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the fall of kandahar

The fall of Kandahar signaled the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Many key Taliban leaders escaped, however, during negotiations for the surrender of the city. Here, U.S. Special Forces on the ground with Hamid Karzai describe the push towards Kandahar, and the final surrender.

Lt. Col. David Fox
  U.S. Special Forces Battalion Commander

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By the time I had arrived, Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen, and then it was a domino effect. Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen and within a few days the Northern Alliance had pushed to Kabul and the airfield had also been seized. So the north was starting to come along. In the south there had been no progress at all. Kandahar was the next big step to me, because that was the center for the Taliban. The Taliban had gotten its start in the south, and Kandahar was the epicenter. That was where [Mullah] Omar had his headquarters. At the time, he was working in the governor's mansion, and he also had a home just on the outskirts of Kandahar. So I knew that Kandahar had to fall, if there was going to be any peace in the south. ...

When I had linked up with Karzai on Nov. 28, about two days prior, Gul Agha Sherzai had crossed from Pakistan into southern Afghanistan. So basically what was happening was you had Karzai's forces moving in to Kandahar from the north and you had Sherzai's force moving in from the south. ...

Capt. Jason Amerine,
  U.S. Special Forces A-team captain

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We organized our forces in preparation for moving down [to Kandahar.] Our intent was to move to a town ... about a quarter of the way between Tarin Kowt and Kandahar. We would set up our new headquarters there.That was about the time that the special operations command and control element came in to assist with us. We also had the Marines, which were at that point southwest of Kandahar. We also had another ODA [Operations Detachment Alpha, or "A-team"] that was coming north from Pakistan. So the SOC-CE was going to be able to coordinate all the pieces, and make sure that we were all gelled together in a coordinated effort to get Kandahar. ...

From Nov. 17 until about the end of the month, for about two weeks, we'd be bombing things, securing the area, bringing in food, bringing in weapons -- working on securing the area, with all sorts of coordinations. We were trying to figure out how and when to take Kandahar. I had a relatively conservative approach. I thought we probably should have an army before we try to take Kandahar, and I still didn't have one.

We were making so much progress in Oruzgan province just by being in Tarin Kowt. ... For the next few weeks, everybody was surrendering to us. I mean "surrender" in a sense of just giving up loyalty to the Taliban -- taking down the flag and raising the Afghani flag. ... Towards the end of the month, we started flooding Tarin Kowt with so many people that Hamid wanted to just start moving. He was like, "Look, we've got all these guys here who are going to start getting rowdy. We need to do something with them." He wanted to go to Kandahar.

... I think on Nov. 30 we started moving to Kandahar. We go down and take a town ... [just] north of Kandahar. We drove all night, and got to just kind of the southern side of the Hindu Kush. We set up there for another day and brought in more supplies. Then we kept driving down.

Lt. Col. David Fox
  U.S. Special Forces Battalion Commander

Through the entire move south, [Karzai] was trying to organize and orchestrate the surrender of Kandahar. The negotiations became a lot more serious as we moved south. ... As he moved south, the phone started ringing off the hook. Key members of the Taliban talked with him, to try to come up with terms and conditions for the surrender of Kandahar. But to Karzai's credit, he would not [negotiate]. He wanted an unconditional surrender. There would be no terms; there would be no conditions. "Turn in your weapons. Turn in your vehicles. Then we'll sit down and talk about prisoners and how they'll be handled."

Ed Note: On Dec. 5, a misdirected U.S. bomb explodes near Karzai's position, killing 3 U.S. soldiers, and at least 23 of Karzai's Afghani fighters. Dozens more, including all the members of A-Team 574 and Karzai, were wounded in the worst friendly fire incident of the war.

Karzai was wounded. It was a very minor wound along the face. I don't know if it was a piece of shrapnel or a piece of glass from one of the broken windows. We immediately picked him up and moved him to higher ground, away from the site. He set up a command post. At this time, the negotiations for the surrender of Kandahar began in earnest.

While this was all going on, while we're treating the wounded, the Taliban had decided that they were going to surrender. So he continued the surrender negotiations, while I and the my soldiers and my staff provided medical care and coordinated for medevacs and for a follow-on force to replace those that had been killed and injured. ...

[Right before the incident] we were preparing to put together a plan to move south into Kandahar in case the Taliban did not did not surrender. You've got Sherzai fighting from the from the south towards Kandahar.... So I was looking at a combined attack from the south and from the north, and squeeze the Taliban between us, because Kandahar sits in a bowl. It's got dominating terrain on a northern side. We could get up in the mountains and use Air Force air and Navy air and take out key installations and key targets from those positions without much chance of the Taliban coming and getting us. ...

Right about the same time, the Bonn conference named [Karzai] interim chairman of Afghanistan. While this is all going on, though, the Taliban is sending up a delegation from Kandahar. They know where we're at. They have no idea that we had this friendly fire incident, and they're coming up the road. So we got with my security element and told them that we would allow one vehicle to come across with four folks.

That's when Karzai and these four individuals negotiated for the surrender of Kandahar. This is on Dec. 5. There was one more negotiation, one more meeting on Dec. 6 that came back up. On the night of Dec. 7, we moved into Kandahar. ...

An interesting story, though, in this thing, when the surrender happens -- I'm sure everyone's read and heard how the Afghans would change sides. Well, we had a number of Taliban change sides. One minute you're shooting at them, and the next minute they are now your allies and your friends. ... We've got these former Taliban looking at us and going, "Oh, this is what an American looks like," because up to that point, they'd never seen us. Everything had been done by Karzai's forces, and we had stayed in the background. So they'd never seen an American. "So this is what an American looks like. Oh, he's got two legs and he puts his pants on the same way we do." So it was just kind of an unnerving situation -- one day they were my enemy, and the next day they're on my side and we're all heading towards Kandahar. ...

[Do you think that Taliban leaders escaped during the negotiations for the surrender of the city?]

I am sure that key Taliban leaders escaped during negotiations for the surrender in the south. I am absolutely certain that Karzai knew nothing about it. What I believe is that the Taliban believed if they kept Karzai at bay in the north and Sherzai at bay in the south, [with these] negotiations and a set date to surrender, this gave them the time to pick up, get in their vehicles and drive off. Karzai set absolutely no conditions. It was an unconditional surrender: Give up your weapons; give up your vehicles; turn yourselves in; and then we'll turn you over to the Americans. So Karzai in no way, shape or form was involved in any type of conspiracy to allow the key Taliban leaders to escape. ...

I have no hard facts that [Mullah Omar] was there at any time when I moved south. I assumed that he was. But his facility had already been hit. His home had already been hit. So I don't know if he was actually in Kandahar during those negotiations at all.

One of these armchair strategists will say to me, basically, "Look, [in] Kandahar, the U.S. should have had lots more troops on the ground to prevent precisely that something like that [from] happening." As somebody who was there, how practical would it have been to involve much more U.S. ground troops there?

What we've got to understand is that I believe initially we had the right mix on the ground, because you still have the Afghan population leery of another Soviet occupation. If you put large amounts of U.S. troops on the ground at that time, the Afghan people may have taken it as, "OK, here they come. They're going to occupy. They're going to take control."

So I believe that the right mix was on the ground for the job at the time. If there were more soldiers on the ground, could of some of those escapes been prevented? Probably. But today, there is still no real hard evidence of how many senior Taliban were there -- if any. So I don't know if we never had any hard evidence, if we'd have brought more troops in, what we'd have actually accomplished.

But I think the right mix was on the ground at that time. What you have is actually the Afghans liberating their country with the assistance of a small U.S. element, versus the a large American force on the ground, occupying all the major cities, and making it look an awful lot like the Soviet occupation.

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