on the ground
with us?

Military commanders and soldiers on the ground assess the first months of the campaign in Afghanistan, and find it was a success. Others are not so sure.

Gen. Tommy Franks,
  Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command

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It's always been somewhat entertaining to me to see the views of some of the pundits who have suggested the introduction of large conventional forces in Afghanistan. I think a great many people are aware, and I know you're aware of the fact that for some 10 or 11 years of Soviet experience in Afghanistan, they introduced 625,000 people on the ground, and had 15,000 of them killed and 55,000 of them wounded. So we took that as instructive as a way not to do it.

You've probably seen the long report that Bob Woodward did in the Washington Post. He quotes President Bush as saying, during that initial planning period, that the military was being asked to think in a way that it hadn't thought in the past decade or so: essentially, fight a guerrilla war with conventional means. And that required a change of thinking.

Right. I think the president's observation that this would be an unconventional war was precisely to the point. I think it was an accurate observation, and I think in each of the mini-sessions that I've had with the president since we started this operation, I have seen the same sort of appreciation of the military operations in Afghanistan. I think all of us recognized that there are a variety of ways to either apply force or threaten the application of force. One is cruise missiles. Another is the introduction of large conventional forces. The Soviets tried it, and didn't like it.

Another approach is an unconventional approach, which seeks to leverage operational forces, air-to-ground forces, air support, that sort of kinetic activity by putting people on the ground close enough to observe the targets one would like to destroy. That approach is certainly unconventional at the level at which the operation in Afghanistan moved forward.

What do you mean by that last statement, "at the level at--"

I recall other wars in other places where we have had people on the ground adjust fire, if you will, provided by indirect means, either aircraft or artillery or mortars or whatever. But the scale and the scope of the introduction of Special Forces in this particular effort, and what they were able to do by directing the kinetic work by a great many different types of aero platforms, [is] unprecedented, to my knowledge.

[ED. NOTE: For an opposing analysis, read this commentary by Andrew Bacevich, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University and author of American Empire (forthcoming, Harvard University Press). Bacevich believes that the military operations in Afghanistan suffered because they were not unconventional enough, mirroring too closely U.S. military actions taken over the last two decades]. ...

There was a report [by] Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker about the early days -- that a [unmanned] Predator [aircraft] had Mullah Omar in its sights, and there was some legal problem. That was the story, at least. I'm sure you're familiar with it. Was that the case, and it was their decision not to fire?

Actually, it wasn't the case. No one in this campaign has, quote, "had Mullah Omar in their sights," from day one until now. The processes that we used initially in this campaign are the same processes that we use now, in terms of what we call "high-value targets." I think that the article that you made reference to did the same thing that a great many articles have done; some have been accurate to the hundredth percentile; others have been less accurate.

When there is paucity of accurate information available during any particular war fight -- we have seen that in this one, for very good reason, because as I think most of us have said, some will be overt; some will be covert. The timing of all of it will be almost never be divulged. The tactics, techniques, procedures, approaches -- we haven't talked about those, and we won't. But when one takes dots and tries to form a mosaic from the dots, in a lot of cases, you'll find pieces and parts are truth, but seldom find a full story. So that's the way that I reacted to the article.

We have not had Mullah Omar in our sights since we started this. [Since I've] looked at a great [deal] of the intelligence, and have paid very close attention to Predator feeds -- which is what I think Mr. Hersh's article was relying on, or was reporting, if you will -- at any point in time, it's possible for a half-dozen people to look at these feeds and draw different conclusions. I have no doubt that, on several occasions, people have reported having observed some of these feeds and said, "Aha, this is person number one," or "This is Mullah Omar," and so forth.

I wouldn't debate at all that there were people who thought they saw Mullah Omar. I will say that I am quite familiar with the approach we use to high-value targeting, and I have yet to have Mullah Omar in my sights.

How about bin Laden?

I have yet to have bin Laden in my sights, although I think that all of us believe that his time will come. ...

What was the strategy behind [the Ranger raid at the end of October], and was it effective?

Talking the about the raid toward the end of October, Oct. 18, 19, 20, if my memory serves. There were essentially two of them. ... [One of the raids went into] Mullah Omar's compound. Another of the raids went into what we subsequently called FOB Rhino, Forward Operating Base Rhino. Rhino was subsequently occupied by a Marine formation, which was the Marine formation that moved into and assisted in securing Kandahar.

The rationale behind going with a special operations force raid into what at that time was Objective Rhino was because we needed to understand the capability of that airfield. We wanted to understand how that airfield was defended. So that's why that objective was taken.

The objective in downtown Kandahar was for reasons that you probably have already intuited -- to prove that the coalition forces are in this for the long haul; that we will go anywhere we choose to go; [in] part, an information operation, and in part in order to prove that we will place our forces in the middle of that country and in fact in Mullah Omar's home. So I think the operation was an absolutely outstanding success both for Operating Base Rhino and for Omar's compound in downtown Kandahar. It had the desired effect. ...

What was your assessment of the Tora Bora [operation]?

... I think it was a good operation. Many people have said, "Well, gosh, you know bin Laden got away." I have yet to see anything that proves bin Laden or whomever was there. That's not to say they weren't, but I've not seen proof that they were there. A great many Taliban and Al Qaeda [may have] lost their lives in Tora Bora. Some have said, "You just ran all of them over into Pakistan." At that particular time, our work with President Musharraf and with his forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was also another very positive piece of this operation. In my view, the Pakistanis did a whale of a job supporting our operations, and in fact providing what we would call in military parlance "an amble" along that border, so that these forces were being policed up as they would try to exfiltrate from Tora Bora. ...

Those who would enlarge the story to indicate that there were some operational issues [that] shouldn't have been done, or could have been done differently -- those who would argue that don't have a very great appreciation of the factors of mission and what an enemy force can look like, and what role terrain has to play in that the timing of an operation. Knowing that, at the end of the day this is Afghanistan, and the Afghans wanted to move on this operation, I look at Tora Bora as a favorable operation. ...

Was it a feasible option to place a lot of U.S. troops on the ground? Would it have made sense in Tora Bora, when the Afghans wanted to do it themselves?

... The Afghans themselves wanted to get in to Tora Bora. They wanted to do it very quickly. At that time, our Special Forces troopers were not yet in large numbers, even with those forces that we were providing support to. So rather than taking a decision that said, "Let's take a break for some prolonged period of time and try to introduce large numbers of non-Afghani coalition forces," the determination was made -- I made it, and I think it was a pretty good determination -- to provide support to that operation, and to work with the Pakistanis along the Pakistani border to bring it to conclusion.

[We were] remembering that, sure, at the end of the day, we want to get the leadership of Al Qaeda, of this terrorist organization. But we also want to be sure that the network itself has been destroyed, and we want to be sure that we have not left pockets of Taliban here and there. One of the objectives we've had from the beginning is to move these people around and not permit them to sit to plan to think about the next 9/11 or something else for our country. The Tora Bora operation was a part of that overall campaign that seeks to dislocate, kill and capture both Taliban, at that time, and Al Qaeda. So if I had to do it again, I actually I would do it the same way again. ...

Reuel Gerecht,
  former CIA agent

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We should have had armed forces in Kandahar within a week after we decided to go to war. We could have militarily handled it. It was an open plain to the south. You could establish a beachhead there, as we did fairly simply. Helicopter, gun ships, and aircraft should have, could have, guaranteed security. You could have reigned the town. The objective was to bring down the Taliban as quickly as possible, to stop Mullah Omar from getting out, and to find as many people as possible, and kill as many people as possible, within the Taliban and Al Qaeda's inner circles. As we've seen, a lot of the people have been able to flee, either into Pakistan, Kashmir, or Iran. There's no guarantee that we could have stopped that. But if we'd had more American armed forces on the ground ... we could have caught more people and perhaps, who knows, have caught the major fish or killed him.

Balancing that was part of the concern that you want to let the Afghans do it themselves, or appear to be doing it themselves.

No, I think the real concern with the U.S military is that they were trying to keep the number of armed forces down and make it a Special Forces campaign. Again, tactically one can understand why they did that. Strategically I think it's a bad idea. I think that there should have been more forces engaged earlier, and you would have had a better chance of catching, or killing, the people that we wanted.

But that would have meant more U.S. casualties.

Sure. I think would have meant more U.S. casualties.

And, so, playing the devil's advocate, it worked. Al Qaeda was dismantled, so we hear, in Afghanistan.

Casualties should not in any way have deterred us. That part of the problem with bin Laden isn't really what this is about, and what fighting bin Ladenism is about. It is reversing the perception in the Middle East, that bin Laden underscored with great eloquence, that since a bombing in Beirut in 1983, the United States has been running. It's scared to fight, scared to fight in Beirut, scared to fight in Mogadishu, and scared of fighting in Iraq. U.S. government needs to ensure that under all circumstances, that perception is eliminated. One of the ways you do that, the most effective way you do that, is to strengthen, to demonstrate that we will put our armed forces in harm's way. ...

Was that perception correct?

Oh yes. I think bin Laden's analysis of U.S. resolve was correct. We ran.

Lt. Col. David Fox
  U.S. Special Forces Battalion Commander

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I believe initially we had the right mix on the ground, because you still have the Afghan population leery of another Soviet occupation. If you put large amounts of U.S. troops on the ground at that time, the Afghan people may have taken it as, "OK, here they come. They're going to occupy. They're going to take control."

So I believe that the right mix was on the ground for the job at the time. If there were more soldiers on the ground, could of some of those escapes [of Taliban leaders at the fall of Kandahar] been prevented? Probably. But today there is still no real hard evidence of how many senior Taliban were there -- if any. So I don't know if we never had any hard evidence, if we'd have brought more troops in, what we'd have actually accomplished.

But I think the right mix was on the ground at that time. What you have is actually the Afghans liberating their country with the assistance of a small U.S. element, versus the a large American force on the ground, occupying all the major cities, and making it look an awful lot like the Soviet occupation.

U.S. Special Forces ODA 595
  ODA 595 fought with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan.

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In the minds of the military planners, Condoleezza Rice 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've got to 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 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. 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.):

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 -- 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 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.):


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.

Col. John Mulholland
  Commander, 5th Special Forces Group

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[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 men of a cultural 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.

Gen. Tommy Franks
  Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command

What lessons can we take from this war?

... Some enduring lessons I think we've learned out of Afghanistan is that every country that we, the United States of America, ever engage in warfare, will not be Afghanistan. We will not go from one Afghanistan to another Afghanistan for the same reasons I talked a minute ago -- the operational considerations, variables of terrain, time and all that. There is also a set of strategic considerations -- form of governance, for example. In one of these countries, their leadership [might be] supportive of our efforts, but has no capacity to control the internal factors in his own country. Well, if so, then that means that that country won't be just like Afghanistan.

If you come then from that strategic level view, and you consider what operational lessons have we learned, I think one of the key ones we've learned has to do with balance. I think that the military capacity we have in this country is incredible -- probably the best military capacity any country has ever had in history -- the best air forces, the best naval forces, the best land forces, the best special operations forces.

What happens as you look from one country or one situation to the next, the way one balances how much land force, how much air force, how much naval force will change. What we learned in Afghanistan was that Afghanistan didn't look like Iraq 11 years ago. In any other piece of geography that we're likely to go into, we will learn that every lesson will not apply. But we have picked up some enduring lessons.

One of the enduring lessons is that precision munitions have a future. We have learned that precision munitions go precisely where they're targeted to go. We've learned that the introduction of human beings in the equation, who can cause the precision munitions to go precisely where they should go, pays a huge dividend. That's this business of the joint team, between our tremendous air power and our tremendous special operating forces power.

So we've learned that sort of thing. We have learned the need to be flexible or to have flexible forces, agile forces, who can move quickly, secure themselves when they arrive in a location, assess the needs of a given mission and move to that mission. We have learned of the importance of being able to work with local populations. We have learned that in Afghanistan, and it'll apply, I predict, anywhere we conduct military operations in the future.

So I think those are some of the enduring lessons. We've learned that the business of unmanned aerial platforms is very, very powerful. We have relearned the importance of non-stop, 100 percent secure communications, all the time.

I think each of the services -- not through me, but each of the services involved in this operation in Afghanistan has learned its own lesson. The Air Force has formed some opinions about directions they may want to move in the future; the Army, the same; the naval forces the same. Some of the naval activity that we've seen in the operation in Afghanistan [were] unbelievable -- the use of an aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk, as a staging platform for special operating forces, fully supported by the United States Navy. [That was a] very, very powerful factor, very important to us at that point in time.

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