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interview: u.s. special forces oda 555

[Where did you arrive in Afghanistan?]

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

Just north of the Kabul into the Panjshir Valley, the Hindu Kush.

Why had you gone there?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

photo of steve

Well, we didn't know it at the time, but that was basically the high-water mark of the Soviet empire. 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.


Which Afghan leaders were you assigned with?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

We were assigned with Fahim Khan's men in the Panjshir Valley.

Operational Detatchment Alpha (ODA) 555 -- known as "Triple Nickel" -- was deployed to the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul. Its mission was to join Northern Alliance warlord Mohammed Fahim Khan - the military successor to Ahmed Shah Massoud -- and liberate the Afghan capital from the Taliban.

Who was he?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

He was, for lack of a better word, a warlord who was underneath Ahmed Massoud, who was killed on Sept. 9. ... [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 into the mountains north of Kabul. ...

How much information did you get before you went in about Fahim Khan, his other commanders and what the military situation was on the ground?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

photo of frank

As far as tactical information, we got hardly anything. We got a good political overview of what was going on the hierarchy and what their objectives were. ... And that was pretty good. But as far as tactical information, it was real sparse and contradictory. So we just pretty much focused on the spot we were going to land and what we were going to do when we got there. From there, we were going to have to play it by ear, and pretty much feel it as we go.


Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

They had told us that where we were landing was a secure spot. But whether they meant that the spot where the helicopter's touching down, 500 meters around it, ten miles around it, we really didn't know. So it was kind of touch and go there at first; show up and see who shows up to shake our hand.

Who showed up?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

The Afghans. ... [Laughing] Yes, yes, yes, many Afghans...

Russell
Staff Sgt.

Flashing lights, yes, showed up at our helicopter landing site.


Fahim Khan was the main commander there. 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. [Ed. Note: Massoud was killed by two assassins posing as television journalists coming to interview him.] 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. ...

You don't see it. You hear it. You feel it. You just don't feel it in your chest; you feel it deep down in your guts, just this huge rumbling roar.

Where was the front line in comparison to where you thought the front line was?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

They couldn't tell us where the front lines were. That was one of the questions. We said, "OK, this is where we're landing? Where are the front lines? Are we getting shot at as soon as we land, or is there some kind of a... buffer between us?" It turns out it was about 40 miles away. ... So there was plenty of room for us to maneuver without having to worry about getting shot at until we actually went and wanted to go down and engage the Taliban. ...

So once you're on the ground, you link up with the commanders there. What happens then? Does he move down towards the planes? How did that happen? What happened?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

The first day we got in, they took us to a house. ... They fed us and we got a bunch of information. Then the next night, we moved down closer, [where] we met Ismail Khan at another house called "the eagle's nest," because it was on the side of a mountain up a different valley. We stayed there for a day. From there, we went down to the front lines to survey the front line. We said, "Look, we need to move closer." So they found us another place closer, and that's where we stayed the whole time until the offensive.

Why did you want to move closer?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

[There were too many] logistical problems getting to and from the battlefield. I mean, they didn't want us on the battlefield because [Taliban and Al Qaeda] were hunting us, and figured we'd be safer if they moved us some place where his trusted guys could watch us. So we'd go from there, move up to a certain part of the battlefield, do what we needed to do, and then we'd move back, because it was the border. The front lines were too porous and they weren't secure. ... They didn't feel ... that it was secure enough.

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

It wasn't rigid like an American or European war, with trench lines and machine guns laid in with designated areas of fire and a no man's land. Heck, the fuel that our host nation guys were burning in their vehicles came from Pakistan through Kabul. They came through enemy-controlled territory up to us, so they had their guys walking across the border, finding out information. I'm sure that they were doing the same thing to us.

Give us a sense of the lay of the land there, and the porous front lines. How long had that front line been there?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

They were entrenched. It's been there about three years. ... They went back and forth, you know, Taliban one day, Northern Alliance the next day. They'd get the information on each other. They just didn't have the means to do anything about it. So it just sat there in a stalemate until we showed up.

Why did that make a difference?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

In order to do an offensive, you need to have superior numbers, especially if the guys you're going against are dug in. Standard military is 3-to-1 odds. You want 3-to-1 greater numbers. Well, neither side had that. Neither side could attack, so they just sat there. When we showed up, we started taking out their numbers. Yes, we started hitting their artillery and their tanks and started hitting their trench lines until we dwindled them down to a number that they felt was satisfactory that they could attack against. When we got to that point, they attacked.

Why was that piece of territory so important in the big picture?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

To the big picture? I think it's more Kabul's stature than a tactical significance. It was the capital of Afghanistan. The first one to get there holds that status.

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

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

General 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. [The Northern Alliance] owned three quarters of it, but the southern eastern end of it was covered by the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. They were all set up in what used to be a village, but they had moved all the civilians out. They'd made it in to a military garrison, and that's where they covered it.

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. [General 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.

Up until then, do you think they appreciated the kind of firepower that you could bring them?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

No. General Sharif knew. He saw what the Russians did, so he knew the potential. But they had been promised stuff before. The air campaign had started -- I'm not sure how many weeks before that -- and they weren't really hitting anything. They were up at 25,000 feet, just dropping area targets, and he wasn't impressed with that. Then when we came down there and started hitting pinpoint targets maybe only a kilometer in front of us, they were like, "All right, this is for real."

Can you tell the story of when you were up in the tower and a bomb drops, and you monitor the Al Qaeda radio?

Russell
Staff Sgt.

photo of russell

We were out in the west. Our western [observational post] had a large amount of people that lived around it that were other soldiers. ... So when we decided to go to that OP, a lot of soldiers would leave their fighting positions to come watch the Americans do their magic -- bring the bombs in on the enemy targets. They had these little walkie-talkies that worked basically on a repeater system. They had all the same frequencies that the Taliban had.

I'm sure that they talked back and forth to each other, and probably cussed each other out on the radio from time to time. But Northern Alliance guys had guys that could speak and probably talked the same slang in Arabic and sound just like a Talibani or an Arab soldier.

They did it, and they were able to talk to them and ask them questions when we would drop a bomb, and it sounded like a fellow Talibani soldier. The Talibani guy possibly sometimes was crying, or all the time they were saying, "That was close. They missed us. Can you give us some help or support? They missed us to our west or whatever by whatever distance." They would translate to us, and tell us, and we would just adjust our fire, based on the information that they gave us.

Then the next thing you know, that guy who was basically saying how far we missed them by-- he would no longer was there. You'd hear people on the other end of the radio complaining or [being] upset about a friend he'd lost on the radio.

Of course, Northern Alliance guys didn't care. They were happy about it. By the end of the conversation, they'd close it, and close it with a good cussing or something. I was just amazed. I couldn't believe that they were able to do that for us; helped us in a very big way. ...

When did you get a sense that the momentum was really with the Northern Alliance, pushing in towards Kabul?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

I think most of us had it in our mind that we were going to be there until the spring. We were going out and bombing every day, but being the first team on the ground calling in aircraft, we had a monopoly. We had all the aircraft we could possibly want. But as more teams came in, they only had a set number of aircraft, and started getting pushed down in priorities, kind of revolving around. We were like, "Wow, this could take a while," especially if something doesn't happen. It was General Dostum up in Mazar-e-Sharif that kind of upped the ante by taking Mazar-e-Sharif with one of our other teams. It kind of forced some of the other units into action. ...

The pace of events changes, and then suddenly the Taliban leave Kabul. Then the city's kind of wide open. There was a political debate over whether the Northern Alliance take Kabul. What was going on? How [did] that happen from where you guys [were]?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

I went up to talk to General Sharif. We had known there was an agreement between Fahim Khan and General Franks, I believe, that he was going to stop short of Kabul. I went up and I talked to General Sharif. General Sharif was like, "Sure we'll stop," and he goes, "But you know, some of the local commanders have family down there," and he kind of let it known that they weren't going to stop. Politically, yes, you know we were going to stop. [But] if a guy is trying to get back to his old home in Kabul, then who's going to stop them? They're not going to stop them, and that's what ended up [happening].

[Some people were asking], "[Were] there gangs running around Kabul?" Someone had to go in there and secure it to make it safe for the people. So that's why they went in.

Was that what was going on in Kabul?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

... When we rolled in, the city was in chaos. But they were definitely celebrating, and there was no authority [that] had been associated with the Taliban. The Taliban had fought up to the front line as those guys had pulled back. They had just basically scared the heck out of the civilian apparatus that was in place. I mean, the whole infrastructure -- police, fire, government -- turned tail and took off.

Should they have gone in? I don't know. Did they need to be in there? Yes, because they added stability to the city. When we got in there, they had Northern Alliance squads, eight to 10 men, in each intersection. They weren't doing anything. They weren't harassing the populace. They were just giving a stabilizing effort to the whole area, letting them know, "OK, we're in here. Now we're in charge."

[What happened when the Northern Alliance started their assault on Kabul?]

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

... On that final day, they actually waited until we managed to talk them into giving us more time to react. They finally started their attack right after a B-52 strike that landed about a thousand meters to 1,200 meters south of us on Taliban positions. In between us and the Taliban were [U.S.] regular troops and some [Northern Alliance] militia that we'd saw march forward. Basically, that opened the floodgates. It broke the Taliban's back. Their defenses were brittle. They either broke and ran from there, or changed sides -- which happened a lot. They were bought out, except for the Arabs. Quarter was given to the Afghanis. If you were a Taliban Afghani, well, most important [is] that you're Afghani. But if you were Arab or foreign of any kind, there was no mercy. You were still a combatant. The option wasn't there to change sides.

What would happen to them?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

They would usually fight, because they had no place else to go. They were exiled from their home countries into Afghanistan; this is their safe haven. I mean, they had planned to hit on the World Trade Center from here. They had no place else to go. All of a sudden, the Northern Alliance is rolling down the road in trucks, tanks, jeeps, anything with wheels, with American bombs falling in front of them. They had to stand and fight; they had no choice.

How soon after the B-52 attack did the Northern Alliance actually enter Kabul?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

The B-52 strike was around two or three, and that night, the Northern Alliance entered Kabul. But it was a mad rush. ... Something that we thought would take a couple of weeks -- to fight our way down there -- happened in a matter of hours. The next day, we rolled in with General Sharif and the staff and some more troops. As they moved in to another part of the city, we didn't encounter any resistance.

What was it like entering Kabul?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

It was surreal. I mean, heck, we'd gone into Afghanistan about a month after the towers fell, and a month after that, we were in the capital city of what had been an enemy country. People lined the streets. There we were in the convoy. They didn't know we were Americans, but we were in the convoy with the Northern Alliance, and people were just standing at the side of the road, cheering and laughing.

Another thing I remember, driving through the city that day, they had these buses full of people with guys dancing on top and trailers streaming off the back of a taxi in front of it, because people just got married. They were playing music, and everybody was playing music.

One thing I'll always remember are the kites, the children playing with the kites, because the whole time, the Taliban didn't allow that. They didn't let the children play with balls, play soccer or football or whatever they call it or play with kites or anything like that. It was just like an immense weight had been lifted off them. The future is still uncertain, but at least things were better than they had been. ...

How long did you end up staying in Kabul?

Frank
Sgt. 1st Class

It was a little bit over a month. We got there right before Thanksgiving, and left right after Christmas, I think. ...

What was it like when you when you left? Did you have a chance to say goodbye to General Sharif and the people that you were with?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

Once it was over, it was kind of hard for us to stay in contact with them, because now their fight was over, for the most part. They were trying to set up civil government, and it was hard to stay in contact.

One day, though, Frank and I were standing outside the embassy. There was a large crowd on the main street coming from Kabul International Airport into the center of town to the presidential palace. But there was also a large group in front of the American Embassy. By this time, the Marines had shown up. They had secured the embassy and there was Department of State staff there. Well, we decided that we're going to go down, and since we blended in so well, we're just going to stand by the side of the road and make sure nothing silly happens.

We're nonchalantly pulling it off, "OK, we're Afghani" until General Sharif drives by. Of course, the outside of the embassy in most countries is secured by the host nation, and the inside perimeter is secured by the Marines. General Sharif stops by to say hello to his troops on the outside. He gets out, shakes their hand has a few words with them.

I remember this for a fact -- Frank here was leaning up against this taxicab. General Sharif is kind of short in stature; he has to climb up into the truck. He looks right over the windshield and makes direct eye contact with us and raises his hand, a big smile. So in the middle of this big parade, we're out with hundreds of people lining the street, we end up in the middle of the road, hugging. He ends up giving us the Afghani kisses on the cheek, and he ends up whisking us away to his truck.

[We went] back and we ended up having some chai and talking about old times, old army buddies. It was kind of funny. ...

Do you have any memories or stories that you know you're going to tell your grandkids? What's the most enduring moment through this that you take home?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

I think it's definitely going to be that day on that rooftop with all the machine gun fire coming round us, [and] that B-52 strike hitting so close to us. It's a sound and a sight and a feeling. It was like watching fireworks -- [that's] the only thing I could equate it to on the civilian side. You don't see it. You hear it, but you feel it. You just don't feel it in your chest; you feel it deep down in your guts, just this huge rumbling roar. It shakes the very earth you're standing on or laying on at that time.

I thought for sure the roof was going to collapse -- and we were a thousand meters away, six-tenths of a mile. But it's something I'm always going to remember, and probably never want to be that near again.

And that's the one that was decisive?

Steve
Sgt. 1st Class

Yes, that was the one. That was the one -- the final blow that they were looking for.

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