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Bad, Bad Ahmad Shah...the Baddest Shah in the Whole Damn Valley

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Last week, friend of the blog Ed Darack pointed out a mistake in Lone Survivor (film) that we had previously missed when we reviewed the trailer. That mistake is...

Ahmad Shah killed 20 marines the week before Operation Red Wings.

Lone Survivor inaccuracies fall into roughly three categories: 1. Those we can prove definitively. (Like the name of the operation.) 2. Those we can say have no evidence to support them. (Luttrell’s past claims about the number of attackers.) 3. Theoretical mistakes. (The SEAL team had more than 2 options on the hill side.)

This mistake falls firmly in the first category.

In the new film, during the briefing before the operation, someone claims that Shah killed “20 marines” the week before. In full disclosure, Eric C didn’t notice this during his first viewing of the film. Though we haven’t had a chance to see the movie again, there’s good evidence this line made it into the final cut. First, Emanuel Levy writes in his review, “Shah killed 20 marines the previous week.” Further, the screenplay of Lone Survivor on UniversalPictureAwards.com has Lt. Commander Erik Kristensen saying, “We know Shah killed fourteen Marines last Tuesday in Kandahar.”

Oh, and it’s in the trailer. (At the 40 second mark.)

In his interview with 60 Minutes last Sunday, Marcus Luttrell echoed this theme, telling Scott Pelley, “[Ahmad Shah] was...killing Marines, Army, I mean, you name it.”

Of course, Luttrell amplified Ahmad Shah’s role even further in Lone Survivor (memoir) (page 179):

“...suffice it to say [Ahmad Shah] was a serious Taliban force, a sinister mountain man known to make forays into cities and known to have been directly responsible for several lethal attacks on U.S. Marines, always with bombs...had already murdered many of my colleagues in the U.S. Marines.”

The truth is much less sexy. And fact-checkable, thanks to the work of iCasualties.org.

As Ed Darack writes in Victory Point, intelligence only linked Ahmad Shah to eleven attacks. Even if he had been responsible for all the deaths in that part of Afghanistan--when I deployed to Afghanistan/the Korengal valley, we called it N2KL: Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar and Laghman--only three U.S. service-members died in all of 2005 because of hostile action. Two marines died in Laghman by enemy fire. (Which Shah could possibly have assisted, but most likely didn’t.) One soldier died in an IED blast near Asadabad in Kunar province. One marine drowned in the Pech River, also in Kunar. (I ended up living in both of the bases named after the casualties in Kunar of 2005, Camp Wright and Camp Joyce.)

Four is much less than 14 or 20, which is what makes this mistake so glaring. Worse, in all of Afghanistan in 2005, only 99 U.S. soldiers and marines died in total. In the week before Operation Red Wings, no soldiers or marines died in Kandahar province the week before, much less 14. Only one soldier died from a bomb in 2005 in Kunar up to that point. The worst loss of U.S. life in 2005 took place in Ghazni province in a non-hostile helicopter crash. Further, the majority of the fighting in Afghanistan was taking place in provinces far removed from Kunar and its environs. Specifically, many more casualties took place in Paktika, Paktia, Logar and other provinces.

So why did this new mistake come to pass? Like the initial Lone Survivor (memoir) mistakes, it makes for a much better story. The Universal Pictures’ Oscar website describe Ahmad Shah as a “high level al Qaeda” operative, when he was no such thing. The movie describes him killing 20 marines in one week, when he hadn’t killed that many people in the war period. The initial screenplay describes him as a national figure--Kandahar is hundreds of miles from Kunar--when he was at best a regional player. Turning Shah into a national, al Qaeda leader who is killing marines by the dozens makes him a much better villain, but it wasn’t true.

It turns out, the truth doesn’t sell very well.

seven comments

The 14 and 20 figures may stem from the confusing American practice of speaking about “casualties”, which can easily be confused with KIA.

Imagine one marine learning that 3 marines became casualties, he walks to the next buildings and tells a buddy that the enemy got three marines in a firefight, and the buddy moves on telling others that three marines were killed in a firefight.

Professional organisations should be better, but they’re made up of imperfect humans who mess things up all the time.
So there’s at least a plausible scenario for how the figures may have made it into advertising and print due to negligence (no fact checking) instead of cynical advertising strategies.


SO- In this case, the movie was heavily fact checked and many initially reported facts were corrected. Also, the trailer specifically doubles down on the casualty number. Plus, I don’t think the film maker was intending to show the fog of war when it comes to casualty numbers, but increase the perceived effectiveness of this one insurgent leader in Afghanistan.


How did this CONOP ever get approved? It seems to me that the plan was far too risky for very little payoff. Did this team really go in with handheld FM and a sat phone as their only comms? What was their fire support plan? Didn’t they anticipate the potential of compromise in their planning? The fact that they had to discuss what to do would seem to indicate that they didn’t. I would think that there would be a contingency plan that they would implement without hesitation. As an aside, goat herders seem to be REALLY good at compromising scouts/LRS/SF/SEALS/SAS/etc…


Just another unfortunate incident of human exaggeration among warfighters. Perhaps the film’s director decided to go with the “20 Marines KIA” theme to perpetuate this ancient notion of military misinformation. Even Navy SEALs aren’t impervious to bullshit intel.


The accident you referred to in Ghazni was from our aviation task force, Task Force Sabre. It occurred on our Transfer of Authority (TOA) day, not that the TOA really had anything to do with it. We lost 17 people as I recall in “Windy 25” of Fox Company, 159th Aviation Regiment that was part of Sabre (both the company and the parent cavalry squadron HQ deployed out of Germany). 5 crew members and 12 passengers were on board. They still have a “Windy 25” run in Las Vegas to honor those people who paid the ultimate sacrifice in what for a while was the worst crash.

I was on R&R during that time and saw Fox News talk about a crash in eastern Afghanistan and thought it was a CH-47D, but it was the MH-47 that instead was hit. I was not there to confirm if the decision was made to not wait for our AH-64s to provide security for the MH-47.

Former Sabre 4, TF Sabre


I just watched this. I respect the sacrifices made by all. I’ve also read the memoir, However, I’m not buying the super hero image. Two Things really glare: 1. Marcus Lutrell was the only one who wished not to commit a war crime, he saved the villagers with his vote…hmmm. 2. The memoir and the book make up the Marine casualties and put on this air of having to save the Marines. Simply not the case in reality. Wow. After this incident Ahmad escaped to Pakistan and when he returned his militia was decimated by Marines during Operation Whalers.

The exaggerations and misrepresentation of Operation Red Wings by the memoir and the movie were unnecessary and do nothing but cast doubt on an otherwise heroic story of US arms in Afghanistan.


While reading the “ABOUT” section of this blog, it appears to me that the ultimate agenda is to criticize violence and promote peace, which is something that is commendable, I find it wholeheartedly hypocritical that I am constantly shown ads from Ammo.net and various other ads for weapons and ammunition…