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the battle of tarin kowt

At Tarin Kowt, the 11 members of U.S. Special Forces A-team 574, with a few dozen Afghani fighters, called in airstrikes to defeat a convoy of hundreds of Taliban forces on their way to attack the village where Hamid Karzai was based. It was a pivotal battle, and a crushing psychological blow for the Taliban. Team Captain Jason Amerine tells the story and Lt. Col. David Fox analyzes the battle's significance.

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

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Hamid Karzai described Tarin Kowt as the heart of the Taliban movement. He said that all of the major leaders of the Taliban movement had families in and around Tarin Kowt. ... Initially, the plan that we came up with was to close off all the major mountain passes leading into Tarin Kowt, then lay siege to the town with a large force. Hamid anticipated that the village itself would essentially surrender to us. But at the same time, we had to make sure that we could protect that whole valley that Tarin Kowt was located in from any counterattack from the Taliban, particularly from Kandahar. ... On Nov. 16, we received word that the people in Tarin Kowt had risen up against their Taliban administrators ... and chased the rest of the Taliban out. Hamid Karzai hadn't directed this to happen. It came as an enormous surprise to all of us when it did. But Hamid wanted to get there immediately to take Tarin Kowt. He wanted to go in there with what troops we had available, and we would do what we could to defend the town.

It was really a tough decision to make. On the one hand, we were such a weak force, we didn't really have any organic capability to protect the town. But at the same time, at least we had access to a large armada of aircraft if we needed them. But most importantly, Tarin Kowt was just not something that we could leave alone at that point. We had to go in there and try to do what we could. So when we went in, my men had the understanding that this was possibly going to be a pretty ugly fight. But [they understood that] we had to do what we could to protect the town at that point. ... We anticipated the Taliban were going to be coming to exact some revenge upon the people there.

We ended up forming up a convoy of whatever vehicles were available. The vehicles ranged from pick-up trucks to flatbed trucks, a couple of touring vans, and a bunch of former U.N. vehicles. ... We began a movement that took all day into the night as we headed towards Tarin Kowt. ... When we arrived, there was nobody in the street really to meet us. Everything was very subdued.

... Karzai was immediately requested to appear at the governor's mansion with the newly established government, which included a new governor. All the senior Pashtun tribal leaders from the area had joined there. So Hamid Karzai went there to that meeting, while my men started to get a sense for the area and started to figure out where we needed to set up antennas and things like that. We just started to establish a headquarters. ...

I was requested to go to the governor's mansion, meet Hamid Karzai up there along with all the officials. So I went up there. Hamid had already been there for, I think, about an hour or two. When I got up there, I sat down. We didn't speak mutual languages, but I met a number of the leaders.

I was just told briefly by Hamid who these people were, that they're glad that we're there and so on. Also that there was a convoy coming north from Kandahar with a number of Taliban. They weren't sure -- maybe a hundred or so vehicles, somewhere between 300-500 men would probably be getting up that way in the next day or two. It was all fairly matter of fact at that point. It took me a second to digest it. At that point, I said, "Well, it was nice meeting all of you. I think we need to organize a force now and do what we can to defend this town."

What was going through your mind?

I won't say it was panic. But my own mental analysis of the situation on our side was that we had 11 Special Forces soldiers, a bunch of highly motivated, if untrained, guerrillas numbering somewhere between 30 and 60, [it was] difficult to tell at that point -- opposed by maybe a hundred vehicles, maybe as many as 500 men that were coming up there who were probably very angry and really wanted to retake the town.

So it really got me thinking about, first, what were we going to do to defend the town? Also, what were we going to have to do to get out of that town if we couldn't defend it and make sure that Hamid Karzai stayed alive? So all these things were racing through my mind.

As I was trying to excuse myself from the meeting, they were insisting that I sit stay a little while, have some tea, eat some dinner. It was the first day of Ramadan, so they were going to break fast. I really couldn't get out of there right away. I delayed probably an extra ten minutes or so, to eat a little bit of food, to ask a little bit more information about what they knew of what was coming our way.

Then finally I was able to excuse myself, get back to my team and explain to my men what was coming up. Everybody on the team responded to it remarkably well; nobody panicked. We just kind of laid out, "Well, they're coming from Kandahar. We know it's a large convoy."

The way a Special Forces team is set up, you're built to respond to things like this. I had my weapons sergeants analyzing the maps. I had my Air Force combat controller starting to figure out a plan to get a warning order sent up to the Air Force and to the Navy that we'd probably need a lot of aircraft -- fast. My communications sergeants were calling back right away to our higher headquarters, letting them know what was coming our way. JD, the team sergeant, was there orchestrating everything, making sure that everybody was staying on task. We worked through the evening that way, waiting for guerrillas to show up. Our plan was to grab as large a force as we could and move out to the edge of town. ... We were going to establish essentially an overwatch position. We're going to get up on a high piece of terrain, hopefully a mountain or a large hill, and we're going to direct airstrikes from as far away as possible on this convoy coming our way. ...

About 1:30 or 2 in the morning, we had a good amount of aircraft flying up and down the major routes from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt. [Editor's Note: Click here to view a map of the battles in Afghanistan.] My Air Force combat controller was directing the aircraft. We were getting reconnaissance reports. That's when we first spotted a convoy. Up until that point, we hadn't received any credible evidence ourselves that anything was coming. But a convoy of about eight or 10 vehicles were spotted by F-18 Navy fighters.

So my combat controller looked at me and said, "OK, well, this is what we see." At that point, we hadn't fired a shot in the war, really; that was sort of the commencement of actual fighting for us. The whole team was in a small room. There really was kind a moment of silence. A lot of the men had been to war. It wasn't that the experience was that new to a lot of the people on the team. But at the same time, it was the first shot of the war for us. ... I'd hoped to say something a little bit more eloquently, but I just said, "Well, smoke 'em." At that point, we started bombing those vehicles.

... The vehicles were very far away, so we could hear a little bit, but they were too far still [to see them]. But it was clear that we had a lot of bad guys coming our way. I'd worked out with Hamid before all of this about enemy convoys coming, how we could make sure that we weren't actually engaging friendly forces. I received assurances from him that any convoys coming north were going to be Taliban, that there weren't going to be any friendlies coming up from that direction. ...

Prior to leaving the governor's mansion, I had asked Hamid to get together as many forces as he could, and have them meet there at the headquarters. I'd move out as soon as I had a force. We ended up actually moving out at about 4:30 or 5. I don't know what time it was. I knew it was getting close to sunrise; we had to go. At that point, we only had about 20 or 30 Afghanis with us with their trucks. ... So we piled onto them, and we moved out. Through the map analysis that my men did, we were pretty sure that if the Taliban came and attacked the town, they'd go through one major mountain pass. There were two passes on the map that looked possible. One seemed a little bit more likely. So we guessed, hoped we were correct.

As we're driving out, initially we planned on setting up on a mountain that overlooked the pass. But instead, as we were driving out there, we reached almost the edge of this plateau that opened up into a big wide valley, a big bowl. At the other end of the bowl was that major pass. It was just perfect terrain to defend from. From there, we had great visibility. We could bomb them as they came through the mountain pass. It was just excellent. The enemy would be "canalized." You could not have asked for better terrain.

So we dismounted our vehicles. My men started to try to organize the guerrillas into some sort a local defense. We didn't have enough people to really defend against a large attack. But our hopes at that point were to stop them with our aircraft anyway. ...

Almost on cue -- it was almost sort of like the beginning of a race or something -- the vehicles started racing into the valley. Dust was kicked up. We all looked. It was very obvious the convoy was entering the valley. ... Right away, Alan got on the radio and called troops in contact. We began dropping bombs on the convoy.

The first bomb that landed actually missed. It was bit anti-climatic, because we're on the radio; we hear that the bombs are away, OK, two seconds, and boom! It missed. That didn't help our confidence a whole lot. But then the next bomb was right on target. The next bomb after that was right on target. We were definitely starting to take them out. As I had hoped, as they started to get into the valley, we were just pummeling them.

As we're focusing on this convoy coming in and vectoring aircraft into the area, we all noticed that the soldiers that were with us, the freedom fighters, started getting in their vehicles started to leave. They basically started to panic.

In fairness, if I'd been in their position, I probably would have felt the same way, because none of them had worked with aircraft before. They'd certainly never worked with us, because of our lack of time to train them. They didn't know what we were actually about to bring down on the Taliban. So to them, we were crazy. I mean, here's this huge convoy and only about 40 of us, at that point, trying to defend on this big piece of rock. They wanted to get back to the town where there were more people.

So because of the language barrier, we couldn't dissuade them from leaving. They were essentially starting to drive away. A couple of us had to get in front of the trucks and go, "OK, wait, wait, wait. We're getting in," because the 11 of us couldn't stay without transportation.

Somebody had warned me once, that in a situation like this, to always make sure that you keep the car keys. I'd unfortunately forgotten that word of advice. So we piled in the vehicles and we started to withdraw. It was very frustrating. All of us were yelling for them to stop, trying to get them to stop. We'd get one vehicle to stop, and the other vehicles would drive on. Another vehicle would stop. Then when the other sets of vehicles would pass, it would keep driving.

Finally, it was clear we're going to have to get back to Tarin Kowt. What I hoped to do was get back to Tarin Kowt, then gain control of some of the vehicles and finish what we'd started. It really felt like we were seizing defeat from the jaws of victory at that point. We were still bringing in aircraft. But you really need to kind of vector the aircraft into the right area. You can't just say, "Hey, go in that direction and start bombing things." It really does take a lot of work to get them focused in the right direction.

Later, we'd start to get FACs -- forward air controllers -- in the air that were able to alleviate a lot of what Alan had to do, because they were in the air circling. But at that point, the battle was just developing.

So we drove back to Tarin Kowt at a high rate of speed, bouncing up and down. Those of us that were in the backs of the trucks were almost hurled out as our small convoy raced back into Tarin Kowt. Once we got in there, we stopped in front of the headquarters. Hamid Karzai was out front, organizing people. I got out and told him what had happened. ... I said, "The Taliban are coming. There are a lot of them. These fighters we're with didn't understand our capabilities; they kind of ran. I need to take these vehicles, get out there and keep doing what I'm doing, and at that point, take them." I told him, "Send as many guys as you can, as fast as you can. We're going to go do what we can to save the town." So I looked at one of my guys ... I said, "Do you want to drive?" He said, "Hell, yes," and jumped in the car. We took off.

We received reports from the Navy jets overhead that the Taliban had already gotten up there and taken the observation post that we'd been located on originally. So we ended up just stopping outside of town. We looked around and that was the place of the best visibility. We still wouldn't be able to see the convoy much at all, but we could at least direct the aircraft. We could set up our radios. That could be sort of our "no penetration line."

If the Taliban got past us, we lost the town. I had no real hopes whatsoever of keeping the town if the Taliban made it into the town in large numbers, because there was just nothing we could do. All the aircraft in the world weren't going to help us once the Taliban got into the town and it turned into a military operation on urban terrain, because we couldn't exactly bomb the town to save it. So if we couldn't stop them before they got into the town, the fight was lost, and we were going to have to grab Hamid get out of there. So we set up it. At that point, everybody got into action. ...

I had my three [communications] guys sending all the necessary reports, so everybody knew what was going on as we're vectoring in aircraft. Meanwhile, the people from the village started pouring out. There were a bunch of older people with weapons. It almost turned into like a circus atmosphere. It started to get crazy. We're directing air strikes and all these people are surrounding us. Children are pointing and laughing, trying to like get into our rucksacks and look at all the stuff that we have.

At that point, my weapons sergeants started moving the crowds back, grabbing the armed men and getting them set up in a some sort of a defense. One of my men grabbed one of the older people who spoke some English and explained to them, "Keep all the kids away from the vehicles. If you can, send them back home. I mean, there's a fight going on here."

So at this point, everybody was very busy. It was really a pretty amazing sight to watch a team in action like that. ... We were starting to get a pretty good defense. We kept bombing the convoy. We worked the aircraft so the lead elements in the convoy were struck first. At this point, it was maybe 7 or 8 in the morning. I don't know what time it was. With the adrenaline going, you lose track of that. But we'd successfully destroyed or driven off the lead elements of the convoy. The convoy was apparently very spread out. We just started working our way back, striking targets all along that main road. ...

Then there was just a point at which we knew we had won. That decisive point of the battle had been reached. We received reports that the convoy was no longer heading towards us. It was starting to turn around and try to get out of there. That's when there was sort of a grim satisfaction in the reports we'd be hearing. The pilot would call in, "OK, this one is heading down. He thinks I can't see him. Take that!" and boom, OK, he's gone.

We just started tearing the convoy apart as it started to retreat. We kept bombing for another couple of hours. I think the battle was over by about 10:30. It was clear that we'd won a major victory. We'd hear varying reports about casualty estimates. For me, personally, I never much cared about that. The important thing was that we'd won the fight and driven the Taliban back. ...

Hamid would later tell me that, in his eyes, that fight broke the back of the Taliban. Again, I think it was more in psychological terms. I've heard different estimates of how many of them we killed. It's hard to say for sure. But I think psychologically what happened was the Taliban launched a very large force with a lot of a lot of well-trained soldiers, according to the accounts I would see it. We'd crushed them and sent them back to Kandahar.

They'd never tried that again in numbers like that. They'd never trying coming north in that fashion. They continued to try to operate in the area, but they never tried to raise a military force to come after us again. For them, the fight in the north was essentially lost that day. ...

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

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How significant was the battle of Tarin Kowt?

I think pivotal for the [entire operation in the] south, because Karzai, with his small band supported by the A-team, successfully takes [Tarin Kowt]. ... The Taliban really were very much concerned about him, because [they mounted] a strong counterattack to try and push him out, and of course, ideally, to eliminate him as a threat. ... [After that defeat], the Taliban make some decisions -- I can't speak for that, of course -- but they pretty much abandoned their efforts to meaningfully go after Karzai.

There was still more fighting to be done. By this time, we have also got a force on the ground with another Pashtun leader who is now southeast of Kandahar. So we are trying to come in from two different directions. But I think the Taliban make a decision, or come to a realization [of what] this is going to be militarily, after the pounding in the north and the losses in the north. ... Ismail Khan has occupied Herat, the Air Force is closing on Kandahar, and every Taliban effort to turn the tide is met with dismal defeat; no other way to put it. They are decisively defeated on the battlefield. ...

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