As province after province fell like dominoes to the Afghan Taliban throughout early August 2021, including the capital city Kabul along with the abdication of the presidency by Ashraf Ghani, the Hamid Karzi International Airport just outside of Kabul overnight became the single beacon of American presence in Afghanistan. Guarding its perimeter were just a few thousand American and Allied troops remaining in the country.
Also known as “the land without borders,” simply because it only has boundaries because every nation surrounding it enforces their borders, Afghanistan is a landlocked tribal nation straddling the Middle East and Asia. Possibly rooted in a mix of American naivety and ethnocentrism, the United States invested 20 years, thousands of lives, and a trillion dollars installing a western style democracy replete with an advanced professional military in a rural and tribal land which had never known the Eurocentric model of statehood.
All of this in the hopes of developing a stable Afghanistan that would never again become a terrorist haven, as it had been prior to the 9/11 attacks. The collapse of the Afghan government was certainly not unforeseen, but even the most pessimistic evaluations placed its fall some months after the U.S. withdrawal. Few people, if any anticipated its collapse to occur within days and that the U.S. military would be surrounded by hostile Afghan Taliban forces in their final weeks in the county.
U.S. military leadership had to reevaluate, think on their feet, and quickly mobilize to adapt to the ever changing situation on the ground. The IRF (Immediate Response Force) made up of elite troops from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division along with several flight wings from the U.S. Air Force, who can deploy to any emergency worldwide within 72 hours, was activated to assist the evacuation of the Kabul Airport.
On the night of Aug. 17, a wave of Air Force Boeing C-17 transport planes landed at the Hamid Karzi Airport ferrying the one thousand troops and equipment of the IRF. Despite enduring a murderous and tragic attack by ISIS Khorasan terrorists operating in Kabul, which took the lives of 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 Afghans, by Aug. 30, the U.S. military pulled off an incredible airlift. In just 17 days, 123,000 American, Allied and Afghan citizens were rescued from an uncertain future under the rule of the Afghan Taliban.
The troops of the IRF provided much needed manpower, leadership, security, logistics and much more to the operation, and at its close, Major General Christopher Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division said, ”This was an incredibly tough, pressurized mission filled with multiple complexities, with active threats the entire time. Our troops displayed grit, discipline and empathy.”
Among the top brass of the IRF flying in on Aug. 17 and exiting by Aug. 30 was Colonel Michael Owens, Brigade Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. He brought with him 24 years of experience as a professional soldier and an impressive portfolio of experiences, training and education to prepare him for the challenging task at hand.
Mike Owens is the son of David and Beth Owens and grandson of the late Robert and Frances Owens and August and Katy Saintenoy. While attending Miami Trace High School, Owens earned four varsity letters in soccer along with a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do under the tutelage of the late Neil Shirkey of Washington Court House. Upon graduating in 1993, he attended The Ohio State University on an Army ROTC scholarship. While a Buckeye, Owens participated in ROTC Ranger Club, fencing competitions, and attended both Air Assault and Airborne schools.
After completing his studies in 1997, Owens was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army specializing in field artillery, and he served out most of his first four years stationed abroad in Germany. During these four years, Owens was deployed to both Bosnia and Kosovo, which were hotbed areas of southeast Europe in which violence and genocide erupted resulting from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. In Kosovo, Owens served as a platoon commander.
Upon returning to the United States, Owens was selected to attend the Infantry Captain Career Course, a mandatory class for promotion, and upon completion he was advanced to the rank of Captain. Owens additionally attended the grueling Army Ranger school and received the honor of having his patch stitched in white onto his uniform to signify the more rigorous “winter” course from which he graduated.
Owens’s following assignment was with the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division with whom he deployed to Afghanistan early in 2002, where he served several months. Soon after Owens returned stateside, tensions heated up between the United States and Iraq, and the 101st Airborne Division once again deployed in February 2003, but this time to the Persian Gulf.
Serving as Battalion Fire Support Officer for the 3rd Battalion-3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne, Owens was assigned directly to the battalion commander and coordinated all artillery fire for the battalion. Under his command were 35 forward observers spread across the battalion’s four infantry companies. When the U.S. invasion of Iraq commenced, Owens crossed into Iraq on March 28, 2003 and the 101st Airborne first advanced to the southern Iraqi city of Al Najaf.
Meanwhile, the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division was running into difficulties on its advance on Baghdad, and Owens’s 3rd Battalion was instructed to immediately redeploy via GAC (Ground Assault Convoy) with all possible speed to reinforce the 3rd Infantry Division.
On the western approaches to Baghdad, Owens came into considerable combat as his battalion encountered stiff resistance from Iraqi troops defending the Secretariat of Defense building at the Saddam International Airport. While Captain William Kidd’s Bravo Company became pinned down under heavy fire coming from the Secretariat Building, Owens was busy taking the fight to the Iraqis.
Just a few hundred yards from the frontline action, Owens called in 155mm artillery from the guns of the 3rd Infantry Division, whose shells slammed with devastating force into the Secretariat building. So much so that his HMMV took shrapnel from the explosions. Owens backed up his artillery barrage by radioing in an Air Force A-10 attack against the roof top of the building, whose 30mm machine guns eliminated the remaining Iraqi resistance. After four days of such courageous service in Baghdad, Owens was awarded the prestigious Bronze Star.
After completing a full year of service in Iraq, Owens returned stateside. With his Ranger qualifications, he was selected to join the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the 75th Ranger Regiment stationed in Fort Bennington, Georgia. The Rangers are a lightweight, highly mobile and rigorously trained unit specializing in reconnaissance, raids and interdiction, and were essential to JSOC’s efforts to dismantle enemy networks in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
By 2005, the United States was embroiled with both AQC (Al Qeda Central) headquartered in Pakistan and lead by Osama bin Laden, and AQI (Al Qeda in Iraq) led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Although only loosely aligned with their shared namesake, both organizations had their root in the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union 1979-1989. While Bin Laden, the son of a Saudi billionaire, ran a safehouse in Pakistan for Mujiaden traveling to and from Afghanistan, al Zarqawi served as a foot soldier at the end of the Jihad in the late 1980’s.
Bin Laden founded Al Qeda (The Base) as a network for tracking Mujiaden for the export of global jihad, and through that network planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks under the general strategy of luring the United States into a long and costly war in Afghanistan that would bleed America white, just as he believed had been done to the Soviet Union.
Zarqawi was radicalized in a Jordanian prison, and the fall of Saddam Huisein created an opening for him to launch his violent jihad, and founded AQI in the process. Through terror and violence, Zarqawi wished to carve out a Islamic caliphate in Iraq, free of both western influence and of Shiite Islam, and launched a murderous campaign to accomplish both.
The primary hunter of both AQC and AQI was JSOC. With General Stanley McChrystal at its helm, he revolutionized how all special operations units communicated and shared intelligence for mutual benefit. Intelligence officers, professional interrogators and computer hackers tagged along with SEAL, Delta and Ranger units on surprise raids.
Once the site of the raid was secured, intelligence operatives went to work decrypting phones and laptops, interrogators used the shock of capture to glean information out of detainees, and such information was used to launch a second, third, fourth and at times even fifth raid, all in the same night.
McChrystal held daily and at times hourly O/I (Operations and Intelligence) briefings in which field operatives in Iraq and Afghanistan met with stateside intelligence professionals and JSOC officers in live “Skype” style meetings discussing what was discovered on the latest raids and analyzing the most current communication intercepts and computer decryptions. By the height of the “Surge” in Iraq, JSOC was running 350 raids a month, and systematically dismantled AQI, including the killing of al Zarqawi in 2006 by a JSOC missile strike on an AQI safehouse.
As a Major and company commander in the 75th Ranger Regiment, Owens spent nearly four years intricately involved in the entire JSOC system set up by McChrystal, including oversea deployments, a multitude of raids, daily O/I meetings both in the field and stateside, and gained exposure to all aspects of special operations.
Among other fascinating assignments Owens would move on to over the course of the following ten years was serving as Executive Officer to General Stephen Townsend — the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve. This was the United States led campaign against ISIS. Born from the ashes of AQI during the “Arab Spring” of 2011 when the Assad regime lost control of eastern Syria, and its frontier became an ungoverned haven for all types of jihadist organizations, ISIS accomplished, if only briefly, al Zarqawi’s vision of establishing a caliphate for Sunni Islam.
Utilizing barbaric brutality, including the mass use of internet proliferated video executions, ISIS became synonymous with evil, and U.S. forces redeployed to Iraq after nearly five years of absence.
Owens also spent two stents in graduate school, and earned two masters degrees in Organizational Leadership and Strategic Studies respectively. Additionally, he advanced not only to a Lieutenant Colonel but also to a Battalion Commander in which he was responsible for the leadership and lives of 700 U.S. soldiers.
After being raised to the rank of Colonel, Owens was commissioned as a Brigade Commander with the 82nd Airborne Division in June 2020 — responsible for more than one thousand troops and, in that capacity, was the top commander of field artillery for the entire division. In that leadership role, Owens was additionally assigned to the IRF in which he had to always be at the prepared for any emergency deployment anywhere in the world at any time.
Owens returned safely to the United States on Sept. 1, and in the near future will probably be moving on from brigade commander to yet another assignment. If he is honored with another promotion, it will be to the rank of brigadier general.