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working with the warlords

The first phase of the war in Afghanistan entailed small teams of Special Forces soldiers working on the ground with local militia forces opposed to the Taliban. Here, the U.S. soldiers describe what it was like to fight side by side with the Afghani commanders.

Gen. Tommy Franks,
  Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command

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The war begins with the bombing. Then, at some point, there is the insertion of Special Forces with the warlords of the Afghan allies. It started up in the north to begin with. How much confidence did you have in the Afghan allies that we were working with at that point?

I think we were positive about it; a great deal of hope. But there is a military saying that one should never try to turn hope into a course of action. Think about Afghanistan for a minute. Recognize that when we started combat operations on Oct. 7, about 80 percent or so of Afghanistan was under the control of the Taliban. The standing military forces that opposed the Taliban were rightly called the Northern Alliance, because the enclaves where these forces were located -- the ones who turned out to be friendly to us -- were up in the north along the Central Asian states area. Since about 20 percent of Afghanistan was controlled by the Northern Alliance, it made perfect sense to us that this would be a place to see what we could leverage, which opposition forces we could support, link up with, provide assistance to, gain leverage with in order to accomplish our mission. ...

I think it's well documented that we did not choose to work with all opposition leaders, and factually we still don't [work] with all opposition leaders. When the operation started, we worked with opposition leaders in the north, the Northern Alliance. As the operation moved along, our people, our Special Forces, gained a toehold with some opposition leaders in the south. That's where we saw Chairman Karzai enter the equation, and that's where we saw Sherzai, who is now the governor of Kandahar, enter the equation. So what started in the north with the introduction of Special Forces subsequently moved into the south as well, when we were able to establish contact and begin to build relationships with those tribal leaders.

Reuel Gerecht,
  former CIA agent

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When the U.S. did engage in [partnering with] different Afghan factional leaders, how did they decide who to work with?

In the beginning it was fairly easy, in that, the only people to work with were the Northern Alliance, who are preeminently, primarily Tajiks -- not exclusively so, but overwhelmingly so ... As the war moved on and it became possible to deal with others. ... Pashtuns were the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan ... but for the most part, in the beginning, it was strictly with the Northern Alliance, with the Tajiks, because -- no one really likes to say these things -- but the Pashtuns were the Taliban. So it was very difficult to work with effective Pashtun forces because most of them were siding with the Taliban. Once it became clear how serious the United States was, and people inside of Afghanistan could see clearly, the Taliban were numbered and people started changing sides. It became much easier to find Pashtuns with whom to work. ...

Col. John Mulholland
  Commander, 5th Special Forces Group

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... Were you choosing people for the A-teams to work with or--

It was a collaborative effort. We certainly had a vote in what different groups would emerge. They would be relayed to us: "Here's some likely groups that seem to be willing to work with the United States, that we think offer capabilities to achieve mutual objectives on the ground." We would make our own assessment of their military capability, and to what degree I was willing to accept the risk and put my soldiers with them.

Some of these fellows have histories that are not necessarily consistent with the kind of guys you want to work with. Some of them, the other leaders out there, will also have pretty strong radical Islamic leanings that would put them potentially in a category of being anti-American or anti-Western. ... In the vast majority of the cases, we worked with [people where] we all saw things the same way. There were instances -- I won't name individual leaders -- but where we very strongly disagreed, and made very strong recommendations that we should not put American soldiers on the ground with these leaders. Those recommendations were accommodated, were recognized and were acknowledged; to this day, I think appropriately so. I think later some guys were demonstrated to be bad actors.

U.S. Special Forces ODA 595
  ODA 595 fought with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan.

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Mark (Capt.):

We got our orders in mid-October. And the mission we received was to conduct unconventional warfare in support of General Abdul Rashid Dostum. And we were to render our unconventional warfare operational area unsafe for terrorists and Taliban activities. ...

Bob (Chief Warrant Officer):

When we did get tasked with the mission, though, our first objective was to study Dostum. What was he like, who was he. And the intelligence we got on him at first was nothing like it was when we saw him, totally different.

Bill (Sgt.):

They said he was a frail, wounded man. Just kind of your old guy kind of picture.

Bob (Chief Warrant Officer):

"He had diabetes, he was crippled." But when we first met him, nowhere was he like that. He almost looked like Santa Claus, if Santa didn't have a full white beard. ...

Mark (Capt.):

When we first met him, he was healthy as an ox. He came riding up with his Northern Alliance horsemen and jumped off his horse and gave us all a firm welcome handshake. And over the next few weeks and months, as our relationship grew, the guy was phenomenal. He was working 20-hour-plus days, hardly sleeping. He was just always on the go, always talking to someone, always trying to coordinate actions of the Northern Alliance forces to make it happen. ...

Bob (Chief Warrant Officer):

He jumped off the horse. He shook our hands. Thanked us for coming. Led us into his little base camp, and grabbed Mark and I, went up to this little hill, threw out a map, said, "This is what I want to do today."

Mark (Capt.):

He had this incredible map that was hand-drawn of the entire country of Afghanistan, the major roads, lines of communication, and all the known cities, the major cities, and the known Taliban locations. And he quickly explained his strategy and campaign plan to us. He wanted us to go right away with him to his mountain headquarters, and show us where the Taliban was located. ... So right away, six members of the detachment, including myself, would mount horses for the first time. And, we would ride with Gen. Dostum, approximately four hours, to his mountain headquarters. ...

What was he like? You spent presumably a fair amount of time with him.

Mark (Capt.):

Gen. Dostum was upfront and honest with me, and any member of the detachment, in any dealings that we may have had. And we were truthful and honest with him in the operations that we were going to conduct, and how we were going to go about accomplishing those objectives, like capturing Mazar-e-Sharif. We were just honest with him. And he was honest with us.

I mean, he's got a pretty nasty reputation, as you know.

Mark (Capt.):

Yes, he does. He has a very nasty, sort of ruthless reputation. And so does everybody else in that part of the country. No one's clean over there. But, somehow, we were able to find this common bond in capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, and the common bond of bringing all these different ethnic factions together to join with Gen. Dostum, and mount a coordinated attack through the Dar-e-Suff Valley and into Mazar-e-Sharif. ...

Bill (Sgt.):

I know one thing, too, just talking to Dostum's soldiers, their perception of Americans was not your warrior type. I guess they had seen some aid workers back before. So, what they saw as an American was not your ditch-digging cowboy type. That just wasn't what they had seen. They had seen us as more kind of a soft person. I think that was a lot of the initial thing. As it went on, by the time we got to Mazar, just dealing with them, it wasn't that way anymore. We weren't those guys. And it changed their view of Americans in a way. ... It's the Dark Ages over there. When they see America, it's the computers, and its satellites. And, when you take an American out of that world and put him into their world, I think they were very surprised that we were able to do it.

Mark (Capt.):

[Gen. Dostum always] referred to every one of my men either by first name, which is all he needed to know, or by commander, "Commander Bill," "Commander Pete." Every one of my men was referred to as a commander, and held in the highest regard as an Afghan warrior. We're all now part of that inner circle of the military commanders there. Rank was totally immaterial. I mean, it was what you were as a soldier, what you could demonstrate your capabilities were. ...

Bob (Chief Warrant Officer):

So much did he trust us and respect us, that he said that, if we ever go to war in another country, that he would gladly send his men with us to fight. That speaks pretty much for itself there.

Bill (Sgt.):

That's a long horse ride. ...

... If you read the media reports, there were allegedly atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance against the captured Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners. [Were you exposed to any of that?]

Mark (Capt. ):

No member of this detachment ever witnessed any atrocities being committed. We talked extensively with all of the Northern Alliance commanders about respecting basic human rights. At no time did they plan or, that we're aware of, attempt to conduct any of these atrocities.

Bill (Sgt.):

It wasn't just like we advised them, we lived with them. At this one point, when we were out in the flank, I hadn't seen the rest of the guys in almost three weeks. Our guys were running out of food up where we were. But there were goats and sheep grazing in a valley below. Some of them hadn't eaten in a week or two. I would probably have gone down there and taken some, but these guys wouldn't. They were starving but they wouldn't go take animals. This is a rough group of guys. They've lived a rough life. But they definitely weren't the butchers that I guess they're trying to make them out to be now. I lived with my 300 guys day in, day out. And, if anything, they would have gone hungry instead of going to take a sheep. So to me, that's pretty much the opposite of whatever's trying to be said now.

Paul (Master Sgt. ):

What I'd like to bring up is, after Kunduz, we went to the Sherberghan Prison. At the Sherberghan Prison, Dostum was caring for a large number of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners. Dostum and his soldiers was doing the best job that they could to take care of those personnel. You would have these U.N. aid workers, or from some other organization show up and say, "They don't have enough blankets, they don't have enough to eat, where's the fresh water?" Well, I could go out to the guy in the guard shack and he didn't have a blanket. He was getting barely one little bowl of rice a day, and he was drinking water out of the same place the prisoners were. The prisoners were being treated the exact same way as Dostum's forces were. I didn't see any atrocities, but I easily could have. Some prisoners may have died because they were sick or ill, and Dostum's forces just couldn't give them any care because they didn't have it.

If you had seen atrocities or thought some were about to happen, what would you have done? Obviously, you couldn't stop anything.

Mark (Capt. ):

Our responsibility if we witnessed any human rights violations was first, to attempt to prevent it without placing ourselves into any extreme danger. If we could not stop it, then we were to report it. We would have had to advise our Northern Alliance commander that we would have to leave. We'd be ex-filled from the country.

Did Dostum know that?

Mark (Capt. ):

Yes. ...

When did you actually leave?

Paul (Master Sgt. ):

We had about six hours to pack everything up and get on an aircraft and fly out to another country to meet the secretary of defense. Because we'd left on such short notice, we sent approximately half the team back in to say good bye to Dostum. Dostum was quite upset with our leaving. Probably because of the way it happened, and partly because we had gone through a lot of fighting together. He wasn't quite ready for us to leave. ...

Mark (Capt. ):

It was very difficult. These guys that we fought, sweat, bled beside, and slept beside and trusted with our lives, and they've trusted us with their lives as well, and their future. They repeatedly asked us to stay for several more months to help them get onto their feet. We had to assure them that other American forces were going come in there and would now stand side by side with them to help them get the country on its feet again. And specifically in the north, to get the north going again to get the shops open, get the hospitals and clinics open, and get the schools open.

U.S. Special Forces ODA 555
  ODA 555 joined Northern Alliance warlord Mohammed Fahim Khan near Kabul.

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Steve (Sgt. 1st Class):

When we hit the ground, we found out why the Taliban couldn't go up in to those mountains, and why the Soviets couldn't either. Our guys were mountain hillbillies, the best kind. They owned those mountains. ... That was their backyard.

Who was Fahim Kahn?

Steve (Sgt. 1st Class):

He was, for lack of a better word, a warlord who was underneath Ahmed [Shah] Massoud, who was killed on Sept. 9. [Ed. Note: Massoud was killed by two assassins posing as television journalists coming to interview him.] ... [He worked with Massoud] during the fight with the Soviets. Actually, Massoud and Fahim had been kind of chased out of Kabul by the Taliban when they took over. They were chased up back up in to the mountains north of Kabul. ...

Did you [work with him directly?]

Frank (Sgt. 1st Class):

He didn't like to meet people. I guess after what happened to Massoud, he was very scarce. When he did meet with people, it was unannounced [and] at weird times. He only wanted to meet with one of our guys and he didn't want to meet with anybody else. So we dealt with his lower commanders. General Sharif pretty much was our contact with everything higher up.

What was he like?

Frank (Sgt. 1st Class):

He was great. ... Very smart, very helpful. I mean, he was eager to please. We were bringing stuff to the table he needed, and when he got it from us, he was very, very helpful in giving stuff we needed, like our food got better, more trucks would show up, more guards would show up -- stuff like that. ...

What do you remember about the first time that you called in air strikes with [Northern Alliance commander] General Babajan?

Frank (Sgt. 1st Class):

Gen. Babajan takes us up into the tower. We didn't go down there to call any of our aircraft in, we were just going to survey the front lines, and he starts pointing out all the enemy positions. [We were] like, "You mean that's Al Qaeda right there, and that's Taliban?" He knew. "Yes, General so-and-so lives in that house. This is where his lines are." So we said, "Wait a minute," and got on the radio. "Hey, any aircraft coming this way?" "Yes, it'll be there in two hours." So we'd call back up and have these guys bring down some laser equipment and we started dropping bombs. ...

Who did you hit, and what was his reaction?

Frank (Sgt. 1st Class):

We hit a Taliban commander and a C2 element, a command and control element that was controlling the Bagram air field. ...

They could shoot at us all day long from there, but they didn't actually have troops on the air field. When we got up there, he just started pointing out the targets where all the gun positions were, where all the commanders were, the radios. We just started taking them out with the laser, one by one. [Gen. Babajan and his men] were giggling. They were all laughing and joking about it and slapping each other on the back. They were happy as hell. The food got a lot better that day.

U.S. Special Forces ODA 534
  ODA 534 partnered with warlord Mohammed Atta to take down Taliban stronghold Mazar-e-Sharif.

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What was your assessment of the Northern Alliance? What kind of weapons did they have? How did they travel? Did they have uniforms?

Stan, Chief:

They were a mature insurgency. They did not have uniforms, but they were obedient, in the sense that they were farmers by day; and when it came time for battle, they showed up for battle. Their logistics was in place. They would battle all day or all night, and then you would see the children and the men with the packed mules come up for re-supply. We weren't there to teach them how to fight; we were there to assist them in the fight. We brought conventional weapons to the fight. ...

Dean (Capt.):

I don't think that you could look at the Afghan soldiers and say that they train or operate like maybe armies that the Western world trains and operates. But as Stan alluded to, they have a lot of combat experience, and they'd been fighting somebody for decades. Our assessment was that they definitely demonstrated an initiative and a desire to launch combat operations right away. They didn't desire to sit around and have a train-up from the Americans. They prefer to have the Americans assist in their battle plan.

... We can't look at them and say, "How do they compare to the 101st Air Assault Division here on Fort Campbell?" That's not what we were really trying to assess. What we're trying to assess is how ready, how prepared are they -- mentally, physically and logistically -- to launch their offensive. And they were prepared. All they needed was some more guns, some more bullets, some food, some blankets, because it was getting cold, and some planning. I think that's really what we brought to the field. ...

[Can you tell me any stories about working and fighting with them?]

Dean (Capt.):

On infil, we hit the ground. It's freezing. All the windows are open, the doors are open. We brought blankets to give to the faction. As soon as we hit the ground, we're all wrapped up in the blankets and we hit the ground and there's snow everywhere. We've brought food and medical supplies, and [we're trying to] launch all that stuff off the back of the bird and sit on the ground, because there's snow and it's just sliding down the mountain.

Then they started launching mortar rounds back and forth. This is our first exposure; we thought we were in [enemy] contact. Well, the mortar rounds were their way of communicating. So they're shooting mortar rounds from here and from somewhere else, there's more rounds going up, and we think we're in contact. They're trying to explain to us in little hand and arm signals we had that it's just their way of communicating.

Meanwhile we're freezing, and they're sticking their feet in the fire. They had these little plastic shoes on. We had our boots. They don't have any socks, and we just wouldn't let ourselves be cold after that, because they had nothing but a blanket that we gave them -- no socks, plastic shoes, sticking their feet in the flames of the fire to warm them up. That'll keep you from getting cold.

Jason (Staff Sgt.):

Yes, those were some of the hardest people we've seen. They literally had plastic shower shoes and a cloth cotton garment that you've probably seen that they wear, and they didn't even shiver. It was almost like the nerves that receive cold were gone for those guys. They made you feel like a baby if you even thought of being cold. ...

Every Friday, they had [a game] which is now more famous than it was, I guess. It's the horse event where they grab the carcass of-- Ours was a dead calf, but I guess in the past, it's been a dead goat. It's a pretty brutal game. You get out there on a horse. We didn't understand the rules. We thought it was a team sport initially, so we were out there riding around kind of blind, wondering what team they'd put us on until we realized there's no teams. You're just out there trying to win.

So you're trying to grab this calf, which is probably 80 pounds, and you have to lean over on a horse. Of course, they've been on horses all their lives, so they're a lot better at that and that type of stuff than we are. So we get the calf, and we realize you have to ride around a certain pole to get a point, and then drop it in a circle to get another point. It was probably the most fun a few of us would have all week. We'd go out there and you'd get accidentally whipped by the horsewhips, you'd get bit by horses, you'd fall off, get bruised up, but more and more of us kept going back every week. ...

Dean (Capt.):

The Afghani people are so resourceful. We saw one guy with a bicycle he was using as a bellows to fan the flames of the welding shop. They don't throw anything away, and they'll make those jeeps work; they'll make anything work. ... Anything that they [got from the supplies that were brought], parachute silk, they would take and make blankets out of it, they'd make walls out of it on houses. The parachute cord, the 550-pound tensile strength cord, they would use that for straps. We'd be going down and we'd see guys with the [potato] bag...

Jason (Staff Sgt.):

Yes, two guys with burlap sacks like overcoats...

Dean, Capt.: ... The overcoats, and walking around with the Idaho potatoes or whatever it said on there...

Jason (Staff Sgt.):

I think when a pallet came in with supplies, if there was food or medical supplies or blankets for them on there, you were still the loser if that's what you got. You were the winner if you got the parachute, the plywood and the cardboard and string. ...

We taught the cook [that Atta assigned to us] to make hamburgers. I actually have a picture of the guy. He's got a hamburger up in the air. [With a homemade spatula], he's learning how to flip burgers. I think that was like the first cheeseburgers they had. We just bought ground beef and taught them, and they were just amazed. It was like we could have opened up an Arby's right then and there. They were lined up: "Get one for me." It was like, "OK, how about some for the Americans?"

Bossie (Master Sgt.):

We also had the welding dude, the one that constructs things for us and fixes our vehicles, the vehicle mechanic. He was just a multipurpose handyman. We had him make their first barbecue grill, and on Christmas, we had them to kill a cow for us and we had barbecue, Didn't have no barbecue sauce, but we had barbecue [laughs].

U.S. Special Forces ODA 572
  ODA 572 operated in the Tora Bora region, providing support for General Hazrat Ali.

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In general terms, what was your mission?

Shane, Master Sgt.: Our mission was to go in and assist General Hazrat Ali with his offensive plan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters located in the Tora Bora region. ...

How did Ali's troops fight?

Jeff (Staff Sgt.):

It seems to us [that they fought] how they have almost always fought. They would attack each other, and then both sides would kind of like retreat some. Basically it was almost like they would weaken each other down. Then whoever was stronger would finally decide, "Hey, we're going to try to take this ground." Basically, that's what happened. But they figured that, with our air support, it was just happening much faster than I think they realized at first. So like I said, after a few days, they started taking ground much quicker.

Bill Staff Sgt.:

That's just how they've always fought, so it was kind of frustrating. But they figured out that once you take ground, you got to hold it, and you got to push forward then. They learned it pretty quick. ...

Were you guys saying to Ali or people, "Hey, you got to stay here?"

Shane (Master Sgt.):

Yes, you advise them -- just kind of like give them ideas about what he should do. ... One of the biggest problems you have when you work with forces like this -- indigenous-type forces -- is their logistic system. They don't have a well-developed logistic system like we have. They don't have meals ready to eat, our MREs, which we get taken in with us and eaten while we're on the move. Pretty much all their meals either had to be prepared straight from either raw materials or animals and what-not cooked freshly right there for them.

So a lot of the problems during the battle is, they'll go battle all day. Then when they pull back, it's not like a retreat they're going from the enemy; it's dinnertime. And the only way to get their dinner is they'd have to pull back to eat. Then the enemy moves back forward and reoccupies position. Then they got to go up there and try to retake it again.

Bill (Staff Sgt.):

Yes, it was a big, a big problem because it was it was Ramadan at the time. They're not eating or drinking, really, all day. When it's their time to eat and drink, they want to eat and drink. ...

When they finally started staying up towards the front, how did they solve the logistics problem? How did they eat dinner?

Shane (Master Sgt.):

Once the Al Qaeda forces started thinning out, the men started moving forward, where they could get a more secured area forward. As they were getting more secured areas forward, then of course they'd bring forward at that time all their food supplies, animals or what-not that they were using for food.

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