Military officials and A-Team soldiers on the ground describe the skills,
background and training of the special operations troops that spearheaded the
war in Afghanistan.
Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command
Special Forces guys are young, capable, smart, dedicated. I'll use the term
"remarkable" -- absolutely remarkable, very, very, brave men. [They were]
introduced in the country of Afghanistan in a great many locations in very
small numbers. It sounds a bit dramatic, but they were inserted in the dead of
night, sort of alone, but unafraid. They took a great deal of capacity with
them -- a capacity to communicate, capacity to be able to identify and engage
targets at a considerable distance from themselves, using air-to-ground forces,
close air support. [It was] remarkable; a remarkable effort. I predict that
people will still be writing about the exploits of some of these young people
well off into the future.
Commander, 5th Special Forces Group
What is this 5th Special Forces Group, and what is your role within
I'm a commander of the Special Forces Group. There are five active duty Special
Forces Groups in the United States Army, two from the reserve component. We
occupy a portion of the Army Special Operations community. Within that
community, the Special Forces Group has among its missions the conduct of
unconventional warfare operations. It was an organization founded in 1952 to do
just that, in support of U.S. effort against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw
[After Sept. 11, at what stage did it start filtering down to you that the
Special Forces might be involved in the military response to the terrorist
Almost immediately. Certainly by the 12th we were in constant conversation with
my operational headquarters down in Tampa. ... By the 13th a decision had been
made that we would stand up what's called a Joint Special Operations Task Force
headquarters [and that] I'd be responsible for conducting unconventional
warfare operations in the region. By that time it had become pretty clear Al
Qaeda was involved, and of course, [given] the sanctuary that they enjoyed by
the Taliban in Afghanistan you didn't have to be Napoleon to figure out that
Afghanistan was going to be a likely place for us to go. ...
What's an A-team? And what steps did you take to get them all ready to fight
The Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, the famous A-team, is the
fundamental fighting unit of Special Forces. It is a 12-man organization comprised of
a captain, the second in command, who is a Special Forces warrant officer who has come
up from the NCO ranks, and a master sergeant team
sergeant, and then nine remaining NCOs who represent a multiplicity of skill sets:
weapons, demolitions, medical, communications, intelligence, engineering, all
those skill sets are contained within [each team]. There's two of each on a
team; it is designed from the very
beginning to operate in two six-man elements, if necessary, to be a force
multiplier in a battlefield so they can maintain the same capabilities in
smaller elements. That goes to its classic roots as an unconventional warfare
element originally designed to work with resistance elements during the Cold
Isolation is a classic Special Forces technique for mission preparation, where
the detachment is completely isolated from the outside world, put into a
planning environment, and given all its mission planning data. They conduct all
their mission planning and rehearsals prior to infiltration to their area of
operations. That is done by design, so that there are no distracters. ...
[Then] they do a brief back to the commander ... to convince me that they are
prepared to execute their mission, and upon approval of that, they are moved
into a staging area for infiltration. So we did initiate on our own, before
being told to do so, just because it seemed prudent, the initial isolation here
at Fort Campbell for the first teams, in anticipation of a requirement to put
them into the mission planning process, so that should the word come--"let's go"--
I had at least a handful of teams ready to go at a moment's notice ...
U.S. Special Forces Battalion Commander
[An Operational Detachment Alpha, ODA, or] A-team is the heart and soul of
Special Forces. That is 12 highly trained soldiers -- primarily 10
non-commissioned officers, a warrant officer and a captain. There are six
different [military occupational specialities]. We have a weapons sergeant, an
intelligence sergeant, a medical sergeant, a communications sergeant and an
engineer sergeant. Then you have the officer, which is what we call an
How old would that officer typically be?
The officer is actually the youngest guy on the detachment. Of the 12 men, he's
probably between 25 and 27. The average age of an ODA is in the low to mid-30s,
33 to 35 years old. So they are a senior group of individuals, have a
tremendous amount of experience, have conducted a number of deployments within
I like to say that they're the tip of the spear. You have this huge support
structure behind every A-team that goes out. But the guys that are on the
ground make things happen. They are the individuals that build the rapport.
They are the guys that are the tactical experts. They organize the indigenous
force, if you will, and prepare them for combat. They bring in a tremendous
amount of skills, experience and maturity. That's why I call them the heart and
soul -- they're the guys that are making things happen. ...
What is referred to as the "C team?"
We have an ODA, an A-team -- that's the 12-man Special Forces A-team. We have a
B team, which is a company headquarters, commanded by a major. And we have the
C teams, which are the battalion commanders, commanded by a lieutenant
If the A-teams were the heart and soul of the Special Forces, what is the C
I am a logistics provider. I bring a little more experience. I bring a planning
staff. I have access to equipment and personnel that I can designate or augment
a particular mission or an upcoming mission that maybe is potentially coming
down the road.
You have command responsibility?
ODA 595 fought with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan.
What kind of operations are called special operations?
Special operations consist of direct action-type missions, special
reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, which encompasses both direct action
and special reconnaissance and can fluctuate between a rural or an urban type
environment. We also conduct foreign internal defense where Special Forces
teams travel to other countries in the CENTCOM region and work with foreign
militaries: training their soldiers, establishing military-to-military
relationships, exchanging ideas and just tactics and how each other works.
Can you talk about the philosophy of the way you are trained? Is that unique
to this team?
This detachment primarily focuses on unconventional warfare. In
training for that type of mission, all the members of the detachment are
thoroughly trained in communications, thoroughly cross-trained in
communications, basic medical skills, first aid, initial trauma assessment,
etc., as well as weapons proficiency of all types. And that also includes all
of us being cross-trained in calling in close air support. This higher degree
of cross-training allows us to operate and train in small two-man elements up
to 12 men. The team has done this for years. And that is their standard
operating procedure. ...
What about "warrior diplomats?" Somebody used that term.
Paul (Master Sgt.):
One of the things that you get by being in this job for any length of time, you
go to a lot of different countries. Every year we're going to two or three
different countries, working with foreign soldiers who, when we go work with
them five to 10 years later, will be the senior military leaders of that
We're really not officially trained in it, but we are developed through
on-the-job training to become diplomats, because the senior guys, anyways, they
go there, they work with these foreign soldiers, they work with a whole bunch
of different people. I mean, to go to a foreign country, not only are we
working with the foreign government, we're working with our own government just
to get there. So you become more politically attuned. And in our case, during
this war it was very easy. They wanted about the same thing we want. So it's
kind of easy to do. ...
In the minds of the military planners, Rice and all these people, they were
petrified, they all said to us, of getting bogged down, of having the same
thing that happened to the Soviets or the British, or another Vietnam. So they
wanted boots on the ground. What came across in all of our interviews was the
operative idea was we've got to be serious. But we've also got to make sure that
we're not getting stuck there.
I think the key point in this entire thing is that Special Forces has always
been able to do this mission, which is to go in, work with, train, advise,
fight alongside of an indigenous force effectively enough to lead them to
victory. What we do, in doing that, is we keep the regular Army, which are just
our regular soldiers, out of conflict. We let someone take care of their own
problems. We help them, we assist them to do that. The key thing here is that
we were let, the reins were let loose. And we were allowed to act how we've
been trained. We were allowed to be the fighters that we are: free thinking,
spontaneous. And we did it. We spread out. We did exactly what we were trained
to do. And that was victory. That is what Special Forces does. ...
Commander, 5th Special Forces Group
On Dec. 14, [Hamid Karzai and I] sat down and had a long talk about our
experiences and the things that we had gone through and the events of Dec. 5.
Of course, he thanked the Americans and thanked the American Special Forces for
everything they've done. But the thing that I'll always remember -- at that
time, he told me, "You Americans you gave us our country back." And I thought
to myself, "What better compliment?" The Special Forces' motto is "De oppresso
libere" which means "to free the oppressed." Here I've got the future chairman
of Afghanistan telling me, telling the American people, the American Special
Forces, that we have given the Afghan people their country back.
home + on the ground + assessing the campaign + with us or against us? + fighting on two fronts: a chronology
epilogue + discussion + interviews + links & readings + introduction + video + reporter's notebook
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi
photo © reuters newmedia inc/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation