White House and Pentagon officials are trading accusations and shifting blame following two failed attempts to rescue Western hostages seized in Afghanistan last month. Amid the finger pointing, new details are leading Capitol Hill lawmakers to question what they call "White House micromanaging" of war operations.
The White House, the Pentagon and other involved officials agree that the following string of events occurred in August in Afghanistan, including several previously unreported details.
The hostages, identified as American Kevin King and Australian Kevin Weeks — English-language instructors at the American University of Kabul — were stopped by four armed men on a road outside the Afghan capital on Aug. 7. The gunmen smashed a window on the teachers' vehicle while it was stopped on Dar-ul-Aman road, and pulled them out at gunpoint. A driver and a guard, both inside the vehicle during the incident, were not taken captive and were later questioned by Afghan police.
A U.S. special operations team was flown into position to mount a rescue on Aug. 10, but President Barack Obama did not give his final approval. Twenty-four hours later, Obama reviewed the “decision documents” and authorized the raid.
Descending via high-altitude parachute drop, the American commandos landed on the night of Aug, 11 near their objective: a makeshift prison compound guarded by armed men. Under the cover of darkness, the commandos breached the outer walls.
"We raised hell in that compound," one person with direct knowledge of the raid said. "We knocked down walls and killed bad guys."
As they climbed through the openings in the walls, U.S. forces traded shots with hostile fighters, leaving seven defenders dead and one wounded, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed. Among its many duties, CENTCOM is the Pentagon's Unified Combatant Command in charge of operations in Afghanistan.
"No civilians were killed or harmed," said Col. John J. Thomas, the CENTCOM Director of Public Affairs. "No U.S. forces were killed or hurt."
The two rescue attempts took place on the nights of Aug. 10 and 11 in Afghanistan, Thomas confirmed.
Central Command was reluctant to describe which troops participated or whether U.S. Navy Seals were involved. "Units involved in the rescue were trained for just such missions," Thomas said.
Similar types of missions previously have involved groups like the SEALs, the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the Army unit commonly known as Delta Force.
"The CIA was asked to help and it was given," a source said. A CIA spokesperson declined to comment, as is the agency’s custom.
Once they gained control of the compound, the commandos questioned survivors, who revealed heartbreaking news: hostages King and Weeks were moved about four hours earlier.
The disagreements concern what happened in Washington and on Martha’s Vineyard, an isle off the coast of Massachusetts, where Obama continued the vacation he began on Aug. 6.
Recovering the U.S. and Australian hostages was a high priority since their Aug. 7 capture. Officials believed they were taken by the Haqqani network. This is the same group that held U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl for years. The Haqqani also are known to torture hostages and to sell them to other terrorist groups in Pakistan.
Plans swiftly were developed, and rapidly climbed the military chain of command. By the morning of Aug. 10, top officials at the Pentagon had approved the rescue. The plan was transmitted to the White House’s National Security Council via secure email between 10 a.m. and noon on Aug. 10, according to a senior Pentagon official.
At about the same time, the special operations team climbed into the Afghan skies awaiting orders to deploy immediately to the target compound, according to a senior military official speaking on background. Sources with direct knowledge of events told AMI that they expected a quick presidential approval.
The clock was ticking, both White House and Pentagon officials agree. The special operators were going in with night-vision goggles and had to conduct the entire operation in darkness. The sun was due to rise in little more than nine hours, officials said on background. The operation was supposed to last at least two hours. That meant that the National Security Council and the President had less than seven hours to approve the mission.
What is in dispute is what happened next. The Pentagon insists that it sent mission plans with plenty of time for the National Security Council to seek presidential approval.
But a National Security Council spokesman says there wasn’t enough time to prepare “the decision documents” for the President. The spokesman is referring to a one-page document, with numerous attachments, that the President reviews and signs.
"On the first night in question, the decision never reached the President to make a decision," a senior Pentagon official wrote in an email. "The fact of the matter is the President was never presented with a decision document that day."
However, U.S. sources with knowledge of the mission said they heard a radio message that contained words to this effect: "The President can't make time on his schedule to give the go-ahead."
"We had the teachers the first time," the security source said. "We knew where they were. We were closing in. The White House screwed it up bad."
The president was on Martha’s Vineyard and played golf on Aug. 10, according to White House pool reports; but those reports are not specific enough to determine what he was doing when the first rescue mission was in the works.
White House and Pentagon spokesmen declined to say whether the President was verbally briefed on the rescue effort on that date.
When the President did receive the documents on Aug. 11, the mission was quickly approved, a National Security Council spokesman said.
There was insufficient time for the National Security Council documents to be prepared, one source told this reporter, because the deputies and the principals, as well as the National Security Council staff, were in disagreement.
What they disagreed about is itself a subject of disagreement, but all agreed there was a disagreement. Some officials said they were unsure about the intelligence, while others said they differed as to whether to rescue was worth the political risk if the hostages were not in “imminent danger.”
The intelligence was about as solid as anyone could reasonably expect, said a source with direct knowledge of the mission. A drone provided constant video coverage of the compound and showed the hostages being held there. “We always had eyes on,” that person said.
Other sources with direct knowledge of events tell yet a different story that conflicts with the Pentagon and White House accounts.
AMI spoke to sources who provided details over the past three weeks, some of which CENTCOM confirmed. The sources are security officials who are privy to the kidnappings and attempted rescues, but do not work together and are affiliated with different agencies. The sources are not authorized to talk to the press and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We had the hostages within reach," said a source who met face-to-face with this reporter at a remote dockside setting in the U.S. to discuss the incident. The source insisted that the meeting be held outdoors and without access to electronic devices.
"The first time we went in, we had to stand down," this official said. "The second time, the hostages were gone. Our special operations team went all that way for nothing."
After the Aug. 11 raid, the special-operations team discovered tunnels leading out of the compound. “That may be how the hostages exfilled,” the source said.
In the wake of the two failed raids becoming public, officials from the Pentagon and National Security Council contacted this reporter.
"I was under the impression that you would be well taken care of by DOD," wrote White House National Security spokesman Mark Stroh, who previously had directed this reporter to the Pentagon for questions about the aborted raid. "Clearly that approach did not work, despite their best efforts."
In the email, headed "Fabricated Story," Stroh did not name specific instances of alleged fabrication. When asked for a list of inaccuracies by American Media Institute president Richard Miniter, Stroh did not list any specifics other than the “general thrust” of the article first published on the AMI Newswire website.
The Afghan government does not control much of its own territory, said Christine Fair, a security studies professor at Georgetown University. "With NATO’s retrenched presence and limited role, it cannot do much either," Fair said.
A major issue continues to be the power dynamic within the Taliban, according to a policy analyst who specializes in the region.
The Taliban in Afghanistan consists of a loose alliance of factions, said Stephen Biddle, a defense policy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Of all of these,” he said, “the Haqqani is the most lethal."
The Haqqanis are believed to have taken part in kidnapping King and Weeks.
The Haqqanis may want to trade the Western hostages for Anas Haqqani, the brother of a powerful Haqqani leader. Anas Haqqani was arrested on terrorism-related charges in Afghanistan in 2014 and has been sentenced to death.
Hostage rescues long have been a delicate balance of intelligence and timing. During the Vietnam War, American commandos raided a POW camp in order to rescue dozens of prisoners held captive by communist soldiers near Son Tay in North Vietnam. The rescuers arrived on Nov. 21, 1970, only to find that the prisoners had been moved from the camp just days before.