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interview: colonel john mulholland

What is this 5th Special Forces Group, and what is your role within it?

I'm a commander of the Special Forces Group. There are five active duty Special Forces Groups in the United States Army, two from the reserve component. We occupy a portion of the Army Special Operations community. Within that community, the Special Forces Group has among its missions the conduct of unconventional warfare operations. It was an organization founded in 1952 to do just that, in support of U.S. effort against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact. ...

[After September 11, at what stage did it start filtering down to you that the Special Forces might be involved in the military response to the terrorist attacks?]

Almost immediately. Certainly by the 12th we were in constant conversation with my operational headquarters down in Tampa. ... By the 13th a decision had been made that we would stand up what's called a Joint Special Operations Task Force headquarters [and that] I'd be responsible for conducting unconventional warfare operations in the region. By that time it had become pretty clear Al Qaeda was involved, and of course, [given] the sanctuary that they enjoyed from the Taliban in Afghanistan you didn't have to be Napoleon to figure out that Afghanistan was going to be a likely place for us to go. ...

Colonel John Mulholland, Special Operations Commander, Afghanistan.
Mulholland, the commander of the 5th Special Forces Group, was in charge of all special operations in Afghanistan last year. As the head of Task Force Dagger, he reported directly to General Tommy Franks, the commander in chief of the Central Command.

What's an A-team? And what steps did you take to get them all ready to fight in Afghanistan?

The Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, the famous A-team, is the fundamental fighting unit of Special Forces. It is a 12-man organization comprised of a captain, the second in command, who is a Special Forces warrant officer who has come up from the NCO ranks, and a master sergeant team sergeant, and then nine remaining NCOs who represent a multiplicity of skill sets: weapons, demolitions, medical, communications, intelligence, engineering, all those skill sets are contained within [each team]. There's two of each on a team; it is designed from the very beginning to operate in two six-man elements, if necessary, to be a force multiplier in a battlefield so they can maintain the same capabilities in smaller elements. That goes to its classic roots as an unconventional warfare element originally designed to work with resistance elements during the Cold War. ...

There's an impression I get that [some people think that] these were very remote, close airstrike-only fights.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  These were very much close combat infantry fights.

Isolation is a classic Special Forces technique for mission preparation, where the detachment is completely isolated from the outside world, put into a planning environment, and given all their mission planning data. They conduct all their mission planning and rehearsals prior to infiltration to their area of operations. That is done by design, so that there are no distracters. ... [Then] they do a brief back to the commander ... to convince me that they are prepared to execute their mission, and upon approval of that, they are moved into a staging area for infiltration. So we did initiate on our own, before being told to do so, just because it seemed prudent, the initial isolation here at Fort Campbell for the first teams, in anticipation of a requirement to put them into the mission planning process, so that should the word come--"let's go"--I had at least a handful of teams ready to go at a moment's notice ...

As the planning was going on, what were your concerns about what might go wrong?

Well, Afghanistan was new to the 5th Group as an area of operations. Afghanistan was not an area that the United States had focused on in a great many years, since the end of the Soviet era there after they pulled out in the end of the 80s. So, one, we did not have any experience in the country itself. I was concerned about our lack of precise cultural and tribal knowledge of Afghanistan because that is a hallmark of what we do. Our soldiers spend a great deal of time learning the language and culture and background of the people they will work with to better understand them, and in order to work successfully with them to achieve both our objectives as well as our counterparts' objectives. We did not have that with Afghanistan because it was a relatively new area. ... We did not have a great deal of precise information of who the various factions were, so my concern at that time from a functional operations perspective was "Who can educate me? Who can educate my men? Where can we get the information to get us best informed of what the situation in country is and who the best people to operate with would be?" I would say those are probably my dominant concerns, from the Afghan perspective.

Operationally it was coming to grips with the fact I was going to be [heading] a joint headquarters [which] means U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, other services working together jointly, which was the first time I would have done that, [so I was] coming to grips with who those other players are going to be and how we were going to work together and make it all come together ...

When the decision was made to place A-teams in with different leaders, how much information did you actually have, bearing in mind the concerns you had before about these leaders and what your teams would be doing there?

I was happy to hear [the decision to send the A-teams in] because from our assessment that seemed to be the most reasonable way to proceed in a country like Afghanistan. If there was one thing we learned in a very compressed course of study of Afghanistan, it was that this was a people who ... frequently fight amongst themselves, and were somewhat springloaded to band together and fight against an external invader. It seemed that the unconventional warfare methodology was a logical solution ... .

We did work to get a better grip on who the various players were on the ground, and some of the prime personalities came to light very quickly, such as Fahim Khan, the heir apparent to [Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud General who had been assassinated on September 9,] Ismail Khan operating outside Herat, and others ... but by the time we put teams on the ground there was still a great deal of uncertainty ... because we did not know from first hand experience what we were dealing with.

That very much was quickly put aside when the teams did an extraordinary job of establishing rapport and building confidence with their counterparts, and within hours, in some cases, were [undertaking] combat operations with their counterparts on the ground. That is no mean feat, to land in alien country in the middle of the night, meet people from another culture that you've never encountered before and within hours fight side by side and conduct combat operations. That is a testament to the kind of men that we've got here, and the fact that they're able to take their cultural skills they have developed for other countries and very quickly apply the same skills to a country they've never dealt with before. ... But certainly in those early days there was a great deal of concern and worry as we put people on the ground of just what were we putting them into. ...

When you put the teams into the north, what were your orders to them, beyond, "Make sure this guy is reliable?" What were the military objectives? And how long did you think those military objectives would take to accomplish?

... The objectives that we were certainly looking for early on were the same ones that General Franks had outlined, and that was to try to obtain some airfields, because of his overriding concern both for the Task Force situation but also for the humanitarian situation. There was a great deal of concern back then about winter coming and tens of thousands of Afghanis starving to death, because 3, almost 4, years of drought plus the 23 years of war had certainly devastated the agriculture in the country ...

How are you keeping in touch with what your men are doing? What's the command and control situation there?

... We had daily communications with them primarily through satellite communications. ... I maintained situational awareness of what the teams were doing and kept abreast of their successes. I kept them informed of what kind of support they were going to be able to receive day by day in terms of air power, or what have you....

Was there a point when you realized that things are really happening a lot faster than you imagined? Are you advising a higher chain of command that, "Look, the situation is changing very rapidly and we've got to start making plans for what happens next?"

I'd be a liar if I told you that I ever offered that kind of advice primarily because I think it was self-evident. We had daily interaction with my higher headquarters. Every day we did video teleconferencing that allowed us to very clearly outline the situation on the ground, good and bad. So the changes that we have seen on the battlefield, the direction it was going was almost immediately evident to the senior leadership as well.

In terms on what you are seeing on the battleground, certainly in the central highlands there of the Hindu Kush, the initial fights had been very sharp. Very difficult, very close combat type of fighting. There were times when we were in danger of having some of our teams overrun by Taliban counterattacks. There's an impression I get that [some people think that] these were very remote, close airstrike-only fights. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These were very much close combat infantry fights. And cavalry fights ... . Over in Bagram airfield ... my soldiers were under fire from Taliban, Al Qaeda positions. ...

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

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

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

Do you remember roughly when Hamid Karzai first came on your radar screen?

It would have been maybe early November, mid-November, when his name appeared. It was told to us, "We think we have a Pashtun leader, a man of character and great reputation." ... It required a lot of courage to stand up among the Pashtun ethnic group in the south and be a leader of the Pashtun people. We began making our plans to put an A-Team with him to begin initial operations in the south. Of course, the thing that was different with him from his contemporary opposition group leaders was that he did not share a lot of the background of a war fighter, as a warlord, as people use that term. Because he did not have that background, he was a different kind of animal, a different kind of leader that we are going to see emerge in the south. ...

These opposition group leaders have capability associated with them. They have forces loyal to them. It gives them the ability to influence things politically and militarily. Karzai did not [have that] in that traditional Afghan sense. What he brought was a different kind of power -- of example -- because he was willing to go in and lead people without that.

As he came in with not many soldiers -- to his credit, to his force -- it was very much an iffy thing of how long he could survive. It was clear to us that the Taliban recognized him as a different kind of threat: Here's one of their own, a Pashtun, coming right into the heart of the Taliban homeland, different than traditional adversaries like the Tajiks or the Uzbeks. There [you already have] an ethnic history that colors the Taliban/inter-Taliban effort as well. Here's one of their own. ...

As he entered into the fray, the Pashtun tribes in the area rallied to him and developed this expanding force that gave them the additional capability and success in the battlefield. After being challenged significantly maybe twice in the battlefield, [they were] never significantly militarily challenged again by the Taliban.

Of course, our capabilities with him had a lot to do with that. But he enjoyed that moral advantage by being the kind of person he was, and not having the sort of baggage that some of the other leaders had. I think [that he] was recognized by a lot of the Pashtuns as having that moral advantage. That made him a significant player; politically, of course, more than anything, but militarily as well.

How significant was the battle of Tarin Kowt?

I think pivotal for the [entire operation in the] south, because Karzai, with his small band supported by the A-team, successfully takes [Tarin Kowt]. ... The Taliban really were very much concerned about him, because [they mounted] a strong counterattack to try and push him out, and of course, ideally, to eliminate him as a threat. ... [After that defeat], the Taliban make some decision -- I can't speak for that, of course -- but they pretty much abandoned their efforts to meaningfully go after Karzai.

There was still more fighting to be done. By this time, we have also got a force on the ground with another Pashtun leader who is now southeast of Kandahar. So we are trying to come in from two different directions. But I think the Taliban make a decision, or come to a realization [of what] this is going to be militarily, after the pounding in the north and the losses in the north. ... Ismail Khan has occupied Herat,the Air Force is closing on Kandahar, and every Taliban effort to turn the tide is met with dismal defeat; no other way to put it. They are decisively defeated on the battlefield. ...

What was your understanding of what was going on the ground [in late November?]

We were very aware of the Bonn Conference and what's going on there. I was requesting and receiving updates on what was happening politically when they were available. ... It was really a political battle every bit as much as a military one ... Of course, Karzai emerges as one of the candidates to be this leader. ...

Operationally, we are still fighting and moving south towards Kandahar. Despite that, there is still resistance as they move down. The previous day, they had a fairly sharp engagement [that] required a team to take an assault machine gun position and reduce it, and some other events as they move down. The next day, the fighting continued. We had the [friendly fire] incident.

That obviously was the worst day of the war for us, for me and for all of our 5th Group, where we lost three soldiers and many Afghan counterparts. [We] basically lost the entire A-team to wounds. ... I am so proud of the staff I had there, Air Force, Army, because nothing else did stop. We put on other operations throughout the rest of the country. Those things continued while we dealt with this crisis, and they did an incredible job of doing that; it doesn't always happen. ... Colonel Fox and his guys just gave heroic work at dealing with the situation, maintaining their tactical posture, so all the U.S. forces there really came together and did great work at helping to secure the area. Of course, Karzai was wounded there, and an Afghan near him decapitated; a very close call for [Karzai]. ...

I'm very much aware that in the scope of combat operations across our country's history losing three guys, 12 guys, essentially -- the magnitude is absolutely minimal. [In our past military history, we] absolutely lost thousands of Americans in one day. But for us, it was a huge event, because we had been very successful as far as accomplishing our missions without losing any of our soldiers. And it wasn't because we were risk-averse; it was because we hopefully had done a very good job of planning, and the teams on the ground were very proficient. [By] the grace of God, on this day, the reason changed. So it made an impact on us. But obviously, in the end, you continue on. So we did. ...

[When did Tora Bora emerge as an operational focus?]

After the fall of Kandahar, Tora Bora emerged very quickly on the radar screen, at least from my headquarters, as there was the potential for Al Qaeda presence and possibly other personnel could be hiding. One of the main questions early on was how these forces could actually muster to go into this massive mountainous area, to really go after and seal this area, search it in detail and prosecute an operation up there.

There has been a lot of discussion since about [whether] American forces [should have been on the ground in Tora Bora]. I would be a liar if I didn't say that certainly ... [with] American forces on the ground, we would have had a more conventionally confident force to do conventional search, seizure, isolate, cordon and search operations. But that search force wasn't available yet, and there was great impetus to do something to move up into these mountains. So we were asked to supply an A-team up in there to assist with [Afghan forces -- 2,000 or 3,000 totally, as I remember] you could muster to go up there and take on any Al Qaeda forces who we knew were there. ... Our function was to work with [anti-Taliban Afghan] forces and increase their capability as much as possible to move into the mountains, and then re-apply air power up there to destroy these caves and to kill as many Al Qaedas possible. Al Qaedas wasn't interested in surrendering, by and large.

It would have been a difficult task for any military to go up in these mountains, search them out and take prisoners. This is incredible terrain, incredible elevations, and truthfully, very difficult with the force available to decisively search every nook and cranny, because there are no shortages of caves in Afghanistan. They probably number in the hundreds of thousands, if not 50 million. They just seem [to be] everywhere, and [they are] natural granite, not man-made. ...

[Did you believe bin Laden was in the caves?]

... It was as good a place for him to be as anywhere. It had ... access to a cross-border sanctuary of Pakistan ... very defendable terrain, known strongholds within the framework of the mountains. So in terms of an analytical perspective, certainly it met the criteria for a place he could likely be. Kandahar [was] no longer available to him. Whether or not he was there or not, I truly never had the level of intelligence to say he was or wasn't. But I think it was a reasonable expectation that it was a place he could be, and therefore we would prosecute an operation to try to determine whether he was there or not. ...

[What's your assessment of how the Special Forces performed in Afghanistan?]

We put these small groups of highly trained, very dedicated professional unconventional warriors, who had never studied or who were not particularly conversant with Afghanistan affairs or issues, applied the skills and the experience they accumulate over the years of doing this kind of war throughout the region, and on extremely short notice went to an alien country, infiltrated into incredibly hazardous and unknown situations to develop relationships with ethnic groups and culture and language they had not studied before and established an incredible rapport with these warriors -- and they are warriors, I mean, they recognized each other as that. I think that helped cement their relationship. Afghans pride themselves as a warrior people and they saw in their American counterparts another warrior people.

[Special Forces] are surely capable of running classic tactical operations that people are familiar with -- raids or other things -- but we are truthfully also a great political weapon by virtue of our ability to work with and imbed ourselves with a foreign culture, a foreign people, understand them, work with them to achieve a common endstate and bring down enemy regimes. We can offer a scale of achievement that an adversary has to take very seriously, because we are not talking about small objectives, we are talking about the ability to undermine an adversary's entire infrastructure or country. ...

I would like to think that we set the stage for changing to a friendly regime, a friendly government which allows us to continue to prosecute the war in Afghanistan and other places. It benefits the people of Afghanistan and hopefully gives them some long deserved peace and a stable environment to develop themselves again...

... I think one of the real compliments that has got to be paid in this fight is maybe this marks a real change of thinking ... Our government, our military advisors have been accused of being very lock-step and not very creative in its thinking. Well, the capability, the arrow they chose to pull from the quiver this time was the unconventional one. ... I'm proud of the effort my guys did in executing the task assigned to them, but surely recognition has got to be acknowledged to the leadership that looked at the range of capabilities the United States has and says, "OK, this time it's going to be this arrow." I think that says a lot about our establishment, the willingness to look at all options and apply the one that made the most sense.

The mission was to try to destroy and eliminate the Al Qaeda presence there, and capture Osama bin Laden or any of his senior deputies that were there. We certainly did the former with the Al Qaeda fighters up there. We knew it would be a hard fight. Everywhere we had encountered ... the Taliban, they tended to recognize when the day was done; they would either surrender or make deals. The Al-Qaeda would fight pretty much to the death or look for avenues to escape to fight another day. We knew it would be a hard fight up there, no question about that. And it was. They fought very hard, until we killed them. ...

If terms of the mission were to try and go find and show the world that we had captured and killed Osama bin Laden -- even though we didn't do that -- that's a very difficult task. Some folks underestimated how difficult the task is to find somebody in his own backyard. ... At any rate ...we certainly accomplished a significant proportion of the mission which was to go up there and destroy Al Qaeda in his backyard, in his stronghold.

Was it perfect? No, it wasn't perfect. ... In hindsight maybe would we have liked to have done more? Absolutely, we would like to walk out of the mountains with bin Laden and his cronies in hand, certainly, but it didn't happen. I think it's a mistake for people to cast too glaring an indictment of that operation not understanding fully the context of what was going on with the battlefield at the time, what was available, and the urgency of when people wanted to see things happen.

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