CAMPAIGN AGAINST TERROR
home
on the ground
assessing
with us?
chronology
discussion
interview: u.s. special forces oda 595

What is [your Special Forces] unit, that we see in front of us here?

Paul
Master Sgt.

photo of paul

What we have here is a standard Special Forces detachment Alpha, which is a 12-man unit of Special Forces soldiers, consisting of a captain, a warrant officer, and an operations NCO, two medical NCOs, two weapons NCOs, two engineers and two communications sergeants. And we're equipped to go out and conduct special operations throughout the world.

What kind of operations are called special operations?

Mark
Capt.

photo of mark

Special operations consist of direct action-type missions, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, which encompasses both direct action and special reconnaissance and can fluctuate between a rural or an urban type environment. We also conduct foreign internal defense where Special Forces teams travel to other countries in the CENTCOM region and work with foreign militaries training their soldiers, establishing military-to-military relationships, exchanging ideas and just tactics and how each other works. ...

Operational Detatchment Alpha (ODA) 595 from the U.S. Army's 5th Special Forces Group partnered with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan. They combined forces with Mohammed Atta and ODA 555 to take down Taliban stronghold Mazar-e-Sharif in November, 2001. This was the first significant Taliban defeat. This interview was conducted on August 2, 2002

Can you talk about the philosophy of the way you are trained? Is that unique to this team?

Mark
Capt.

This detachment primarily focuses on unconventional warfare. In doing that, in training for that type of mission, all the members of the detachment are thoroughly trained in communications, thoroughly cross-trained in communications, basic medical skills, first aid, initial trauma assessment, etc., as well as weapons proficiency of all types. And that also includes all of us being cross-trained in calling in close air support. This higher degree of cross-training allows us to operate and train in small two-man elements up to 12 men. The team has done this for years. And that is their standard operating procedure.

Could each one of you talk about what your role is on the team?

Bill
Sgt.

I am a medical sergeant on the team. I provide medical care for the team and any of the host nations that I go to.

Bob
Chief Warrant Officer

I'm the team tech, and I help with the operations of the team.

What's that mean?

Mark
Capt.

He's the deputy commander.

Bob
Chief Warrant Officer

Yes, exactly. The executive officer.

Mark
Capt.

I'm the detachment commander. I'm in overall command of the detachment with the mission to advise and assist up to a battalion-sized foreign unit.

Will
Sgt.

photo of will

I'm a communications sergeant. My responsibility would be to maintain radio equipment, pass traffic, any information that we have to higher and from higher leadership. Set up radios and equipment to call CAS [close air support.]


Vince
Sgt. 1st Class

I'm the senior communications sergeant. My job is to maintain communications with the higher [commanders,] ... and ensuring that we get our messages back up to higher headquarters.

Mike
Staff Sgt.

I'm weapon sergeant on team. My main responsibility is to make sure our weapons are fully capable, and ready to go. I also train the detachment on foreign weapons, also U.S. weapons, and also advise on tactics.

Paul
Master Sgt.

I'm Operations NCO. My primary job is to ensure the training of the detachment. Secondary job is then to help write and prepare the orders to deploy us. ...

Pete
Staff Sgt.

photo of pete

I'm the engineer on the team. My primary mission is to train the team on demolitions. And also if there's a mission where [we] blow something up, be the advisor on that. And also another role that's just as important is the logistics, not only for us but for the host nation. Providing everything from food and clothing to vehicles.


Paul
Master Sgt.

One thing about the training that all the soldiers receive, they basically have given you their basic duties. Everyone also has secondary training that they have received, that they call upon throughout their missions to assist us -- sniper training, SCUBA, HALO, ... there's a whole long list of other things that go in to being a Special Forces soldier that is called upon whenever we go and do these operations.

What about "warrior diplomats?" Somebody used that term.

Paul
Master Sgt.

One of the things that you get by being in this job for any length of time, you go to a lot of different countries. Every year we're going to two or three different countries, working with foreign soldiers who, when we go work with them five to ten years later, will be the senior military leaders of that country's military.

We're really not officially trained in it, but we are developed through on-the-job training to become diplomats, because the senior guys, anyways, they go there, they work with these foreign soldiers, they work with a whole bunch of different people. I mean, to go to a foreign country, not only are we working with the foreign government, we're working with our own government just to get there. So you become more politically attuned. And in our case, during this war it was very easy. They wanted about the same thing we want. So it's kind of easy to do. ...

Dostum finally said, Put your guns down, take your jackets off, march in here or we're turning the Americans onto you with the death ray. Mark, Capt., ODA 595

Can you tell us the date when you first got your orders to go into Afghanistan?

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. This is wide open. There is no left and right limit. Just a very broad, open ended mission of, "Get in there, figure it out and make it happen." ...

Bob
Chief Warrant Officer

photo of bob

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.

Tell some stories about the infil, and then when you finally got on the ground. What was that like?

Bill
Sgt.

photo of bill

The infil was excellent. It couldn't have been smoother. It was probably the smoothest helicopter ride I've ever had in my life. It was straight in. ... The only shaky point was when we did in-flight refueling. And that's because you've got an aircraft that was just right on top of you, and you could see it out the window.


Mark
Capt.

We're flying blacked out in this MH-47 helicopter from the 160th. Immediately after taking off, they're conducting this in-flight aerial refueling. So it's kind of bumpy as they're refueling the helicopter. They're doing this at a very low altitude, blacked out, under night-vision goggles, which they train constantly for. And upon completing the aerial refueling, then we're dropping down to an even lower altitude at a screaming air speed, just headed into Indian country. And we hit a surprise sand storm and heavy fog which created near-zero visibility conditions, and the armed escort aircraft had to turn back, and we flew alone through the mountains the remainder of that trip. And the pilot gave us a perfect infiltration. They put us right down in the exact location we were supposed to be, right exactly on time. And from our perspective, it was a perfect infiltration, in the back. But talking with the pilots, it was an extremely harrowing infil. ...

Bob
Chief Warrant Officer

Well, that was their time to chew their nails. When the ramp drops, then it's our time to chew our nails.

And what happened then?

Paul
Master Sgt.

If you've ever been around a helicopter, they kick up a lot of dust. We all had very heavy packs on our backs, just around a hundred pounds worth of equipment, and a couple of extra bags. We came out the back of the helicopter through the dust and clouds. You saw the Afghans coming out to lead us. It was a tense time, and very eerie, because they wear robes with AK-47s coming out of them.

Bob
Chief Warrant Officer

It was like the sand people from "Star Wars," coming at you. Of course, you can't see their face because it was dark. And you're just looking up. And they've got their weapons. But they're greeting you.

Bill
Sgt.

The only thing that made it any kind of smooth was we knew that there should be somebody there. You just pretty much have to trust that those were the people.

Mark
Capt.

... We went through our linkup procedures with these folks, and then confirmed that it was them, friendly forces. And then they moved us into a compound for the night. They seemed a little upset that we insisted on pulling our own security that first night. But we just got in there and we don't fully trust these people. Yes, we're there to work with them. But we were going to ensure that we maintain our own security. And so, for this first night, we have American Special Forces sergeants with Northern Alliance soldiers, guarding the other members of the element while they sleep.

Where did you sleep?

Mark
Capt.

In the finest caves and buildings that Afghans could provide. We were sleeping in a cleaned out cattle stable. They had laid some carpets down on the ground. We had two or three pet mice and rats that were running around the area. That was our home for the next several days.

And when did you meet Dostum?

Mark
Capt.

Mid-morning the next day, General Dostum arrived at the compound. The compound was on the edge of a clearing. First, about 20 horsemen came galloping up. They're armed to the teeth, looking pretty rough. And, the heavy beards, RPGs. Your typical Soviet small arms is what they possessed--light machine guns, AK-47s, RPGs. And they come galloping up on horseback. And about ten minutes behind them, another 30 horsemen arrived with General Dostum. This was his main body of his personal body guards, coming there to meet us.

Sounds like a scene out of a movie.

Mark
Capt.

Exactly. This was our first chapter in the Wild, Wild West events that we would participate in everyday. It was incredible.

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. And, he wanted us to go right away with him to his mountain headquarters, and show us where the Taliban was located. And that was fine with us. We were ready to get up there, and get close to the enemy, and see what we could do.

So right away, six members of the detachment, including myself, would mount horses for the first time. And, we would ride with General Dostum, approximately four hours, to his mountain headquarters.

You mean mount horses for the first time in your life?

Mark
Capt.

For some of them, yes.

What was that like?

Bill
Sgt.

Scary. Invigorating. I mean, we were going up stuff a foot wide. You were a thousand feet up on a cliff that you knew, if you fell, you were dead. It was very invigorating, I think that's probably the [word]. Fortunately, I had a very good horse. So, no big deal for me. I know some of the guys had some aggressive horses. Andy had a very, very aggressive horse that liked to fight other horses. And he had a little more of a hard time controlling it.

Paul
Master Sgt.

That's the one thing about it is, in my time there, I don't remember seeing anything but studs. They were all male horses. And anytime you get that many male horses together, they start to fight, whether you're on their back or not. You'd get out there with a whole group of these male horses with a Type A personality, and none of them would want to be last. So they'd start taking off running with you on them. Or they'd start fighting and biting each other. That was a constant hassle with the horses.

Pete
Staff Sgt.

While we were first riding up, you're looking around thinking, "Here I am riding a horse in the middle of Afghanistan." It's a little weird. It's kind of a little bit further out than the things you might have thought you'd normally be doing. It was definitely interesting, though.

Mark
Capt.

All these guys did an incredibly magnificent job learning how to ride under those type of conditions, the first time in combat. A few of them had ridden horses when they were five or six years old that were going around and around in a little carnival or circus.... And now they're learning how to ride in combat in mountainous terrain, narrow treacherous mountain cliffs, often riding at night. And there are mines in the area. Over the next several weeks, we were riding ten to 30 kilometers per day. We were wearing out some horses. And Will became known as "the bravest horseman in all of Afghanistan."

How'd that happen?

Will
Sgt.

I had a particularly good, strong, spirited horse one day. We had been riding for a few hours, not terribly long. And I had already gone through several ordeals with this horse, being thrown off, and drug for kilometers through the desert, but nothing seemed to tire this horse out.

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.

So, when these guys would come down off of a high mountain pass, they would double back, I guess. I don't know what you would call it, zig-zag down an incredibly steep slope. If you had fallen off the side of this thing, I mean you would fall to your death probably. But these horses would zig-zag down in each others' tracks.

I had zero control of my horse for some reason. And, he's coming down this mountain pass. And right where they're breaking, and going into the zig-zag, happened to actually be General Dostum. When our horses came together, he looked at me a little concerned. And I wasn't sure why. But I think he knew why, being more of a horseman than I was. And my horse turned and faced straight down the hill. And I was thinking, "Hmm, this is going to be a pretty quick zig-zag, I think." And he crouched down like a cat, and just sprung off the side of the mountain.

And, I think about three to five horse lengths later, his front feet hit. And, this guy just took off like lightening down the side of a cliff. The only thing that went through my mind was this 1980s movie, "The Man from Snowy River." And so, I was like, "Okay, the guy from Snowy River, he put his head on the back of the horse, and he put his feet up around his neck."

And so, my feet came up, my head goes back. And I have like horsetail on the back of my head. And this guy just tears down the side of this mountain where at the bottom of it is like a gully about six to 12 feet deep, and about four feet wide.

So, he comes to that thing. And of course, I'm thinking, "Well, we're going to crash because we don't have wings or brakes." And he successfully jumped over that. And, I just pulled back on one side of the reins. Because pulling back on both of them didn't do anything. And we ran around in a pretty tight circle until he stopped.

And I guess about 20 minutes later, the General and some of his entourage had finally caught up. And he had stopped, and looked at me kind of strange again, but a little different this time. And, he said something to me. And he started off again on his horse. And he turned around, and he said something again. And I knew that he was pretty serious about what he was saying. And, then we walked off. And, his translator said, "The General just paid you a great compliment." And I was like, "Wow, that's great. What did he say?" And, he said, "Truly, you are the finest horseman he has ever seen."

And I'm thinking, "Great. Let him think that anyway." And then he had stopped and said, "In addition to this, I was the most daring and brave man he had ever known." So, I guess if you get a good horse, he'll make you famous. A cowboy is nothing without his horse.

Let's talk about the objective, about Mazar-e-Sharif. Why was that important? How long did you think it was going to take to get there?

Mark
Capt.

Part of the end state for our team was to advise and assist General Dostum in capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, but specifically to secure the airfield, or one of the airfields, around Mazar-e-Sharif so the U.S. could begin to use it as an air bridge, begin to flow in logistics, more troops and forces, and build up in Afghanistan, then to move on against the Taliban.

And how long did you think it was going to take you to get Mazar?

Mark
Capt.

We anticipated that we'd be in those mountains until spring; again, establishing rapport with the Northern Alliance forces, assessing their capabilities, training them in larger scale operations, and then mounting their spring offensive to capture Mazar-e-Sharif.

Upon meeting General Dostum, 24 hours after we hit the ground, we were calling in our first close air support mission against the Taliban that he pointed out to us. ... General Dostum and his forces, the Uzbeks, were very aggressive in nature. And he wanted to mount an attack the next day. This was fine with the detachment.

... So we began, with General Dostum's forces, to attack. We had some small success the initial days that we did this but it began to build and build. And we began to push our way down out of these mountains. We quickly realized, because of the austere conditions, "Hey, I don't want to live here in the mountains all winter in this situation." These guys are aggressive. And, combined with all the Type A personalities on the detachment, we began to push as hard as we could for Mazar-e-Sharif. ...

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

Mark
Capt.

General 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 General 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 Dostums' 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.

Bill
Sgt.

... 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.

We were living in extremely austere conditions. I mentioned, the first night, we slept in a cattle stable. From then on, we were either living on the open ground in our sleeping bags, in the fall, in the mountains in Afghanistan or we were living in caves wherever we went. ... The food that we had available-- I mean we were only carrying the tasty Army MREs. We each have half a dozen of those. But then the troops that we were there with, they were starving. So we began to share what little food we had with them. And this went a long ways towards establishing rapport. ...

Once you're on the ground, you start engaging the Taliban. Were you getting a sense of, "let's get the ball rolling?"

Mark
Capt.

... Yes, I did receive a message that there was a sense of urgency, that you need to get moving, you need to get going. And, at the time I read this message, I was sitting on a mountaintop at about 11:00 p.m. at night, had just been riding all day. And we've been on the ground for over a week now. And we've watched and fought alongside these Northern Alliance guys through several small unit engagements for almost a week now, watching them lose casualties, seeing how they operate, providing fire support in their attacks.

We had attacked every single day. And now I get this report saying, "Hey, you need to get off your ass and get moving." And, I sat down at that point and wrote out a very detailed, lengthy message that described, again, we are moving by horseback. We are advising a man in how best to employ his horsemen and light infantry in attacking Taliban armor, which includes T-55 tanks, artillery pieces, ZSU23-2s, which is an air defense gun, against mortars, machine guns, RPGs, mines. We are outgunned technologically in that area as far as the Northern Alliance fighters are concerned. The Northern Alliance fighters only have small arms--the AK47s, light machine guns, and RPGs. They do not possess tanks, no heavy weapons, no mortar systems. We were outnumbered, initially. And, we were going against a more modernized enemy on the battlefield. ...

So you wrote your memo and what happened after that?

Mark
Capt.

I received word some days later that it went all the way through the chain of command, through Mr. Rumsfeld, to President Bush.

And, did that change the messages coming out of Washington?

Mark
Capt.

From where I was at, I don't know. I wasn't concerned about the messages coming out of Washington. I was concerned about how we were going to capture Mazar-e-Sharif. ...

Paul
Master Sgt.

... The biggest problem we had wasn't that we couldn't talk to the aircraft or fire support effectively. It was the distances that we were from the battle lines to employ it initially. We were getting good results. It's just that it wasn't as great as they could have had because of the distances involved. As the battles went on, we got closer, and everything got better... .

Mark
Capt.

I needed extra radios so I could further split my 12 men down. They sent me two additional radios. And they sent me two additional personnel. ... So now with the 14, we split the team into four three-man teams, and one two-man command control element, myself and Vince, traveling with General Dostum.

So these teams of three NCOs are out there spread over 60 kilometers of rugged mountainous terrain. And from our first engagements against the Taliban, we sat down. We did after-actions, the lessons learned. What did we do right? What did we do wrong? What can we do better tomorrow? And we immediately realized, "We can win." We can win with these Northern Alliance forces. But we've got to strip the armor and the artillery off the battlefield. And, from the second day on, we split out a three-man team that would always operate on the flank or into the rear of the Taliban positions to prevent them from mounting any type of counter-attack or reinforcements. As we would push forward with the Northern Alliance troops, and push the Taliban back, we would reposition members of my team deeper into the Taliban rear. They got pushed, the first time, about a nine hour horse ride away from my location. And I am a four hour horse ride away from the other six members of my detachment.

Later, as we progressed after the first week or so, we pushed these three NCOs another 12 hour horse ride, by foot and by horse, along some pretty tough mountain terrain to get into the flank and the rear of the Taliban. Those guys got out there and linked up with the Northern Alliance commander and about 300 troops. And they remained out there for almost 12 days, on their own, calling in their own resupply drops, engaging the Taliban in small unit engagements on that side of the gorge.

Those three men had the mission to slam the door shut on the Dar-e-Suff Valley, and prevent any type of reinforcements or counter-attack from coming in, while the rest of the team supported General Dostum's force in pushing forward through the front line defense, and cracking through that, and reducing it however we could.

So we have one team deep to west that's interdicting and preventing any type of reinforcements from coming in. I have another team of three young staff sergeants that are operating in the rear of the Taliban and on their flank. And their mission is to strike the reserve forces of the Taliban front line position, prevent them from mountain any type of local counter-attack. And then the other two elements are up close, supporting the Northern Alliance forces in the assault, and helping them to breach through the defenses.

That's pretty aggressive.

Mark
Capt.

Yes, very aggressive.

Who's decision was that?

Mark
Capt.

Overall, it was my decision. Every ODA is trained to operate as a split detachment, two teams of six. In isolation, we had discussed that we would go down to three teams of four. But there was much gnashing of teeth regarding splitting below a four-man team, just in order to accomplish the mission.

Paul
Master Sgt.

The detachment has been trained to operate in three-man teams. The big reason we couldn't split below that was because of our lack of equipment. We didn't have the radio systems to be able to split beyond that.

Why take such an aggressive approach? Wasn't that more risky?

Mark
Capt.

Yes, it was risky. But we felt comfortable with those risks. We saw how protective General Dostum was of us. And we began to have this trust and rapport developed with certain key commanders that were in the mid-level range of his commanders. These guys were matched up with a team of three of my own NCOs. They were communicating in Arabic or in Russian. And, as our comfort level, working with them, grew, their level of working with us grew. We recognized there were obvious risks. Especially if anyone of us became a casualty. You only had the other two members of the detachment there to help stabilize them immediately. And, it was, as I said, a 12 to 18 hour horse ride away from the nearest Americans that could come in there to help you out. ...

And, you thought just by seeing the situation on the ground that the Taliban was weaker than you thought they were? Why were you able to get information that quickly that you could actually take such an aggressive strategy?

Mark
Capt.

We knew, through General Dostum's intelligence net, the approximate strength of the Taliban units, how they were equipped. We knew when Taliban reinforcements were leaving Mazar-e-Sharif, and counter-attacking or coming down south into the Dar-e-Suff Valley to reinforce the Taliban division there.

Bill
Sgt.

We knew the air that we brought into it was just such a massive thing. ... You walked in there, and you saw the terrain, and you saw these two forces that were fighting each other, you knew that the technology that we'd bring into it, just the airplanes dropping bombs, it was just going to totally weigh it to our side. That, unlike some of the other generals that were in Afghanistan, Dostum was a very aggressive man. And we're aggressive, in that the faster I get from Point A to Point B, this mission is done with. And that kind of added to it. And this guy was right along with us. So everything just meshed together.

There were slow times where you thought, again, that this may take months, again, where the Taliban would truly fight back hard. They'd hit a position. And you'd think, "Well I'm not going to get out of here for a long time." Because I was the guy that split out to the flank and I didn't see what was going on in the front. But these guys that were on the front, on the actual front lines, they just pushed harder, and they'd break the back of those guys.

How'd you do that? How'd you break the back of those guys?

Mark
Capt.

By coordinating the Northern Alliance attacks with close air support. We would bomb the snot out of them in the morning, right up until the ground forces would move into their assault positions, about mid-afternoon, and begin to engage the Taliban with direct fire. Then we'd shift our fire onto the rear of the Taliban positions, to let the ground force, the Northern Alliance units [close in on] the Taliban front line positions.

Once they closed with the Taliban, their technique can best be described as the swarm. They were at the gallop, firing their assault weapons, not accurately, but it was scaring the hell out of the Taliban. And they would simply ride down any Taliban that attempted to resist against them or refused to surrender. And we had a front row seat to this every day. And as they took these objectives, we would bring in the close air support again, with the priority going to the guys that were on the flanks or the rear -- my units were on the flanks or the rear -- to prevent any type of counter-attack, to prevent their withdrawal even, and slice them up. ...

And when you're doing that, when you're killing these Taliban, are you thinking you're avenging September 11th?

Paul
Master Sgt.

... I've been in the military a long time. I thought of it as, "I've been sent here to get rid of these guys. The faster and the better I do this, the sooner I get rid of them, the sooner I go home to my family." Some of it was, "Yeah, these are bad guys that have done bad things to my country. They're going to get bad things in return." But I didn't think of myself as an avenger. I thought of myself as a soldier doing my mission so that I can carry on with my next mission, which is to go home.

Mark
Capt.

No member of the detachment, to the best of my understanding, personally knew anyone in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. I know I personally did not. But we all realized how extremely lucky we were to be among the first military units put on the ground, into Afghanistan, to engage in combat against the enemy. And, in realizing how extremely lucky we were, it was a great feeling of pride, and a feeling of, "I'm not going to fail. There are too many people counting on us in this task."

These guys you're fighting, were they almost exclusively Taliban at this point? Or were they Al Qaeda?

Mark
Capt.

We had some Taliban and Al Qaeda. We had a large number of foreign fighters, they are Al Qaeda. We had a large number of Pakistanis, Saudis, Yemenis, some Iraqis that we fought against, as well as some Chechens.

Do they fight differently, the foreigners?

Mark
Capt.

The Al Qaeda? I would say they fight a little better because they have received some specialized training.

Will
Sgt.

They were less likely to surrender as well. ... The foreign Taliban or the Al Qaeda, what we call the hardliners there, they were not ever prepared to surrender. And so, you would have sort of conscripts from Afghanistan who were forced to fight with the Taliban, who would either turn tail and run, or they would secretly make a pact with General Dostum, once the bombs started coming in, to surrender and join his forces. And they proved to be good. And they pledged their allegiance to us. And they were good guys and loyal to us, and to Dostum. But the hardliners, the Arabs, the Chechens, the Pakistanis, they were there to die and to become martyrs. And they did.

Bill
Sgt.

They were the ones that they gave the vehicles to, also. Like where I was, all the armored vehicles, that was your Al Qaeda. And they would be the ones manning all the big guns. If you had your Afghani Taliban, you'd give him a rifle and that was it. If you had a large piece of machinery, that was your Al Qaeda running all those, which made it even worse, since those are the guys that fought even harder.

Bob
Chief

And the hardliners, again, like Will said, they would escape as the NA forces were going to take a city or a town. They would escape, and dig into the next town or city and be prepared for another attack from the NA forces. ...

In the minds of the military planners, Condoleezza Rice [link] and all these people, they were petrified, they all said to us, of getting bogged down, of having the same thing that happened to the Soviets or the British, or another Vietnam. They wanted boots on the ground. What came across in all of our interviews was, the operative idea was, we gotta be serious. But we've also got to make sure that we're not getting stuck there.

Will
Sgt.

I think the key point in this entire thing is that Special Forces has always been able to do this mission, which is to go in, work with, train, advise, fight alongside of an indigenous force effectively enough to lead them to victory. What we do, in doing that, is we do, we keep the regular Army, which are just our regular soldiers, out of conflict. We let someone take care of their own problems. We help them, we assist them to do that. The key thing here is that we were let, the reins were let loose. And we were allowed to act how we've been trained. We were allowed to be the fighters that we are, free thinking, spontaneous. And we did it. We spread out. We did exactly what we were trained to do. And that was victory. And that is what Special Forces does.

And you think people, lives were saved because of that?

Will
Sgt.

I know lives were saved. I know that, because we never committed a large conventional force to this, not only were lives saved, because we could not have as successfully moved a large force through here. We would have moved a larger force. But it would have been hard. And they would have been able to assault and kill a lot of our guys. It's just hard terrain. It's a harsh environment. But, four- or three-man teams can move quickly, can move by horseback. You can't put a tank on the back of a horse. You can't put helicopters on the back of a horse. But you can a couple of skinny SF guys on the back of horses, and we can take the fight to the enemy.

So, I know that lots of lives were saved. I know that an incredible amount of money was saved in supporting 12 men as opposed to a thousand-man task force of armor, and artillery, and infantry, and aviation assets that would have had to go, and been used to fight these guys.

But what about playing devil's advocate? You know, because there was just small forces on the ground, a lot of guys got away, a lot of the Al Qaeda in particular slipped away. We just didn't have the manpower on the ground to stop them.

Bill
Sgt.

They would have got away anyway. You couldn't have stopped people. We were working on stuff that you couldn't even take an ATV in. So, how could the regular Army have tracked them any faster than what we were doing? It was almost impossible. Then a guy, a Taliban, could just as quickly take off his black robes, walk into a village, you're not going to stop him. Fortunately, with us, a small group of people, you had so few, if any, civilian casualties because we weren't just going through laying waste to villages.

Paul
Master Sgt.

See, I disagree wholeheartedly. I think more of them were caught by the way we did it than if we would've used conventional forces. And the reason is, because we were working with the Afghans, the Afghans were fighting for their own country, they realized that they were fighting for their country, and they would run the country when they were done with it. Not America.

When they went through the village, Afghans know Afghans. They could tell friends. "That guy's a Pakistani." I couldn't tell. So if I was a conventional Army guy going through there, that guy just stands over there like a meek farmer, they'd have gone right by him. An Afghan knew instantly, "Hey, they guy is not from here. He's a bad guy." And they'd go round him up. And they knew that throughout the north anyway.

And the other thing is, like I said, when it's done with, now we're not having to start from ground one, developing a government. The military leaders that fought for their country are the basis for the next government in Afghanistan. And that's good for Afghanistan, and it's good for America.

Mark
Capt.

I can tell you in the North, having 12 and then 14 guys from just this team alone. And I'm talking about just this team, we destroyed several hundred enemy vehicles. We liberated probably 50 or more towns and the six northern provinces, which is hundreds of square miles. We planted thousands of determined Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the north. So those that escaped, they chose wisely in trying to run away. ... We captured several thousand other fighters, foreign Taliban as well as Afghan Taliban. And, hundreds more of these local Afghans defected to the Northern Alliance side. ...

There was some frustration sometimes. Unfortunately, some of them probably did get away. But I know that, to the very best of our ability, and the best of the other abilities of the teams around Mazar-e-Sharif, and other parts of Afghanistan, were doing everything humanly possible to prevent any Al Qaeda from escaping.

One of the things I'm interested in is are the war aims -- the war aims of America, not necessarily the mission that you were given, but the war aims in peoples' minds about, "We're going to get these guys. We're going to get bin Laden and Al Qaeda." Was that always the same as what actually your mission was on the ground, the mission you were given? I mean, ultimately, that was the goal but the objective on the ground was to capture Mazar and to help the Northern Alliance. And were the two goals always given equal weight?

Paul
Master Sgt.

One supported the other.

Mark
Capt.

Yeah.

Paul
Master Sgt.

By getting rid of the Taliban, and capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, it gave us the ability to maneuver throughout the north to look for the bad guys. Without having that ability to maneuver, we wouldn't be able to look for the bad guys. You had to take care of one before you could do the other.

What happens when Mazar actually falls? Where are you guys? You've all been spread around. How did you then link up?

Mark
Capt.

On around the 6th of November, we break through this Taliban defense in the Dar-e-Suff. And we were riding just as hard and as far as we could go everyday in pursuit of the Taliban. And, we kind of leap-frog our little, small detachment elements through the Balkh Valley. And Paul and Mike and Matt end up being taken from the rear, initially held in the reserve, being brought forward under cover of darkness to the very front line position, by truck, that had been captured from the Taliban. And then they mount horses, they ride up into the ridge, onto the ridge. And then they'd walk a ways further, and they find themselves an observation post, and hunker down for the night.

And, this happens on the night of the 8th of November. And on the morning of November 9, they give the Taliban a wakeup call from some close air support. And, for whatever reason, the Taliban had given us the heights on either side of the pass. They had employed a reverse slope defense, meaning they have given up the heights, and they're on the low ground, on the far side of the pass. And Mike and Paul and Matt are looking right down on top of them. And they employed, with some success, a lot of mines in the path, which did cost some Northern Alliance casualties as we pushed through there. This was where we received the largest number of Northern Alliance casualties throughout our time there. They also effectively employed some BM21 multiple rocket launched artillery, three separate salvos in and near that pass, with some success.

Mike
Staff Sgt.

That was their final counter-attack measure was the BM21 barrages. Early in the morning on the 9th, we hit five or six different spots. And they retreated. The Northern Alliance moved up. And the Taliban Al Qaeda did their final counter-attack which was a BM21 strike. And, after that was over with, they pretty much fell from there. And the remaining Taliban Al Qaeda actually retreated to the east to Kunduz.

Mark
Capt.

... General Dostum's forces pushed through the pass there, late in the afternoon. This was kind of a close call there for a little while. We had suffered some casualties. The Northern Alliance fighters are coming back draped over a horse, coming back to the near side with their buddies leading their horses back to the rear. One of my medics and other members of the team helped stabilize a large number of these casualties. And we're seeing these dead Northern Alliance fighters going back, being taken back to their home by their friends. And, so morale is kind of starting to wane there in the pass.

We pushed forward with myself, and Pete, and Chad, and Will, and Steve, one of the Air Force guys. We went forward, three of us on horseback, and the other two on one of the golf carts, one of the John Deere Gators that had been brought in. And we moved up into the pass to see what we could do to help out. ...

It was an incredible sight moving through the pass. As Pete and I rode up there horseback, all these fighters were up in the rocks, taking cover from the initial volley of BM21 artillery that had come in. And these guys saw us coming. And they just walked down to the road. And they lined the road. It was like something out of a Civil War print. These fighters just lined the road for a couple hundred meters. And as Pete and I rode through there on horseback, they just fell in behind us.

And we rode up and met with the local on-scene commander there. And when we got up to that point, the guys that were behind us, they just went screaming off our left flank, and charged through the pass. And we called in Steve, our Air Force attachment, and Paul's team, they called in a couple of more sorties of close air support on the far side to the pass. And this Northern Alliance force went through, and then pushed up to the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif. By now, it's dark, and we're anticipating again another counter-attack. So we are looking to find positions that we can defend from, and call CAS to help us if the Taliban mounts another counter-attack out of the city toward General Dostum's forces.

During the night of 9 November then, Commander Atta, along with Dean's team, pushed through the pass into Mazar-e-Sharif. And then the next morning, we link up with General Dostum, and all members of my team, except for Bill, Andy and Steve, who were still out to the east, we accompany General Dostum into the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif. The streets are just line with cheering crowds of people. And again, we have to revert to the grip-and-grin technique that we had developed from day one, of walking off that helicopter of this is a very uncertain situation. So, we are ready to fight if necessary. But at the same time, we were waving and smiling, and seeing people. ...

We assembled our team in Qala Jangi [west of Mazar-e-Sharif] in the fortress. But as we assembled our team there for the first time and got everybody together, all the local Afghan civilian and military leaders from all factions rallied at Qala Jangi for this big meeting.

If you read the media reports, there were allegedly atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance against 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 three hundred 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 [the fall of] 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 UN 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.

You said earlier that Dostum thought you had a death ray. What can you tell me about that?

Mark
Capt.

Due to the altitude that the aircraft was flying with the laser-guided munitions, when it dropped its ordinance the bomb was falling for a minute and half to two minutes. If you timed it just right, as the laser target designator is engaging and [targeting the] enemy position, you let your Northern Alliance commander take a look through the laser target designator. He sees it going, but he doesn't see the bombs fly into the target. He hears that chirping noise from the laser target designator and then the enemy position explodes. They believe that we have the death ray, and this was a myth that we were willing to perpetuate. Every one of us on our rifles carried a smaller laser. We let the Northern Alliance guys look through our night vision goggles. ... I think Will has summed it up best. This whole situation is like the Flintstones meet the Jetsons. And those guys could not fathom that we have some sort of aiming device that would allow us to hit a target at night on the first round.

Will
Sgt.

I think something that's key in all this is that both Northern Alliance and enemy communications were, for the most part, CB radios. They would be arguing with each other in the heat of battle. The Taliban would be saying, "nanny, nanny, boo, boo" and the Northern Alliance would be saying, "hey, we're coming to get you." They would also tell the Taliban about this death ray. At Kunduz, we were negotiating back and forth to try to get these guys to surrender. They were saying, "We'll surrender, we'll march into your camp, but we want to keep our guns." Dostum finally said, "Put your guns down, take your jackets off, march in here or we're turning the Americans onto you with the death ray." Instantly you could see the guys bend over. They put their guns down, they took their cloaks off and they started marching in, in single file right up into the middle of our perimeter, because they knew that it was over if that death ray was coming out.

Mark, Capt.

This was also perpetuated by the presence of the AC 130 Spectra gunship. They had a female fire support officer that was on the radio. Dostum heard her voice and he brought Mohammed Fazal, who's the former Taliban chief of staff. He's trying to delay this surrender in Kunduz while his forces are attempting to recapture Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum brings Fazal near the radio so that he can hear this female voice. Fazal hears her voice as it's being explained to him, through the translators, that we have the angel of death overhead, from the AC 130 gunship. Dostum explains to him that we have the angel of death overhead and that we possess the death ray. If they don't surrender now all of their troops will burn in hell. Fazal jumped on the radio and his men were surrendering within minutes.

Mark, Capt.

I want to touch briefly on the Afghan way of war. [In their minds] you don't have to destroy all of your opponents. You have to demonstrate to your opponents that you have the force to beat them. The A-teams on the ground combined with technology and the close air support assets could demonstrate that [we had the] force with Northern Alliance to successfully defeat the Taliban. ...

When did you actually leave?

Paul
Master Sgt.

We were given notification of there being aircraft for us and in two hours be on it. They extended it; 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 defence. 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.

Yeah we eh, we were ordered out quite rapidly and without General Dostum's knowledge. He was out of town and we got word that we were to be quickly ex-filled, to brief Mr. Rumsfeld. We ex-filled, but I did not want to go out that way. Four other members of my detachment volunteered to go back in with me. The five of us went back that same night, right back into Mazar-e-Sharif. We linked up with General Dostum the next morning, and began to explain to him that our time with him was over and that it was time for them to carry on, on their own. [They should] continue to work together, all the ethnic factions to keep peace in Mazar-e-Sharif and in the northern provinces.

Bob
Chief Warrant Officer

It almost must be said that, that evening, when we came back we explained it to our commanders about the way we left. They said, by all means, if you need to go back... and let's support him. They were behind us. ...

Vince
Sgt. 1st Class

I think it he was kind of hurt when we first left cause we gave him no warning. We knew that was not the way we should do it. We'd worked with him and he was more than just an advisor. He was our friend and we had developed relationships over that time. So we wanted to go back. He knew we'd leave eventually but I think he was hoping that we'd stay there probably about six months to a year to help them get settled into Mazar-e Sharif, and with the new government.

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 were leaving and 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 it's 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. ...

[General 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. ...

home + on the ground + assessing the campaign + with us or against us? + fighting on two fronts: a chronology
epilogue + discussion + interviews + links & readings + introduction + video + reporter's notebook
producer's chat + tapes & transcripts + press reaction + credits + privacy policy
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi

photo © reuters newmedia inc/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS