The story of the first special-ops mission deep inside Afghanistan just weeks after 9/11, from troops who were there

Courtesy photoAH-6 Little Birds flying by a ZSU anti-aircraft gun they destroyed.
  • In mid-October 2001, just a few weeks after the September 11 attacks, US special-operations forces went deep behind enemy lines in Afghanistan.
  • But the operation – conducted by Delta Force, Army Rangers, and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment – didn’t go without complexities, danger, and its fair share of controversy.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On October 19, 2001, only a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, American commandos struck back in Afghanistan.

A task force composed of Delta Force operators, Rangers, and Night Stalkers conducted two simultaneous raids deep inside the territory of the Taliban, which had hosted Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the attacks.

For Objective Rhino, two Ranger companies assaulted an airfield, conducting their first combat jump since the invasion of Panama in 1989. Their goal was to destroy any Taliban or Al Qaeda forces and set up an aircraft refuelling point.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away, Delta operators were flown in by the Night Stalkers to hit Objective Gecko, the residence of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

The operation, however, encountered complexities, danger, and its fair share of controversy.

‘Put me in, Coach’

Greg Coker Night Stalkers helicopterCourtesy photo.Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Coker before the operation.

What was supposed to be a small operation kept growing as more units wanted to get in on the action. To complicate matters, Delta wasn’t too keen on Gecko because of the high risk and low rewards.

Gecko was more than 1,000 miles from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, from which the assault force would launch. It would be the longest air-assault operation in history, requiring over 10 hours of flight just to get to the target.

The rest of the task force would launch from Masirah, an island off the coast of Oman that American commandos used to launch Operation Desert One in 1980.

Also, US intelligence was fairly sure that Mullah Omar wouldn’t be at his residence but did estimate that large numbers of enemy fighters would be in the area, as it was the Taliban’s heartland. Reports also indicated that Rhino was abandoned.

In the end, however, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) leadership prevailed and green-lit the mission.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Coker, a Night Stalker AH-6 Little Bird pilot, was assigned as the fire support officer for the task force. He flew with an AC-130U Spooky gunship and coordinated close air support for the troops on the ground.

All in all, he was responsible for over 100 aircraft that night and gave Insider some unique insight on the mission.

Near disaster in Gecko

Afghanistan Rhino Gecko special operationsCourtesy photo.The routes on the night of the mission.

The four MH-47 Chinooks carrying Delta operators from B and A Squadrons took off from Kitty Hawk. On their way to the target, they encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire.

Flying overhead, Coker’s gunship opened up and destroyed several anti-aircraft batteries, a T-55 tank, and some armed vehicles heading toward Gecko.

A few minutes before the helicopters reached the target, the air armada began hitting their pre-designated targets around the target.

“It was a sight to behold, my goodness,” Coker remembers. “We dropped three-quarters of a million tons of bombs in 15 minutes.”

Three of the MH-47s touched down safely, but the last one struck a wall with its rotor, landing hard and destroying part of its landing gear. The Delta operators had to squeeze through the Chinook’s damaged ramp to get out, all while under fire and with dust clouds created by the helicopters obstructing their vision.

Once on the ground, the Delta operators shot toward the compound. They breached the damaged wall and began clearing the target. They encountered no resistance and found little of use. Mullah Omar was long gone.

As they departed, the Delta operators left behind NYPD and FYPD hats and patches and American flags, a reminder of the US military’s long reach.

As they were getting ready to exfiltrate, a Navy F/A-18 Hornet almost bombed their position when SEAL Team 6’s air liaison officer, a Navy pilot riding alongside Coker, misidentified the American commandos as Taliban fighters.

That disaster was avoided, but the mission still ended with some drama for Delta Force.

“When the assault force returned, Falcon, the senior noncommissioned operator on the ground, flew back to Bragg and had the ground force commander fired because of the guy’s actions on target,” a former Delta Force operator with intimate knowledge of the operation told Insider. “He was a fairly new officer to the Unit, and the black Chinook came and got him the next day. An unusual case of an NCO ‘firing’ a field-grade officer — only in Delta!”

Business as usual in Rhino

Army Rangers Rhino AfghanistanUS ArmyUS Army Rangers jumping at objective ‘Rhino.’

The jump in Rhino was a more straightforward. A Ranger reconnaissance team free-fell on the target a few days before to ensure that the runway could bear the heavy load of the MC-130 Combat Talons that would land after dropping the Rangers.

The Rangers encountered no serious opposition; only two were slightly injured in the jump. At some point, aircraft had to destroy some approaching enemy vehicles, but that was the extent of resistance on Rhino.

A team of Air Commandos surveyed the airfield to see if it could be used in the future. Then, the helicopters from Gecko arrived to refuel and rearm before flying back to the aircraft carrier.

The Rangers gradually collapsed their security perimeter and boarded the MC-130s. The task force flew away before dawn.

“It was just another difficult mission for us, a historic one for sure,” Coker told Insider. “We were extremely proud of doing the impossible and getting everyone out. The Night Stalkers train hard and do things that would curl your toes. It was a was long one for sure; 18 hours in the saddle is a long time.”

However, the task force suffered two fatalities during the operation, after two Rangers with the quick reaction force in Pakistan were killed when an MH-60 Black Hawk rolled over them.

Coker, who has written about his special-operations experiences, went on to deploy eight times in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The operations were mainly meant as psychological warfare. By hitting Omar’s compound in Taliban central, the US military showed it could strike anywhere. Rhino had a similar aim, and footage of the combat jump was broadcast on national television.

A few weeks afterward, Gen. James Mattis’ Marines recaptured Rhino and set up a base, and the CIA took Gecko for itself.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defence journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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