Part 2 of 5
New Threat, Old Mindset
One might expect that any pre-9/11 obstacles that stood in the way of setting Delta Force loose in pursuit of America’s enemies would have been torn down along with the twin towers of the World Trade Center. That was not the case — at least not immediately.
When the CIA readied Jawbreaker, its first advance team of officers sent into Afghanistan in the weeks following the devastating 2001 attacks, the Agency requested that Delta operators accompany them. However, despite an eagerness on the part of the Unit to participate, the request was denied due to a general confusion over the exact assignments that would be handed out to the respective SOCOM units. And more decisively, the lack of CSAR capabilities in the area at the time resulted in the mission being deemed “too dangerous” by military leaders.i
Astonishingly to operators in the Unit, in the weeks following 9/11 Delta was never given the order to “find, follow, and capture (Osama bin Laden) and his key associates.”ii
Delta’s first known post-9/11 operation didn’t come until more than a month after the attacks. B Squadron was tasked with raiding what was understood to be a long-abandoned residence of the Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Rather than a daring bid to catch Omar off-guard, the operation was conducted so that it could be filmed for future psychological operations.iii
It may have had the opposite effect. According to “Escape and Evasion,” an article written by Seymour Hersh for The New Yorker, the American soldiers — who had expected to find an empty hole — were ambushed. A dozen operators were injured (three seriously) as they were pounded by RPGs while retrieving what little intelligence materials could be found at the site.iv That stinging development is thought to have contributed to a generally gun-shy attitude among leadership during the opening two years of the GWOT (further informing the demand to place so much responsibility upon the shoulders of unreliable Afghani allies at the Battle of Tora Bora a little less than two months later).
(It’s worth noting that Hersh’s account of an ambush has been disputed. While reporters from The Guardian immediately confirmed the story,v former Delta officer Brad Taylor claimed that Hersh’s article was little more than “fantasy.”vi)
A sizable contingent of al-Qaeda fighters regrouped post-Tora Bora in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-Kot Valley in early 2002. A small number of Delta operators played a pivotal role in a large-scale battle known as Operation Anaconda that also involved other special operation units, conventional ground and air forces, and multiple nations.
Delta’s involvement came in the form of the Advanced Force Operations (AFO) teams led by Delta officer Lt. Col. Pete Blaber. The AFO teams performed special reconnaissance to prepare the battlefield ahead of the assault and then called down air strikes as it raged. Despite operating in the midst of a larger-than-expected collection of AQ fighters (perhaps 1000 strong), AFO proved to be one of the most effective contributors to a confused and costly yet ultimately victorious engagement.vii
At the heart of the small AFO teams were snipers from Delta’s B Squadron recce troopviii and SEAL Team Six’s Black Squadron.ix The career path to the tasking is essentially the same with both SMUs; following selection and graduation from OTC/Green Team, new operators are initially assigned to a squadron as an assaulter. Down the road, more experienced and proven operators can request to train as snipers/reconnaissance specialists. And among that group, a few of the most accomplished are selected for the extremely demanding AFO assignment.
That hard-earned expertise was well proven by the AFO teams who stealthily ascended the frozen mountain ridgelines and infiltrated undetected despite thigh-deep snow and a mass of al-Qaeda fighters who took refuge in the valley and mountains surrounding it. Two AFO teams — Juliet (Delta) & Mako 31 (ST6) — went in on foot, while the other Delta-led AFO team (India) rode in much of the way aboard silent electric-powered ATVs.x
Five days following the conclusion of Operation Anaconda, an American UAV spotted a convoy of suspected enemy combatants moving from the Shah-i-Kot Valley toward Pakistan.xi An assault force consisting of Delta operators, SEALs, and Rangers was quickly assembled and ferried to the convoy’s location by 160th SOAR Chinooks and Black Hawks. Following a one-sided firefight in the American’s favor, equipment that had presumably been taken off the bodies of fallen U.S. troops in the previous battle was subsequently re-retrieved from the dead al-Qaeda fighters.xii
Read Next: Hours After 9/11 the US Turned to Delta Force and Delta Scrambled to Get Operators Back in Uniform
Enter Iraq (One Day Early)
One year later, Blaber found himself and the Unit actively engaged in another theater. A day prior to the official start of the Iraq War in March of 2003, Blaber’s Delta operators of B Squadron raced out of Ar’ar, a secret Saudi base, and across the border into Iraq as the first invasion force to enter the nation. They powered across the desert in 15 Swiss-made Pinzgauers and a pair of SUVs, further enabled by a reconnaissance UAV.xiii
In the chronicles of the early days of the Iraq War, CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks is described as an ardent supporter and ally of Delta’s as opposed to the obstacle that stood in its path in Afghanistan two years prior.xiv
Meanwhile, JSOC’s commander, Gen. Dell Dailey, has been painted as filling that role (just as he also was in Operation Anaconda where he repeatedly clashed with Blaberxv). Dailey was against Blaber’s marauding plan of attack and preferred that Delta remain based out of Ar’ar where it would be better positioned to conduct heliborne raids on suspected WMD sites and HVTs. However, Franks stepped in and approved Blaber’s request.xvi
The charging Delta squadron served as something of an elaborate diversion, conducting multiple high-tech and devastatingly effective nighttime raids. Those efforts served to confuse and panic Iraqi forces as the relatively small American force took on the appearance of a full-scale invasion from the west.xvii
Blaber leveraged those early victories to successfully request that a second Delta element (C Squadron) join the effort, along with a battalion of Rangers. (Delta enjoys a tight relationship with the Rangers. While the Unit selects a sizable percentage of its soldiers from Special Forces, less commonly from non-special operation units, and, reportedly, on very rare occasions from other services,xviii approx. 70% of Deltas ranks are made up of former Rangers. However, the selection process is so demanding that even standout Rangers face extremely long odds when attempting to earn a place in the Unit.xix)
Blaber also made the unorthodox request that a company of M1 Abrams tanks augment his special operations force.xx
After helping the Rangers seize Haditha Dam, C Squadron continued on to Tikrit where it waged a bloody battle with Iraqi forces in early April, killing some 60 enemy soldiers and capturing others. However, the mission was to leave a bitter taste. Delta operator Master Sgt. George A. Fernandez was wounded in the clash and subsequently bled to death while awaiting a MEDEVAC helicopter that wasn’t immediately available. Instead, the helicopters were tasked at Dailey’s instruction to yet another staged raid of an empty palace to be filmed (but never actually used) for psychological operations.xxi
The unusual grouping of men and machinery would continue to harass and terrify enemy forces, although not without additional Blaber/Dailey drama. Blaber insisted that his small pack of raiders stick to their hit-and-run tactics, while Daily attempted to coerce them into an all-out ‘Thunder Run’ frontal run assault on Tikrit — a mission Blaber was adamant they were ill-suited to conduct.xxii
The Deck of 55
Following the swift fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, Delta took up residence alongside their UKSF brethren of the SAS (and SBS) in Baghdad at their new home base. From ‘Mission Support Station (MSS) Fernandez’ — named for the late Master Sgt. — Delta would redirect its focus to the art of man-hunting.xxiii
The Unit’s initial target was the ‘deck of 55’ — the most wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s government. The deck was headlined by the Ace of Spades, Saddam himself, along with his sons, Uday (the Ace of Hearts) and Qusay (the Ace of Clubs).xxiv
Delta would play a central role in removing these three aces from the deck during the first year of the war.
A tip (one that paid out a combined $30 million) provided Coalition forces with the location of the Uday and Qusay (and Saddam’s grandson Mustapha) in Mosul in July of ’03.xxv
The infamous brothers proved hard targets indeed; impressively fortified in their hideout, they were entrenched to the point that they were able to successfully turn back four attempted assaults by Unit operators. TOW anti-tank missiles then pummeled the house,xxvi allowing the Delta operators to at last make their entrance and finish the job.xxvii
In December, a bearded and disheveled Saddam Hussein was discovered in a hole near a farmhouse in ad-Dawr, a small town not far from Tikrit. A Delta operator from C Squadron pulled the deposed dictator from his hiding spot, although publicly credit was shifted to the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), which had cordoned off the area for the Delta commandos and took part in the operation.xxviii
The raid was dubbed Operation Red Dawn. The Unit apparently had a soft spot for the ’80s Swayze war flick at the time; Blaber’s tank-supported Delta element had previously gone by the nickname ‘Wolverines’ in reference to the same film.xxix
On March 1 of the following year, Delta Force presented Hussein’s Glock 18C to President George Bush. The weapon is said to stand as the former president’s personal favorite among the thousands of gifts he received during his time in office.xxx
But despite punching well above its weight and serving as the deciding factor in a number of the nation’s highest priority operations, Delta Force had not yet been fully unleashed. However, behind the scenes, the pieces that would allow that to happen were moving into place — and none too soon.
Coming In Part 3: The Industrial (Counter-Terrorism) Revolution & In Who’s Image?
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i Gary C. Schroen, First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War in Afghanistan (New York: Presidio Press, 2007), 33-34.
ii Pete Blaber, The Mission, The Men, And Me: Lessons From A Former Delta Force Commander (New York: Berkley Caliber, 2008), 151.
iv Seymour M. Hersh, “Escape And Evasion: What happened when the Special Forces landed in Afghanistan?” The New Yorker (November 12, 2001).
v Luke Harding, Julian Borger, and Richard Norton-Taylor, “Revealed: how bungled US raid came close to disaster,” The Guardian, November 5, 2001), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/nov/06/afghanistan.terrorism8.
vi Brad Taylor, “Covert Action and Special Operations: Fact and Fantasy,” BradTalyorBooks.com, http://bradtaylorbooks.com/blog/2011/01/covert-action-and-special-operations-fact-and-fantasy/.
ix Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin, SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 155.
x “Interview with Sean Naylor,” Arm Chair General (January 25, 2007), http://www.armchairgeneral.com/interview-with-sean-naylor.htm/2.
xi Malcolm MacPherson, Roberts Ridge: A Story of Courage and Sacrifice on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan (New York: Delacorte Press, 2005), 283-286.
xiii Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story Of The Invasion And Occupation Of Iraq (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), 328-329.
xviii Iassen Donov, “The Difference Between DELTA And SEAL TEAM SIX,” SOFREP, https://www.cms.sofrep.com/5447/differences-delta-and-seal-team-6/.
xix “Assessing U.S. Special Operations Command’s Missions And Roles,” Terrorism, Unconventional Threats And Capabilities Subcommittee Of The Committee On Armed Services House Of Representatives, One Hundred Ninth Congress, Second Session (Hearing Held June 29, 2006), http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/2006_hr/soc.pdf.
xxiii Mark Urban, Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the Secret Special Forces War in Iraq (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 15-16.
xxiv Barbara Starr, “U.S. issues most wanted list,” CNN World (April 11, 2003), http://articles.cnn.com/2003-04-11/world/sprj.irq.wanted.cards_1_cards-list-huda-salih-mahdi-ammash-baath?_s=PM:WORLD.
xxv Ben Rooney, “Who gets bin Laden’s $25 million bounty?” CNN Money (May 2, 2011), http://money.cnn.com/2011/05/02/news/osama_bin_laden_reward/index.htm.
xxvii Romesh Ratnesar, “Hot on Saddam’s Trail,” Time (August 3, 2003), http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,472819,00.html.
xxviii “4th Infantry Division: ‘President Bush sends his regards,'” CNN World (December 15, 2011), http://articles.cnn.com/2003-12-15/world/sprj.irq.soldiers_1_saddam-hussein-soldiers-iraqi-dictator?_s=PM:WORLD.
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