radioed in, he was told they would have to hump out three kilometers further than planned to a more distant pickup spot. “You’re kidding,” Mike said. The men were exhausted from the past twenty-four hours, the high-altitude march in full kit, the attack, and then the detailed search of the village. Now they would have to hike twice as far as they had expected, through a wadi deep in enemy territory that was vulnerable to attack from the high ground, to get a ride out.
It was just a foretaste of the holy hell that their operation was about to unleash.
There were three basic elements to the drama that followed: the investigation, the Pakistani reaction, and the American response. In addition, out of public view, there were significant repercussions within the military chain of command and an ensuing impact on military operations in Afghanistan. Operation Sayaqa’s operation was in many respects a watershed moment for the war and everyone engaged in it.
An official investigation was opened by Central Command, the four-star military headquarters in Tampa, Florida, that oversaw operations throughout the Middle East and South Asia. In the weeks of grilling and endless meetings that followed, Mike was mollified by his own conscience and his own command’s support. As he went over every detail of the operation, the decisions he made, and the actions he took, Mike concluded: “I would not have done one thing different. If that situation were to happen again I would do the exact same thing.”
Central Command’s four-star commander, General James Mattis, came to Afghanistan to celebrate Christmas with the troops just as the investigation concluded. Mattis ordered his staff to find Mike. He knew this young soldier had been at the center of the storm, and he wanted to bring his four-star power to bear directly. He had waited until the investigation was completed, since any overture before that would have been a violation. Mattis was as Spartan a warrior as America had, stern, learned, and intensely caring. He was a bachelor, and the military profession was his life. “I looked for things you did wrong, and I could not find any,” Mattis told Mike in their meeting. The general praised him for his “tactical patience” in ordering a show of force by the F-15E before returning lethal fire, even though his troops were in imminent danger and he was fully authorized to respond immediately.
Mike was immensely grateful that the general had personally validated the choices he had made in the battle; he would never forget that. But he was disappointed at the public reaction, or, more precisely, the news media’s coverage of the event, which shaped the general public’s understanding of what had happened. “For the team, it was disheartening that the American media turned on us so quickly without knowing the facts,” he said. “And even afterward when everything had come out and the investigation has completely cleared us, there has been no [recognition that] hey, these guys did do the right thing.” The massive campaign launched by the Pakistani government to shape public opinion was met by a very weak American reply, which led many to conclude that the Americans had been the aggressors. That interpretation of events was well entrenched by the time the official investigation concluded. When the investigating officer briefed the Pentagon press corps, he faced a barrage of accusatory questions implying that the United States had been in the wrong and had cut out Pakistan in the course of the inquiry, when it was Pakistan that shot first and had declined to participate in the US investigation. Pakistan’s official response to the US official report was to claim that its soldiers had shot in the opposite direction at what they believed were militants, and that those posted on the border routinely engaged in what Pakistan called “speculative fire.”15
Mike wished that more of the intelligence could have been declassified. “It would shed a lot of light on the [Pakistani] thought processes,” he said. Throughout the war, Pakistan had played both sides of the fence, supporting insurgents when its interests dictated, while taking massive amounts of American money. Mike’s team had been caught up in this central contradiction of the United States’ tolerance for what might be called enemy behavior. The United States, for its part, possessed evidence of Pakistan’s direct complicity in the death of US soldiers—not just near-deaths—and constant firing on US troops along the border. But the United States chose to look the other way.
Mike did not like it, but he also knew his place within the chain of command. He had joined the service in 2000, had entered the special forces in 2002, and was a newly minted chief warrant officer as of 2010. He and the warrant officer on their sister team in Maiwand had graduated from the course at the same time. Mike loved his job and hoped he’d have another four or five years on the job, but he acknowledged, “I’m not sure if my wife loves the job.” For this extra-long deployment, she had moved home to their native Wisconsin, where both sets of parents lived and were available to help her with their baby boy and five-year-old daughter.
The basic fact that got twisted from the very beginning was that the Pakistanis had fired first, on US and Afghan forces. The battle is now enshrined in public memory as a US attack on Pakistan, when it was the opposite. Pakistan leaped immediately into the public fray with the charge that it had been attacked. Then it tried to feign total ignorance of who had been shooting from its side. Then came the extraordinary claim that Pakistan’s military thought that it was under attack from guerrillas, which did not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Mike’s men may not have known for certain who was firing at them that night, and he was within his right to call for a return of fire no matter who they were. But there could have been no doubt in anyone’s mind that Americans were there on the ground. Although they had landed under cover of night, the sound of their aircraft was a dead giveaway as to their identity. The Chinooks that carried them in could be heard from five or six miles away, and only coalition forces had them, or, for that matter, Apache gunships, AC-130s, or F-15Es—certainly neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government had these things. The Pakistanis repeatedly fired on the American troops—continuing to do so after the show of force—leaving little doubt that this was a concerted attack. But the American government chose not to clarify the basic “who shot first” facts owing to concerns over the diplomatic fallout.
The confusion that had occurred that night was not on the ground, where Mike’s team was fighting. It occurred among those responsible for transmitting advance notice of operations to the Pakistanis. This coordination was most certainly botched, but it is uncertain whether the sharing of that information would have forestalled or halted the Pakistani actions that night. The team had passed its mission concept of operations up the chain of command as required, and it had been approved. It had been sent to the Regional Command–East, the conventional two-star command in charge of sending the relevant information to the border coordination centers that had been established with the Pakistani government. In this case, the coordination center was located at the main conventional base near Asadabad, FOB Joyce. The normal protocol was for the US coordination officer there to share basic information with the Pakistani military liaison officer who was assigned there. A handful of these centers existed on the Afghan side of the border, established by mutual agreement. The Americans had also pressed for coordination centers on the Pakistan side of the border but had been rebuffed by Pakistan.
The border coordination centers served two purposes. One was to relay general information ahead of operations so that the Pakistanis would not be caught totally unawares. The other purpose was to sort out incidents once they occurred. The US military did not relay the specific coordinates of missions in advance, in order to protect them from deliberate or inadvertent compromise. This practice was justified by a long trail of previous incidents in which intended targets had vanished after intelligence was shared with the Pakistanis. Mike’s team had been party to just such an incident the previous month. They and the commandos had gone on a mission to Lalpur, a district in Nangahar along the Pakistani border, where there was a reported insurgent training camp. The Pakistanis had been informed of the pending operation twenty-four hours earlier. When Mike and his team arrived, the villagers told them that forty insurgents had left the village just hours before. The team found the second-largest cache of their tour there after Maya. Providing advance notice not only jeopardized the mission, Mike noted, but his men’s lives. “People don’t understand that it puts us in a lot of danger,” he said.
After Operation Sayaqa was launched, when the team came under fire, Wilson had called Regional Command–East to verify that there were no Pakistani border posts in the area of the engagement. The command had replied that there were no posts marked on its map and authorized Mike’s request for fire. Wilson only found out as the events unfolded that Regional Command–East had not passed the concept of operations the team had prepared, with the slide of information releasable to the Pakistani military, to the border coordination center, so nothing had been shared with Pakistan. Wilson had sent a back-channel copy of the slide to Joyce, but it had not been briefed to the Pakistanis.
When the team came under fire the second time during Operation Sayaqa, Wilson had tried to determine definitively whether Pakistani forces were involved. The situation became even more snarled at that point, however, because the US officer at the coordination center incorrectly loaded a map overlay into his computer, possibly because he was a reservist unfamiliar with the relatively new “command post of the future” software. That error led him to identify the wrong location to the Pakistani liaison officer, a spot fourteen kilometers north of the scene of the fighting. The Pakistani had confirmed that there were no Pakistani forces at that erroneous location, which heightened the confusion.
Wilson became dismayed, as the investigation unfolded, that the RC-East command did not clarify its own actions with regard to the CONOP and the border coordination. The official investigation’s final report was clear on this point, however.16 Wilson’s battalion had briefed the operation in a video teleconference, and the border coordination center at Joyce had asked RC-East’s border cell for more information but received no response. A tap dance was beginning that would go on for weeks and consume hundreds and hundreds of hours. Wilson’s decisions and the actions of Mike and his men that night were straightforward and entirely justifiable, as the investigation later confirmed. The men were under fire, pinned down, and in imminent danger of being wounded or killed. It did not matter who was shooting at them or why. The rules of engagement were clear. US forces under attack had the right to defend themselves.
What happened next was not just a product of the November 25–26 incident. It was part of a toxic climate of mistrust and bitterness that had reached epic proportions, driven by a series of events. Pakistan had been chafing under the greatly increased pace of US drone strikes that occurred during the Obama administration, often at politically inopportune times. The news media’s publication of diplomatic cables via Wikileaks had revealed just how deeply the United States mistrusted Pakistan. A CIA contractor had shot two Pakistanis in Lahore, and the raid six months earlier by SEAL Team Six deep into Pakistani territory to kill Osama bin Laden—with no advance notice—had deeply humiliated the Pakistani military. The escalating rhetoric over the course of the year was matched by a quadrupling of fire from Pakistan’s side of the border. The Pakistani government was itching for a fight, and Operation Sayaqa provided just the pretext it needed.