Botched Afghan rescue would spell trouble for SEALs
If a Navy SEAL is confirmed to have accidentally killed a British hostage during a rescue operation in Afghanistan, it will have serious repercussions for the elite US unit, experts said.
Commanders reviewing surveillance video of the operation to save British aid worker Linda Norgrove spotted a SEAL throwing a grenade into the captors' building who could now face disciplinary action, two Western officials told AFP.
The alleged incident comes as US and NATO forces stepped up special operations over the past year, claiming some success in rooting out the Taliban and other militants from their strongholds.
Fragmentation grenades -- rather than non-lethal stun or smoke grenades -- are rarely used in delicate hostage rescue operations and the assault team commander likely had access to detailed intelligence, including Norgrove's location, experts noted.
"It's highly unusual," said Bill Roggio, managing editor of The Long War Journal, a website tracking counterterrorism operations.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they would be issued grenades, depending on what would happen in the operation, but to use them there would have to be a clear-cut instance where the unit thought it would be surrounded or counter-attacked.
"But it didn't seem to be an instance where the weapon, a grenade, should be employed."
The apparent misstep was surprising for a force that prides itself on conducting clandestine missions that are "planned in exacting detail and executed with precision and swiftness," he said.
SEALs are trained in close quarters combat and spend a huge amount of time setting up their harnesses and rucksacks to know exactly where to grab when they need weapons or other equipment in pitch black conditions.
The rules of engagement issued for the operation are now under investigation and it remains unclear whether the commander allowed the use of fragmentation grenades.
The massive blunder of killing the very person the team set out to rescue could have serious negative fallout that may dent the long-standing reputation of the SEALs, whose creed ends with the line "I will not fail."
"It will reflect poorly on the integrity of everyone in the field if he (the SEAL) lied," Jim Hanson, a retired US Special Operations Forces master sergeant, said in an interview.
"It looks bad, there's no upside to that. It makes you look like you're trying to cover something up and it causes a lot of questions."
British and US officials initially said Norgrove, 36, died when one of her captors blew up a suicide vest on Friday. But it later emerged that a SEAL may have thrown a grenade, triggering an embarrassing retraction by US commanders.
"When you talk about the elite of the elite, it's them, (the US Army's) Delta Force and (the British Special Air Service) SAS that are considered the top-notch special operations forces," Roggio said.
"This is certainly going to hurt their prestige."
Stressing this may have simply been a case of human error in the heat of battle, Hanson said the use of a fragmentation grenade indicated the SEALs expected "a lot" of resistance.
"Possibly one of the hardest things you can do in a hostile situation is a hostage rescue, especially when you expect resistance," he said.
Reports said the rescue mission was conducted by members of an elite SEAL counterterrorism unit whose snipers killed Somali pirates holding the Maersk Alabama cargo ship captive in early 2009.
Although US Special Operations Forces have claimed much success in rescuing hostages, there have been past failures.
In 1980, Operation Eagle Claw failed to rescue 52 Americans held at the US embassy in Tehran in a mission that ended with the deaths of eight US servicemen.