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interview: u.s. special forces oda 572

Roughly, when did you go into Afghanistan? ...

Shane
Master Sgt.

We first arrived in November. Then from there, we headed down towards Tora Bora some time after.

Let's talk about the infil. What was that like?

Shane
Master Sgt.

photo of shane

It was a really long infil. We pretty much slept for the whole infil until the mini-guns and the helicopters started going off. But you wake up from that and pretty much go back to sleep, because there's nothing you can do anyways. ... You don't know when you're going to sleep again, so you might as well sleep then. ...

I know you can't say exactly, but November some time, when you went in, did you have a sense of how and where you were with the overall mission?

Shane
Master Sgt.

We pretty much knew what was happening on up in the northern region, that it was coming down to that area in the Panjshir Valley. We knew that most of the Taliban forces from that area were starting to retreat, and going out into the southern areas and over to the eastern side....

Operational Detatchment Alpha (ODA) 572 was the only US Special Forces team operating in the Tora Bora area in last November and early December. They provided close air support for Afghan troops led by General Hazrat Ali.

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. ...

Tell me about the first time you met General Hazrat Ali.

Shane
Master Sgt.

He was a pretty friendly guy. He's wanting us on the ground, eager to get us to start calling aircraft and doing air strikes against the positions where they were dug in real, real heavily. He was eager to get us out there, and he welcomed us. Pretty much everything we asked for, anywhere from vehicles and items such as that, he pretty much came up with, and got to us so we could be able to assist him as much as we could.

How much did you know about him before you met him?

Bill
Staff Sgt.

photo of bill

From our intel briefing, the stuff that we got, we knew the basics about him. He fought the Russians for 10 years and fought the Taliban for a while. Then he joined the Taliban, and then he left the Taliban, and he was fighting them again. So basically we knew that about him. That was pretty much it. It was nothing really specific beside that.


What kind of impression did he make on you?

Bill
Staff Sgt.

He kind of just shook everyone's hand, spoke a little bit of English. Basically, anything we needed, he would get for us. He was a pretty good guy. ...

Jeff
Staff Sgt.

photo of jeff

... Most of our communication with General Ali a lot of times were through his commanders, over radios. But quite often, we would see him. He'd eat supper with us, and with his men a lot of times, so we'd see him around. But as for us actually sitting down and talking to him, about finding out like about his family and what actually motivates him -- we didn't too much of that, because he was very busy. ...

Why was the Tora Bora region important?

Shane
Master Sgt.

At first, we weren't really sure of the importance of the Tora Bora region. The only thing we knew was that the people from the north, the Northern Alliance, started pushing the Taliban down. The Taliban was fleeing, heading down into areas south and over to the eastern side....

Now with a bit of hindsight, Tora Bora turned out to be one of the big battles there. Did you know going in, that might be what was going to happen and [how] it developed?

Shane
Master Sgt.

No, that's just pretty much how it evolved there. We even were surprised ourselves when we come back and heard some of the stories, and how much attention that Tora Bora had, compared to some of the other regions. We just thought it was just another battle, just like up in the north, just trying to push Taliban and Al Qaeda -- either capture them, or push them back out of the area.

Even when it was going on?

Shane
Master Sgt.

Yes. ...

When the Tora Bora campaign started, how did it begin? What happened with you guys, how did you know--?

Shane
Master Sgt.

It was already in operation [when] we got there, because General Ali was already fighting most of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in that area prior to our arrival. Once we got there, we got set up and reviewed General Ali's plan. The plan he had was pretty much feasible. Being in a mountainous area, what he had planned was just the ideal situation for that type of terrain. Then we went, started taking up positions in order to call in close air support, to help his troops as they're moving forward. ...

The whole offensive was mostly his troops, that he had underneath his command and his other commanders. We were just there to help call in the air support, just because of the language barrier with U.S. pilots.

Jeff
Staff Sgt.

We would pretty much soften up [the Al Qaeda positions with airstrikes], while General Ali's troops would push forwards. We kind of did like a leapfrog thing. We would engage targets and Al Qaeda troops that we saw, and General Ali's troops would move ahead. We would go back a little bit farther, drop behind him just a little father back, so they could advance again. They kind of did it in stages.

But it took a little while during the beginning, because the soldiers would take ground, and then they'd retreat, and they'd take ground and retreat. Then you'd have to start over again the whole next day. That went on for a couple of days. Then they realized, "Hey, we can't do this really, just wasting more time." But after they stopped doing that, they started taking ground very quickly, and it moved along quite well.

We didn't fail at Tora Bora. Our mission was to take the Tora Bora cave complex. We didn't let anybody get away. I mean, I haven't heard from bin Laden lately -- have you? Bill, Staff Sgt., ODA 572

What was their method of fighting the war?

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.

So why was it frustrating?

Bill
Staff Sgt.

Just, you know, you're there fighting, and you want to get the job done. It was frustrating to see ground taken and then given up, and then taking the same ground the next day. But they figured out pretty quick that you don't want to do that.

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

Bill
Staff Sgt.

Yes. I mean, you advise them

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. ...

So when they would go retreat each night, would you go with them? Or did you stay up in the mountain?

Shane
Master Sgt.

We pretty much stayed in our positions the whole time. ... A lot of times when they pulled back, that's when we started to heighten the close air support quite a bit. We'd start bombing them areas real heavily in order to deny the Al Qaeda from coming back into the mountains. So hopefully, the next day when they start going back up there, not as many people would want to go back in there. So Ali's troops could take the area more quickly the next day.

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.

Did you have any contact with some of the other men there, like General Zaman or some of the others? Or did you just work with General Ali?

Shane
Master Sgt.

General Ali was pretty much the commander in charge of the Tora Bora area. We didn't have any other contacts with the other commanders. We'd probably seen them come in, get their stuff from General Ali, and then they would head back out again

Were you aware of any rivalry?

Shane
Master Sgt.

No, we wasn't, not while we were out there. There is some, but none that we thought had really affected the battle that was going on in. It was pretty much all commanders there wanting the same thing: to get the Al Qaeda out of the area.

Did any of you sense beforehand when you were there that Ali and Zaman had a bit of a rivalry going on?

Jeff
Staff Sgt.

After a few days of working with General Ali, we knew that there were other commanders up there, other generals, who were working. I guess there was two. To tell you the truth, I can't remember their names. They were supposed to be all working together. But when we were trying to find out where other friendly troops were beside General Ali's troops--so if we saw them, they wouldn't become a target--we found that they had quite a bit of problem talking to each other and figuring out where each other were, exactly.

So that took up some time. We'd have to wait and they'd talk on the radio, trying to make coordinations. Some times they wouldn't want to tell each other where they were. So it made a little bit harder on things. It would slow down a little bit, but for safety's sake, so we wouldn't be bombing our allies. It did seem like there was either some bad feelings towards each other, or some animosity they had towards each other. But they finally decided to get the job done.

Then there was some more confusion later on, about one commander [calling a cease-fire]. One of the interpreters that we did work with -- who we had with us all the time -- came and said, "Stop. No more bombs." When he would do that, usually it meant General Ali's troops were ready to move forward again. But it turned out that we were like, "Why are we stopping for so long?" He's like, "No, no. Don't drop any more." It turned out that one of the other commanders had rigged up a bargain, I guess, to receive a large surrender. By the time this came around to us, it had been a few hours. ...

So when they first came in and said, "Stop bombing," how do you figure out what was going on?

Bill
Staff Sgt.

We got word for from somewhere else -- which I can't talk about -- and we knew we had to start keep bombing. I mean, we weren't just up there slinging bombs around for no reason. You knew there was reasons why we were dropping bombs and where we were dropping bombs. ...

Shane
Master Sgt.

One of the things with the cease-fire is that, [while] the cease-fires happen, another commander was trying to negotiate this surrender. One of the parameters that we had underneath our mission was that, to have a surrender, we had to have a whole, total unconditional surrender of the personnel that was there. They're wanting to surrender; they just want to surrender and then go back to their country. That's what they wanted. They did not want to be prisoners or anything like that. ... They wanted a complete "Can we just lay down our weapons, you handle us, and just let us go back to wherever we came from, or go back to our merry way?" So the order for the air strikes commenced after that.

One of the warlords, commanders, suggested Al Qaeda was going to surrender to you guys.

Shane
Master Sgt.

No, they wanted to surrender to the Afghan forces, but not to us, in exchange that all they do is lay down their weapons and then walk away. When that was brought to our attention, it was, "No, it's a complete unconditional surrender, and you are processed as prisoners."

Jeff
Staff Sgt.

... When we finally did resume bombing, we found out from General Ali's commanders that they were very unhappy and they wanted to take all these prisoners. But the problem with that is, what we were saying is, you don't know where those people are going from there. They might just disappear. You don't know, so they couldn't let that happen. If they were advancing and surrendering as Ali's troops or another element was taking ground, that would be one thing.

But for everyone to mass, waste a lot of time and try to turn themselves over, a lot of stuff could get moved; a lot of people could disappear. You never know what's going to happen. We couldn't afford that

Bill
Staff Sgt.

Another reason about the surrender, about them just walking away -- a lot of people in the caves up there really wasn't Taliban; it was like hardcore Al Qaeda. So you're just letting terrorists walk away, to attack you again another day? In my mind, it's just stupid.

You guys didn't really have enough forces on the ground to really sort of control that kind of surrender themselves?

Bill
Staff Sgt.

No, we didn't. ...

It became a huge story back here, and the world said, "Oh, bin Laden's up there. It's like the last stand." Were you aware of how big of a story it was back here?

Bill
Staff Sgt.

They say it was a big story, or a big battle. Well, I guess to us, any battles are big. I mean, if you're getting shot at, or you're in combat, any battle is big. To us, it was big in that sense, but it was just any other battle. We were just there doing our job. So we didn't think nothing of it; just doing our job.

Did you have a sense or a hope that bin Laden might be up there?

Bill
Staff Sgt.

A lot of media [has been] saying that we failed at Tora Bora. Well, we didn't fail at Tora Bora. Our mission was to take Tora Bora cave complex. We didn't let anybody get away. I mean, I haven't heard from bin Laden lately -- have you?

Jeff
Staff Sgt.

If he happened to be there-- It wasn't our mission to go there and look and hunt him down. That was not our mission. Our mission was to support General Ali's troops in getting rid of the pockets of resistance of Al Qaeda and Taliban, and to go start the searches of the caves.

Again, with the caves, they weren't these crazy mazes or labyrinths of caves that they described. Most of them were natural caves. Some were supported with some pieces of wood maybe about the size of a 10-foot by 24-foot room, at the largest. They weren't real big. I know they made a spectacle out of that, and how are we going to be able to get into them? We worried about that too, because we see all these reports. Then it turns out, when you actually go up there, there's really just small bunkers, and a lot of different ammo storage is up there.

But again, I was saying, it wasn't our mission to go up there. It was just strictly to go after the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and not specifically Osama bin Laden. We heard that it's a possibility that he would be there, because he would frequently went there. There's a neighboring city, Jalalabad, and he would go there also.

So it was possible we ran into him. It's possible that he would have been up there. But other than that, there was nothing-- We weren't after him specifically.

Just on an emotional level, were you hoping that he was there and that you might have killed him?

Jeff
Staff Sgt.

I think everyone was probably hoping that you might see his head peek up somewhere, that they might find him or what have you. But then there's also a big possibility that, if he happened to be there, that you might not ever find him, because a lot of landslides buried a lot of caves. We buried a tank up there under rock. If you can't find a tank-- They went digging for it, and they couldn't find it. So if you can't even find a tank, how are you going to find a person, if something like that got covered up? It's possible; maybe, maybe not.

Can you describe the terrain and the living conditions?

Shane
Master Sgt.

Most of the terrain of course is mountainous-type terrain there. After the battle was concluded there ... we pretty much felt that the area was secured. We started going and doing the initial stages of just walking through the area and stuff. There was a large amount of areas where you could see it was just devoid of any trees. Mountain-type terrain that used to be rock, and now is just rubble. I've seen a lot of a few tanks up there. Most of the tanks were destroyed and have huge craters beside them. ...

So the time frame that we were up there, of course, the elevations we were in -- it was quite get quite cold at night. You welcomed the daylight, because you get some warmth from the sun coming in. But after doing your job, doing your mission, you're looking out for signs of Al Qaeda. As soon as you see any, you'd call in air strikes against the positions. At night, you sit up there, hoping to look for maybe an Al Qaeda campfire; someone might get too cold, because it was starting to get real cold, and hopefully they might light up a campfire [and we'd] see it. ...

As each day went by, during that time of the year, you could see how the snow line from the other elevations just kept creeping down. So we knew that eventually the snow is going to be coming upon us. So there's a lot of things in your head: How much longer is this battle going to last? Are we going to be fighting a winter battle here? Is this thing going to last longer than a few more months? You're just not sure. So you just try to do the best you can, and hopefully you know you get the outcome that you're looking for.

Did it all progress faster than you thought?

Shane
Master Sgt.

I think it even went faster than what they were even predicting, even for the Afghanistan soldiers down there fighting against the Al Qaeda. Because once the air strike started, you start softening up the areas after about a few days of doing the initial fighting. In the mouth of the Tora Bora region, all of a sudden they just took off. ... They started pushing real quick. They started pushing back; the lines were thin Al Qaeda started retreating backward. They started pushing real quick. In over like a three-day period, they pretty much were all up in that area.

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