History Wars Afghanistan War

Operation Whalers was the Marine Corps’ payback after Operation Red Wings

Marines developed Operation Whalers as a sequel to Operation Red Wings in order to prevent disruptions to the upcoming election.
Miguel Ortiz Avatar
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050628-N-0000X-001 Navy file photo of Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. From left to right, Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, of Cupertino, Calif; Senior Chief Information Systems Technician Daniel R. Healy, of Exeter, N.H.; Quartermaster 2nd Class James Suh, of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell; MachinistÕs Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Patton, of Boulder City, Nev.; and Lt. Michael P. Murphy, of Patchogue, N.Y. With the exception of Luttrell, all were killed June 28, 2005, by enemy forces while supporting Operation Red Wings. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)

Following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, one of the primary focuses for the U.S.-led coalition was to ensure a fair and democratic national election in September 2005. An anti-coalition militia (ACM), with ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, strongly opposed Afghan unification and actively sought to disrupt the elections in Kunar Province of eastern Afghanistan. To counter the ACM, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines developed Operation Red Wings to target an ACM cell leader, Ahmad Shah.

On the evening of June 27, 2005, a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team inserted into the region where Shah was suspected to be. However, the next day, the team was compromised and the fierce firefight ensued between the SEALs and Shah and his men. Three of the four SEALs were killed along with eight Army Nightstalkers and eight Navy SEALs who flew in to rescue the compromised team. The lone survivor, Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell, was taken in by a local Afghan and given sanctuary in the nearby village of Salar Ban.

After the loss of the SEALs and Nightstalkers, a team of Army Rangers and Air Force Pararescuemen went to recover the bodies of the fallen and save any survivors. Their mission was dubbed Operation Red Wings II. After Luttrell was located, he informed the Rangers and PJs that enemy fighters were still in the surrounding mountains. Air support was brought in and delivered heavy ordnance on the enemy targets. However, Shah and many of his men slipped away to regroup across the border in Pakistan.

operation whalers recovery rangers
Rangers conduct recovery operations during Operation Red Wings II (Dr. Tony Brooks)

In the weeks following Red Wings II, 2/3 conducted heavy presence patrols in Kunar Province. While they deterred ACM, Shah returned to the area with even more men shortly after the Marines left. 2/3 developed Operation Whalers as a sequel to Operation Red Wings in order to prevent ACM operations from disrupting the upcoming election. 2/3’s naming convention for the operations came from professional hockey teams.

Intelligence indicated that Shah would return to the Korangal Valley in Kunar Province. Whalers called for 2/3 to insert Marines into the surrounding valleys and cut off Shah’s escape routes, trapping him. On August 13, companies of Marines inserted into the Shuryek, Chowkay, Narang and Korangal Valleys, all seeking to make contact with Shah. Fox Company’s 3rd Platoon made first contact in the Chowkay Valley. Over the following days, the Marines engaged in intense firefights with Shah and his ACM fighters. Additional firefights occurred in the Korangal and Narang Valleys.

Operation Whalers 2/3 Marines in Afghanistan, c. late 2005 (U.S. Marine Corps)

Along with their attached Afghan National Army troops and supported by Army and Air Force assets, 2/3 destroyed Shah’s cell and prevented his disruption of the Afghan election. Other ACM activity dropped significantly after Operation Whalers and intelligence indicated that Shah himself was seriously wounded during the operation. He fled to Pakistan with the remainder of his men where he was killed in a shootout with Pakistani Armed Forces in April 2008.