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interview: u.s. special forces oda 534

What was your mission when you actually got on the ground? What area were you in? What were the objectives?

Dean
Capt.

photo of dean

... What we wanted to do, first and foremost, is to establish rapport with this leader [Mohammed Atta] and get to know him. We had no intelligence on him; we had no information about him. Immediately, he made an excellent first impression on us. He was very concerned about our comfort, our welfare, and our force protection.

Right off the bat, we got down to business. There wasn't a lot of time wasted on formality or protocol. Immediately we began talking about the battle plan for our first engagement. ... What we were trying to do was work through, with and by his population to seize key strongholds in the northern part of Afghanistan. The largest and most notable is Mazar-e-Sharif. With Mazar-e-Sharif, we have a key infrastructure that we also wanted to control as well, to include a land bridge that crosses the northern Afghanistan frontier to Uzbekistan, and then a bridge across to Termez, Uzbekistan. Also, there's two key airfields in Mazar-e-Sharif. We could use this infrastructure, not only to support military operations, but also to bring in humanitarian assistance for the population, because the people were just in dire straits. We wanted to really show them that, not only were we there to oust the Taliban, but also to prop them up, to give them some assistance, and that we understood their plight. ...

Operational Detatchment Alpha (ODA) 534 partnered with warlord Mohammed Atta, who combined forces with Abdul Rashid Dostum and another Special Forces A-team to take down Taliban stronghold Mazar-e-Sharif in November 2001. This was the first significant Taliban defeat.

What happened in the first couple of days? When did you first start engaging with the Taliban, and how did that come about?

Stan
Chief Warrant Officer

photo of stan

In the first stages after we connected, linked up and met with General Atta, we started combat operations. We split into two elements. At that time, combat operations were ongoing in the town of Aq Kupruk. General Atta's forces were engaged daily, morning, night, in full-blown battle with mortars and lot of gunfire.

Casualties started coming in. We started identifying targets and bringing some conventional munitions to the table. That's when we brought in CAS [close air support], and started, I guess, beating up on the Taliban. That kind of gave them some momentum, because that took us, I think we fought in Aq Kupruk for about three and a half four days. It was a Taliban stronghold. That started giving them the momentum to start pushing through the Dar-e-Balkh and Dar-e-Suff toward Mazar.

Do you remember the reaction of the Afghan soldiers the first time they saw the use of close air support?

Stan
Chief Warrant Officer

Yes, they were pretty excited about it. The planes were pretty high and they couldn't see the planes. But they definitely saw the impact of the rounds. The first ones weren't as accurate, but we were fortunate that there was no collateral damage. Then, as they started using other, more accurate munitions, it definitely won a lot of rapport with the civilians, because [minimizing] collateral damage was paramount for us -- we did not want it, it wasn't acceptable. ...

I think it carried a lot of weight for them to see that we were compassionate, not just [to] the cause, but to the people of Afghanistan. We weren't there just to come in and beat the Taliban and leave. We were committed to this fight and to support the Afghani people. We were there providing aid, humanitarian aid and medical aid. We were working on soldiers, soldiers' families, the animals, the livestock. It's full circle. We were there to provide aid to everything and everybody, and the lethal aid we were doing was to prevent Taliban from the tyranny that these people had lived under forever. ...

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 Warrant Officer

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.

Anyone who spoke even a little bit of English was not afraid to march right up to you and tell you exactly why they were happy you were here. They'd list the top ten reasons for why they hated the Taliban and were glad they were gone.

We provide advice and assistance to the commanders and to the soldiers, as well as bringing in some combat power in terms of air, which is a whole 'nother dimension to the battlefield. Neither the Northern Alliance forces, nor the Taliban or Al Qaeda, expected or planned for [our air combat power]. They could not defend against [it] ... But at the end of the day, 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.


You're the medic on the team. Did you have any idea of what kind of medical situation you might face? How were you prepared to deal with whatever might come?

Jason
Staff Sgt.

photo of jason

Medically the intelligence was probably worse than anything else, because it usually takes a back burner. So I really didn't know what the situation would be like. Just from what I knew media-wise of Afghanistan, I anticipated basically no medical care, supplies, or trained personnel being available. Everything we brought was minimal, but I tried to bring things for every contingency, which we taxed pretty quickly, once we got on the ground and started going.

Can you talk about some of the experiences you encountered in those early days and treating some of the Afghanis? What happened?

Jason
Staff Sgt.

I think it wasn't more than a few days before we started having casualties, and they were all Afghani casualties -- no Americans at that point. We initially got one casualty and we treated him. It was an amputation of his leg, which in and of itself was something that I never thought that I'd wind up doing. We're trained to do it. But as you go through the training, you think, "Boy, when would it ever get this bad that I would amputate a leg on some dirt somewhere in who-knows-where?" Then to do it in the middle of the night with a headlamp on and your weapons guy, I believe it was, assisting you, is pretty phenomenal. I think once that casualty lived, and word got out that there're some guys on the ground here that can do something when you're injured by a land mine or a gunshot -- it was like the floodgates were open after that. We were open for business. It seemed like every time I tried to sleep, somebody pulled up with some degree of injury and they wanted it taken care of.

Where did that amputation take place? What was the setting?

The setting for the first procedure we did, the amputation, was basically what you'd call a courtyard, which was also the cooking area and assembly for the troops; a sleeping area for some. Even some animals ran around there from time to time. So it was definitely not a hospital condition. It was the definition of austere. We did it right there on the ground on what was basically hard-packed mud; tried to lay a blanket down to keep it as clean as possible. I think we did our best to preserve a sterile environment. ...

How were you dealing with the casualties at the same time you're moving so quickly?

Jason
Staff Sgt.

Dealing with casualties as we're on the move much quicker than we expected to be was actually a slight problem -- mainly for them, so to speak -- because there would [times when] I was able to complete procedures, but not really up to a point where you'd not want to see someone again. You finish an amputation or a chest tube or a gunshot wound. You really don't know who is the next medical person -- doctor, whoever -- that's going to see that patient. So you kind of have that at the back of your mind. You hope that someone picked it up from where you left off. You just have to know that you did what you could at that time. It was better than no treatment at all. Maybe there was a qualified person; maybe what you did was just enough, what that person needed to keep them going. ...

[Tell me about when your team met up with ODA 595 and Rashid Dostum.]

Dean
Capt.

We were in the Dar-e-Balkh and we were fighting north, and at Dar-e-Suff ODA 595 was with Abdul Rasid Dostum. They were all fighting north also. Both factions and ODAs were moving toward a town where the two rivers come together, and then that whole river valley becomes the Dar-e-Suff Valley. It leads straight north toward the southern side of Mazar-e-Sharif. Once we both fought our way [there], ODA 595 and our ODA, 534, then sat down with both factions and had a big meeting, almost a council of sorts, where we discussed the offensive operations again Mazar. After that, 534 and 595 stayed together not infrequently on communications to try and deconflict the operations and actions of our factions to prevent any problems.

... We sort of pieced together our battle plan for Mazar. Mazar still had the headquarters of one of the Taliban corps, as well as of one of the Taliban army headquarters. We knew they were well fortified. They had a lot of artillery and a lot of combat power up there. So at that point, we still saw Mazar as our goal, but also as our most formidable battle -- at least in our perception at that time.

When the factional leaders are together and talking, and you and Mark [the captain of ODA 595] are there, what's your role as American advisers? Who's calling the shots?

Dean
Capt.

... It's negotiations, and the thing is, it's really important at the end of the day to remember to focus on what we share in common. Their Alliance and our military have coalition objectives; we're working together toward the same goals, and we focus on those. We have only a few men; they have the armies. So they need to employ their armies in accordance with their capabilities, and they best know what those capabilities are -- not us.

We're there to provide advice and to assess and see how we can best orchestrate things to lend some experience that we have. But [we] remember that, unfortunately, these people have lived as career belligerents. They've been in war so long, they feel very confident in their operational planning. We really just wanted to make sure we left that meeting having an understanding what their plan was, and to bring light to a few points that we thought were important.

One particular example is there's a gap, south of Mazar; a very defendable piece of key terrain that we had assessed prior to infiltration that we knew would be a Taliban last stand. We brought this to the attention and asked the factions' leaders what their plan was for securing it. Then we went to our military [and] asked for satellite imagery and targeting of any Taliban assets that were beginning to set up defenses there. So we play a role in there. But the big thing is we want to leave there understanding the plan, so we can best figure out how we can assist that plan, and also see how it fits in with our coalition objectives.

[As you] move towards Mazar, how was the situation changing on the ground? How strong was the resistance of the Taliban? How did the campaign progress?

Stan
Chief Warrant Officer

After [we met up with ODA 595] it was rather fast. We were pushing to get to the gap. Like Dean said, we were constantly trying to get closer to the gap because we realize that was key terrain for the attack on Mazar, and we needed to make sure the Taliban didn't hold that piece of terrain. ... Sheberghan fell pretty quick, and then we moved up to the gap. Then they mustered troops there, and fought through the night in Mazar.

It was quite a sight. We had mounted troops. We had troops on horseback going through, at the tail end of the effort, coming up like 25 horses going through the gap, and had BMPs and, and mechanized assets in front of them. So everybody was getting into the fight. But we fought through the night and I guess into the morning, in town.

The key thing there to remember, like we talked about earlier, is the collateral damage. Mazar is the home of the Blue Mosque, and we, as a detachment, had already recognized that we were not going to drop ordnance on the Blue Mosque or anywhere to risk collateral damage of the Blue Mosque. That was key. A lot of fighting there wasn't the close air support; there was more of combat and dismounted effort there. ...

Let's talk about the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif. How was the decision made on which faction was going to go in first? What were the issues there?

Dean
Capt.

It was a very fluid operation. I think that the most important thing that everybody wanted to maintain was the initiative tempo, the momentum, if you will. We stopped in Shol Ghar, and Atta threw a pretty big feast for us to thank us for what we had done. Meanwhile, he and General Dostum went forward to the gap to recon the positions there. We expected him to come back and to confirm or deny what parts of the original plan for the seizure of were still intact. ... Instead, we picked up and we again moved forward toward the gap.

The combat in the gap had progressed to a point where he felt it was time to begin to mass. We were supposed to move up to a village that was south of the gap -- that's north of Shol Ghar -- and begin to wage our offensive in the gap. About the same time, the Taliban really began to withdraw from there, so we moved to a position south of the gap for our assault position. Atta began to mass his forces there on vehicles, horses, whatever he could get his hands on, either stolen or taken from the Taliban, Al Qaeda or borrowed from the local population as we had moved all the way up the Dar-e-Suff.

Atta and Dostum had a meeting just after sunset the night before we moved into the city. They talked about their final plans. In hindsight now, having spoken with Captain Mark, Dostum assessed and told Captain Mark that he believed that they had expended the greatest amount of distance that they could move at that time. They had to bring up their combat trains to continue their offensive while Atta had his whole force ready to go. At the time, we didn't really understand how the decision was made, but now we know that Dostum felt that he had gone as far as he could go for that time and he needed Atta to continue to move forward. What we saw on the ground at that point was that Atta had decided to continue to press on.

These wars are fought differently. We can't look at how we fight wars and how they fight wars. Atta has that cell phone and ... radios talking to his subordinate commanders. But he's also on the Inmarsat cell phone, talking to other subordinate commanders of the Taliban, trying to negotiate their surrender or their defection. So he's surrounded by several telephones here, sitting on the dirt in a covered and concealed location, talking to both his subordinate commanders who are now pushing their forces through the gap and their offensive against Mazar. He's also trying to negotiate the surrender and defection of other leaders, whose forces he may encounter as enemy along the way.

Eventually, just prior to sunset, Atta's forces had moved well into the city and had established [a] holding position inside the city. There were still large pockets of Taliban and Al Qaeda resistance in Mazar. Atta moved his command and control element and our ODA up through the gap and into the city. We went right into the center of the city that day. We were greeted very well by the citizens of Mazar. They were very excited to see us; they associate the Americans with their liberation. At this point, some English-speaking interpreters told us that they were praying to Allah on our behalf, asking for our blessings and being very grateful.

It was the first time we really saw a sort of split in the Taliban. Before, the Taliban from Aq Kupruk up the Dar-e-Balkh and through the Dar-e-Suff were pretty much fleeing. It was disorganized. I think that's because we killed a lot of their leadership. But at the same time, it was definitely a unified effort to flee north towards Mazar. But now that Mazar had basically fallen, we had a split. We had 500-600 Taliban, Al Qaeda who decided to stake themselves off and die for the jihad, while the rest continued to flee to the east towards Kunduz. It was the first time when we saw a sort of split in the ranks of the Taliban, where their frustrations and their defeat really began to affect their operational decisions. In time, the Americans, with the factions, would eliminate the remaining pockets of resistance.

As a personal experience, what was it like entering Mazar?

Bobby
Sgt 1st Class

photo of bobby Entering Mazar-e-Sharif was like a scene out of a World War II movie or something. We moved into the town by vehicles. The streets, the roadsides, even outside of the city going into the city were just lined with people, cheering and clapping their hands and just celebrations everywhere. It was just unlike anything we'd ever seen, other than maybe on a movie screen. ...

Can you remember any of it?

Jason
Staff Sgt.

A lot of what they do was fire weapons into the air. That's one of their biggest party favors. So there was a lot of that going on. The first few nights, it was like July 4 is here, a big fireworks show, [firing] rounds up in the air. Anyone who spoke even a little bit of English was not afraid to march right up to you and tell you exactly why they were happy you were here, and thank you very much. They'd list the top ten reasons for why they hated the Taliban and were glad they were gone. So we got a good feeling that, "Hey, we're definitely doing the right thing. These people want us here, they appreciate it."

What was the significance of Kunduz?

Stan
Chief Warrant Officer

Kunduz was the final holdout of the Taliban in the north. We had already seized Mazar, and like Dean said, some of the 500 or 600 had come up and negotiated surrender. We continued to move east to [where] we suspected a couple of thousand to surrender. [It was a] pretty long movement. I think it took us eight or nine hours, a pretty treacherous drive. ...

We move east to Kunduz and there we have quite the convoy, with both factions' forces moving there. ... We go to a key terrain position, and just like what happened in its own smaller scale in Mazar, they start the negotiations. They start massing. A couple of hundred, a couple of thousand. They like to hold out until the end of the day, to be the last to surrender. They'd get into other issues [about] how each commander is treated and so on and so forth. It was not a very comforting situation for us, because of how we deal with POWs. But we weren't there to teach them. There were certain things we could advise them on, but it was an interesting situation.

What was interesting about it?

Stan
Chief Warrant Officer

Just the whole handling [of prisoners] and what was acceptable for them. Allowing enemy commanders' bodyguards to keep their guns, even though they were prisoners. Things like that just aren't acceptable for us. ...

Dean
Capt.

Once Kunduz fell, we had a definite shift from, we fight as guerrillas, we fight as insurgents - we, the Americans, alongside of our faction -- to where we chase them, the enemy, as guerrillas. It changes from an insurgent war to a counterinsurgent war. In the north, I think that was marked mostly by Kunduz.

Once Kunduz had fallen, it's pretty much a permissive environment for the Northern Alliance. They can move freely within the battle space, now that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are forced to hide and operate and settle their structures and live in the hills and work from remote locations. Then for us, we begin to try and manage intelligence, to try and locate key personnel who are still in hiding, and then work with our faction to go find them -- capture them or kill them.

So your roles change?

Dean
Capt.

Absolutely. Our roles changed. ...

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

Stan
Chief Warrant Officer

[We're driving in an old Russian jeep.] We got into a river. We're driving through a river. The water's up to the side and you're thinking, "Oh, man, it's cold, I'm going to have to get it before it dies. But I'll have to get out and walk in this water." And our driver just "crank crank crank crank" [and it] starts. [He] gets out, [and it] dies again. At least we're out of the river. But consistently, throughout the trip, he'd do something, wiggle something, get out and do this, and bam, we're on our way. They just could make anything work. It's just amazing.

Dean
Capt.

The stink -- the Taliban would take gas, because they don't have water to spare. They'd pour gas all over the vehicles and they'd take dirt and they'd throw it on the vehicle so it would stick to the gas. So now all the vehicles just stink like gasoline and there's gas all over the floor. You're afraid that the thing is going to light in the fire.

But 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're so resourceful. They don't throw anything away, and they'll make those jeeps work; they'll make anything work. They're resourceful people, great people to fight alongside, because you know they're not going to quit. ...

Jason
Staff Sgt.

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.

photo of bossie

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].


Dean
Capt.

On infil, we hit the ground. We'd been flying about six to six and a half hours. Because of security, everything is low to the ground, very fast, and 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.

They definitely don't have the same ... sort of cultural values or norms that we have for animals. ... They have a tendency to beat their animals. We had, I think, [on] our first infiltration on horseback, two broken legs and four horses collapse, and the horse would collapse to the ground under the weight. They're not used to carrying heavy Americans. [The Afghanis] would beat that poor animal until they-- I guess they expected it to get up, but of course it's not going to get up, because it's collapsed from exhaustion. ...

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. ...

What thing are you going to tell your grandkids about your experience there?

Dean
Capt.

I agree the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif was probably the most notable experience, just because I compared it with the fall of Aq Kupruk and the differences in how we were received by the population. In Aq Kupruk we were looked at almost with indecision and with distrust, mistrust; whereas, in Mazar-e-Sharif, we were welcomed with open arms. In Aq Kupruk we were continually watching our backs and keeping our eyes moving around, because we didn't feel welcome at all. In Mazar-e-Sharif, we had people coming up and volunteering intelligence information about the location of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda personnel, as well as information about suicide bombers in our force protection. So it was completely different contrast in just a short amount of time between a huge population center and a smaller population center. They were completely different.

Stan
Chief Warrant Officer

I guess one of my most memorable moments was when Atta was on the scope, and seeing the [Taliban] command and control element being bombed. It was just a big turn in how he viewed us, and what we brought to the table there to the war. Suddenly, I think he understood that we wouldn't accept collateral damage. We were there to kill the enemy and we were a force there. We had been through battle together. So, suddenly, we carried a different perspective than any other Americans. We were his friends, and we were to stay as long as we wanted to stay. He automatically knew that, if he designated, 'That's a bad guy,' we would take care of it by whatever means, whether it is taking his forces out and killing it, or using our air assets or whatever was available. It just gave us a different status.

Jason
Staff Sgt.

I think my most memorable time there actually would be the night we left. I say that because it was almost like the culmination of everything we'd done. We were glad to leave. By all means, we were glad to leave. But still, it was like a goodbye between people that we'd met along the way, even guys that we'd known since the first night there on the ground. Just the fact that they wanted to hug us and shake our hand and exchange gifts -- it showed that we had done something right. We'd gone through battle with these guys. There were guys there from the beginning that we'd maybe helped keep alive. We'd done our job, and built rapport and fought with these guys well enough that they considered us their friends and vice versa for us, which was a really good feeling, unique to the [unconventional warfare] operations that we did. ...

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