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