The die had been cast before the Rangers ever hit the ground in the Nangarhar, Afghanistan. Military aircraft had dropped pamphlets over the target valley, reputed to be infested with Afghanistan’s ISIS affiliate, announcing that coalition operations would be clearing the valley so civilians should vacate the area immediately. The forewarning gave the enemy plenty of time to dig in and prepare defenses.
American Generals like John Nicholson have appeared to fundamentally misunderstand the ISIS issue in Afghanistan, or perhaps is just exaggerating the threat for the sake of a press conference. ISIS in Afghanistan, is very different that what you find in Syria and Iraq. Most ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan are simply Afghan or Pakistani Taliban who have rebranded themselves. The ISIS boogyman served both the enemy and the coalition well. The Taliban fly the ISIS flag in order to lure American troops into their valleys where they can be ambushed, and America has a scary new reason to run increased combat operations.
The debacle that happened in Nangarhar a few days ago proves that American forces are misinformed about the threat and that the officers of 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment are unable to plan and execute a movement to contact operation.
Alpha Company, 3/75 was the first element on the ground sweeping through the valley. A movement to contact mission entails large infantry elements moving through an area of operations known to be occupied by enemy forces, searching them out and engaging them. This denies the enemy the use of that particular terrain, degrades their capabilities, and keeps the pressure on them, preventing the enemy from having freedom of movement.
After a long movement, Alpha Company was taken out of the valley in a planned exfiltration, replacing exhausted troops with fresh ones, in this case Rangers from Bravo Company. However, the men from B/co were dropped off at the same point as Alpha Company, meaning that they had to walk six hours through the Afghan summer heat just to the starting point to begin their part of the mission.
Just two kilometers into the movement, they B/co Rangers were hit with their first heat casualty, a 18E (Special Forces Communications Sergeant) attached to the Ranger element. The Rangers were engaged again and again by the enemy, who had dug into spider holes and other fighting positions, knowing that the American Special Operations soldiers were inbound. During the course of the mission, it is estimated that there were approximately 75 enemy killed in action (EKIA), but the heat casualties were piling up.
The Rangers quickly drained their Camelbaks of water and had to continue fighting and moving while their Afghan partner force slept and hid behind trees. When the coalition airdropped a water re-supply, they dumped it into an open field, the surrounding area infested with ISIS linked Taliban. Due to the amount of gunfire, the Rangers could not risk running across the open field and taking casualties.
One by one, the Rangers went down from heat exhaustion, their leadership element apparently unable to plan for what they should have known would be an extremely strenuous operation in July. In the end, only five men were left standing in the entire platoon. Even the snipers, who usually travel lighter than other Rangers, went down as heat casualties. Even the platoon sergeant, a veteran Ranger with a dozen deployments under his belt, went down.
The Military Times and others have reported on the incident, and the Rangers losing sensitive equipment, but without any context. Photos emerged on Twitter showing a military ID card belonging to Specialist Ryan Larson, one of the young Rangers on the mission. His ID, and other equipment to including a radio, rocket launcher, plate carriers, an American flag, 5.56 magazines, medical gear, and much more, were captured by the enemy after the operation. The loss of the ID card allowed the enemy to claim a propaganda victory by stating that they had captured Larson, a claim that is completely false.
The reality is that Ranger Larson went down as a heat casualty, had to have his gear and clothing stripped down, and was stuck with multiple IV’s in a last-ditch effort to keep the severely overheated and dehydrated soldier alive. He wasn’t the only one in that situation, and in the mad scramble under combat conditions, gear got left behind. The loss of Larson’s ID card is particularly damning because ten years ago the Ranger Regiment stopped carrying ID cards and dog tags on objectives simply because they are a massive personal security (PERSEC) violation if they get left behind.
With some Rangers so desperate that they were drinking IV bags orally, and only five Rangers still combat effective, the Bravo Company element was finally evacuated.
Why a movement to contact mission turned into such a travesty is being hotly debated behind the scenes, and a number of Ranger officers are expected to lose their jobs over the multitude of failures and poor planning. Some are blaming decreased standards at the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP) and also pointing out that because Abram’s Charter suddenly being strictly enforced (which states that seasoned Rangers have to rotate to the conventional Army, de facto kicking them out of the Regiment) which leaves too many junior squad leaders and team leaders in the ranks who don’t have enough combat experience.
The concept of infiltrating multiple elements, one right after the other as the first becomes exhausted and replacing them with fresh soldiers, is a key element to a relentless pursuit of the enemy. The theory behind it is sound, but the fact that B/co was infiltrated into the same starting point as A/co, forcing them to walk six hours to their real start point negates the entire concept of the operation. Likewise, it is criminally negligent that officers failed to plan for hot weather in the Afghan summer and come up with a suitable re-supply plan for water and ammunition.
The 75th Ranger Regiment leadership is reported to be ashamed and embarrassed over the entire episode, which hit the mainstream media, and makes the Rangers look like anything but the badasses that they see themselves as. Selection standards aside, heat casualties can hit any soldier, any time, especially in this climate. The real problem with the mission was not a lack of stamina but rather a lack of planning that is sure to sting the Regiment for many months to come.