The elimination of Osama bin Laden by SEAL Team Six inside his walled-off compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan wasn’t so much a watershed moment for America’s special operation forces as it was the culmination of decades of experience, innovation, and progress. In particular, the May 2, 2011 raid served to demonstrate the remarkable capabilities that had been developed in the years following 9/11.
The nation celebrated the much-needed victory of Operation Neptune Spear, and the black-ops SEALs of the enigmatic Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) were made instant (if nameless and faceless) celebrities. The term ‘SEAL Team Six’ made its way into the popular lexicon — an internet search returns such references as the “SEAL Team Six of electricians,” “…pest control,” “…dentistry,” and “…special education.” And in an overnight development that can only be described as surreal, ST6 joined politicians, actors, and professional athletes as regular late-night monologue fodder.
That celebrity status hasn’t dimmed; three major motion pictures featuring the Navy’s counter-terrorism unit are in production and Jerry Bruckheimer has a SEAL-based drama in development for the small screen at ABC.i
Meanwhile, as phrases like “most elite” and “best of the best” are casually tossed around in reference to SEAL Team Six,ii their Army equivalents have been allowed to move even deeper into the shadows despite a multitude of world-altering achievements of their own.
The Specter of Operations Past
Operation Neptune Spear was more than just a success; in many ways it was vindication — for the nation, for the special operations community in general, and for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in particular.iii
Throughout the lead-up to the bin Laden raid, three previous failures informed — or perhaps more accurately, haunted — the operation and its ultimate approval. Indeed, President Barack Obama specifically cited all three in a CBS 60 Minutes interview discussing Operation Neptune Spear.iv
The first was Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue 52 Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran in 1980. Parked at a desert rendezvous point, running late, and down to five from its original eight helicopters, a bold rescue mission was aborted. Things only got worse when a USMC RH-53 helicopter collided with an USAF EC-130 transport plane while attempting to move into position to refuel and exfiltrate Iran. Eight servicemen were killed and four more injured. The debacle at Desert One delivered a heavy blow to America’s reputation and the resultant political fallout was considerable.
The concern of a Desert One repeat left many of the President’s political and military advisors skeptical about launching an unannounced raid into Pakistan, especially with widely varying estimates concerning whether the al-Qaeda leader would even be found in the Abbottabad compound.v
The Battle of Mogadishu — more popularly known as ‘Black Hawk Down’ — was also on the minds of the President and his inner circle. Operation Gothic Serpent, the attempt to capture Somali warlord Mohammad Farrah Aidid, was cut short in 1993 in the wake of a bloody battle in which 18 American serviceman were killed and one captured (with estimates claiming an additional 500-3000 killed on the other side).vi
The inclusion of a quick reaction force consisting of four MH-47 Chinooks loaded up with additional SEALs and Army Rangersvii to the UBL raid was a late call intended to give the assault team the firepower required to “fight their way out of Pakistan.”viii Even if something were to go wrong, Obama was determined that the SEALs would not get trapped and overrun in the streets of Abbottabad.
The third influential failure hanging over the operation was the Battle of Tora Bora, fought in the mountains of Afghanistan in late 2001 — the last time the nation had solid intelligence of bin Laden’s location before he was tracked down in Pakistan nearly a decade later. Unlike the previous two, Tora Bora served as a motivating factor compelling the decision to undertake Operation Neptune Spear; it stood as a stark reminder of just how fleeting the opportunity to strike might be.
The bin Laden raid is not alone in tying the three historic failures together. They also all happened to be built around JSOC’s other premier direct action special mission unit (SMU).
Among those who speak of the Army’s classified unit unofficially, it goes by a myriad of names — 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D), Delta Force (Delta), Combat Applications Group (CAG), Task Force Green, or simply ‘the Unit.’
And those who speak of it officially… well, they don’t, at least not officially. But the careful observer will notice that its activities are sometimes hinted at on the record, albeit obfuscated via prosaic labels. Generic terms such as “Coalition forces,” “United States special operation forces,” “American commandos,” and the like are sometimes later confirmed to have been used in reference to a Delta operation.
Other times, its successes are credited to other nations.
More commonly, they are never mentioned at all.
Necessary or not, such secrecy has resulted in the Unit’s public image being largely tied to three of the most high-profile failures in modern American military history.
Despite that PR handicap, Delta Force has earned itself a near-mythical status in many quarters. And in fact, even the briefest of inspections makes clear that placing blame on the Unit for the aforementioned operational miscues is a severe mischaracterization.
Setting the Unrecorded Record Straight
Danny Coulson, founder of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), spoke of this plight in his memoirs, No Heroes. In reference to Operation Eagle Claw he explained: “The heartbreaking accident was not of Delta’s making. If a bus hauling the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl crashed, we wouldn’t say the team lost the game. I thought it grossly unfair that the affair tarnished Delta’s public image… Delta was, and is, known for its superb planning process, its scientific approach to assaults, and its extraordinary marksmanship and physical training. It is equal or superior to any other counter-terror force in the world.”ix
Describing Delta’s actions in the Battle of Mogadishu as a failure is even more at odds with the reality on the ground. Mark Bowden’s in-depth account, Black Hawk Down, depicted the Unit’s operators as awe-inspiring soldiers whose technical proficiency, training, and courage under fire went a long way toward preventing what otherwise might have been a far more catastrophic result. Master Sergeant Paul Howe, a former Delta operator who took part in the fight, considered it a most decisive victory for the United States, calling it “one of the most one-sided battles in American history.”x
If anything, to those involved in the operation (as well as those who later studied and commented on it), any failure was one of political will. President Bill Clinton quickly withdrew the troops before they had completed their mission after images of dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Somalia shocked an unsuspecting television audience back home where the military action had been largely unknown.xi
The Battle of Tora Bora, which took place ten weeks after 9/11, too saw highly capable operators severely handicapped by questionable decision making above. The pseudonymous ‘Dalton Fury,’ the A Squadron officer who commanded the troops on the ground at Tora Bora, later relayed that a number of the Unit’s operational plans had been rejected. An audacious bid to surprise bin Laden and his al-Qaeda guards from behind by scaling the 14,000-foot peaks that border Pakistan, a plan to line potential getaway routes with mines, and finally the request of a battalion of Army Rangers to block bin Laden’s escape were all turned down.xii
(While Fury later stated that he didn’t know if those decisions were made at CENTCOM or even higher up, the denial of Rangers for the operation, at least, was reportedly made by then-CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks.)xiii
Instead, Delta was ordered to put a local face on the operation and was saddled with Afghani allies who were caught up in their own power struggle and of ambiguous allegiance. Meanwhile, Pakistan was expected to seal off the border in exchange for a billion dollars of new economic aid — with less than optimal results.xiv
Still, through the liberal use of air strikes, Delta, CIA officers, Army Special Forces, and a small number of British Special Boat Service troops managed to kill scores of al-Qaeda fighters. Radio intercepts indicated that bin Laden was hurting, desperate, and quickly losing faith — going so far as to grant his men permission to surrender — before somehow making a narrow escape into Pakistan.xv
Whatever the details or the outcomes, the fact remains that Delta is known to the broader public due to their involvement in these three operations and little else outside the realm of fiction.
It’s a perhaps unfortunate reality that it typically takes a national-level fiasco to shed even the smallest amount of light on this secretive unit. But behind the splashy coverage of the mainstream press a largely classified history is silently being written.
Bubba’s (Prophetic) Big Idea: Throw Some Ninjas at ‘Em
In recent years Delta has been at the heart of a vast, if hidden, global war waged by America’s special operation forces. In the midst of a run of almost endless operational achievements, the full story, when it eventually comes to light, may be regarded as unparalleled in modern military history.
For the past decade Delta Force’s activities have mostly been detailed through a series of vague, incomplete, and/or brief reports from disparate sources. However, as imperfect as the open source record may be, assembled together it hints to operations of unprecedented scope and scale.
Since its formation in the late 1970s, the Unit has been on a perpetual war footing. Even prior to 9/11 Delta enjoyed its fair share of daring successes, albeit mostly underreported. The rescue of American civilian Kurt Muse from the Carcel Modelo prison in Panama City in Operation Acid Gambit in 1989,xvi aiding in the elimination of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in 1993,xvii and an almost unknown operational role in Operation Barras (the SAS-led rescue of several British soldiers in the jungles of Sierra Leone in 2000xviii) are but a few examples. And estimates claim that upwards of 80% of JSOC’s pre-9/11 missions remain classified to this day.xix
However, the memoirs of ex-operators willing to accept being shunned by their former teammates in order to tell their stories feature a common theme. There are repeated tales of missions trained up for but ultimately called off, skills showcased for political VIPs more often than applied in the field, and political and military leaders who were either unaware of the Unit’s full capabilities or unwilling to leverage them.
Among them was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the Coalition Forces in the first Gulf War. Gen. Schwarzkopf was skeptical of special operation forces and kept a tight leash on them during the early ’90s conflict, preferring instead to rely on conventional tactics.xx (Even still, Delta managed to wipe out 26 Scuds that were positioned for a last-ditch attack on Israel on the final day of the war.)xxi
Despite the painful memories of Somalia, The 9/11 Commission Report makes it clear that President Clinton hadn’t sworn off calling upon American’s commandos but was crucially lacking the support required for any such action. Seeking a way to deal with the bin Laden problem in 2000, Clinton is quoted in the report as saying to Gen. Hugh Shelton, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”xxii
In fact, Gen. Peter Schoomaker — a former Delta squadron commander who went on to become the Unit’s commanding officer, JSOC’s commander, and ultimately the commander of SOCOM by the time of Clinton’s remark — hoped for the opportunity to do just that. However, according to Benjamin Runkle, the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden, Shelton and CENTCOM commander Anthony Zinni dismissed such concepts, with Shelton said to have regarded them as “dumb-ass ideas, not militarily feasible,”xxiii — never mind that Clinton’s daydream isn’t that far removed from the mission that finally took out an even more cautious bin Laden little more than a decade later.
Even following the painful wakeup call delivered by 9/11, some key leaders remained painfully ignorant of the Unit’s capabilities. In November of ’01, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (who would later empower JSOC to unprecedented levels) wistfully told a Delta officer that it would be helpful if the nation had a unit that could send a small number of men anywhere in the world to discreetly strike at al-Qaeda — seemingly oblivious to the fact that Delta Force existed in large part to carry out precisely that sort of assignment.xxiv
Despite numerous proposals and mission workups, prior to 9/11 Delta and ST6 were not once sent to hunt down terrorists in response to the growing number of lethal attacks that were taking American lives.xxv Risk-aversion, an outdated military mindset that focused on state-based enemies while viewing terrorism as a criminal act, and a lack of actionable intelligence were all significant contributing factors to this inaction.xxvi
Despite Delta Force’s numerous successes prior to 9/11, the operators were frequently left frustrated that they weren’t given the opportunity to do more.
i Nellie Andreeva, “Navy SEALs Drama From TV Lands At ABC With Put Pilot Commitment” Deadline.com (August 17, 2011), http://www.deadline.com/2011/08/navy-seals-drama-from-bruckheimer-tv-lands-at-abc-with-put-pilot-commitment/. And two major motion pictures about the UBL raid (Zero Dark Thirty & Code Name Geronimo are in production, as is one about the Richard Phillips rescue (Captain Phillips).
ii Mark Memmott, “SEAL Team Six The Best Of The Best,” NPR.com (May 4, 2011), http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/05/04/135982609/seal-team-six-the-best-of-the-best.
iii Sean D. Naylor, “Bin Laden raid a triumph for Spec Ops,” Navy Times (April 28, 2006). http://www.navytimes.com/news/2011/05/military-bin-laden-raid-a-triumph-for-special-operations-050911/.
iv “Obama on bin Laden: The Full “60 Minutes” interview.” CBS News (May 8, 2011), http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504803_162-20060530-10391709.html.
v Nicholas Schmidle, “Getting Bin Laden.” The New Yorker (August 8, 2011), http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/08/110808fa_fact_schmidle?currentPage=all
x Benjamin Runkle, “The “Mogadishu Effect” And Rick Acceptance” Command Posts (August 27, 2011), http://www.commandposts.com/2011/08/the-mogadishu-effect-and-risk-acceptance/.
xii “Kill bin Laden: The “60 Minutes” interview,” CBS News (July 12, 2009), http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=5153449n&tag=contentBody;storyMediaBox.
xiii Peter Bergen, “The Battle for Tora Bora.” The New Republic (December 22, 2009), http://www.tnr.com/article/the-battle-tora-bora.
xx “The Gulf War: Oral History: Rick Atkinson,” Frontline, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/gulf/oral/atkinson/1.html.