on the ground
with us?

photo of fox
interview: lt. col. david fox

What is your job?

I am the battalion commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Special Forces Group, located here at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

How many battalion commanders are there?

In the 5th Special Forces Group, there are three; total, there are 15 special forces battalion commanders.

What does that job entail?

I'm pretty much responsible for everything. I'm responsible for the health, welfare, the tactical planning, the implementation and the execution of a Special Forces battalion as it gets itself ready and ultimately conducts combat operations wherever the national command authority chooses to send us.

So what is an A-team?

[An Operational Detachment Alpha, ODA, or] A-team is the heart and soul of Special Forces. That is 12 highly trained soldiers -- primarily 10 non-commissioned officers, a warrant officer and a captain. There are six different [military occupational specialisties]. We have a weapons sergeant, an intelligence sergeant, a medical sergeant, a communications sergeant and an engineer sergeant. Then you have the officer, which is what we call an "18-Alpha."

After the battle at Tarin Kowt, when it became clear that Hamid Karzai would play an important role in the future Afghanistan government, Fox was sent in to supervise the Special Forces A-team that was fighting with Karzai north of Kandahar.

How old would that officer typically be?

The officer is actually the youngest guy on the detachment. Of the 12 men, he's probably between 25 and 27. The average age of an ODA is in the low to mid-30s, 33 to 35 years old. So they are a senior group of individuals, have a tremendous amount of experience, have conducted a number of deployments within the theatre.

We didn't have any mechanized vehicles -- no tanks, no armor, no nothing. We had Toyota pick-ups, Subaru taxis, and Toyota and Nissan vans. We've got this ragtag element, and we are headed south.

I like to say that they're the tip of the spear. You have this huge support structure behind every A-team that goes out. But the guys that are on the ground make things happen. They are the individuals that build the rapport. They are the guys that are the tactical experts. They organize the indigenous force, if you will, and prepare them for combat. They bring in a tremendous amount of skills, experience and maturity. That's why I call them the heart and soul -- they're the guys that are making things happen. ...

Tell us when you first started getting involved with the campaign in Afghanistan.

... Almost from the beginning, we were starting to receive information as to what was going to happen in Afghanistan, what was going on inside the country. We were fully aware of when the first teams actually entered the country. So you can basically say from the end of September -- I wouldn't say [we were] preparing yet -- but we were maintaining our situational awareness and keeping up to date on what activities were going on in the country. It was probably about mid-October when [it was decided] that my battalion would then move into Afghanistan at the conclusion of the exercise [we were conducting in Jordan].

What did that mean for you? Did you go right there?

At the completion of the exercise, we were out in the middle of the desert, I mean, what we call "bare base." We're living in tents out in the middle of the desert. So we packed everything up and we moved to the nearest airfield that was a C5-C17 -- Air Force cargo aircraft capable. We moved there and basically waited. On or about the first week or second week in November, I am notified to take a small command element of approximately 10 folks, move to K2 and then get further orders for follow-on missions into Afghanistan.

What's K2?

K2 is where the Special Forces were set up in Uzbekistan, the air base.

When did you first get more specific instructions about what you would be doing when you went to Afghanistan? What were they?

Dates are all blurred, but we're talking right around the second week to the third week in November. It's before Thanksgiving. I'm told that my element is going to link up with Hamid Karzai. My basic orders were to link up with Hamid Karzai, become his military adviser, and assist him in seizing Kandahar. The overall intent was to gain Pashtun support for the interim government.

So at that point Karzai already had team 574 with him?

Yes, he had ODA 574 with him. They had been on the ground about four to five days when I received my first instructions.

When you first heard the name Hamid Karzai, had you ever heard of him before?

No idea who he was, absolutely no idea. Didn't realize that he was going to become the chairman of the country, and had no idea at the time that there was a lot of maneuvering going on behind the scenes to make sure that he was the man that was going to lead Afghanistan.

When they told you who you were going to meet up with, did you get a big dossier about him?

Not much, not much. A couple of photographs, a little bit about his educational background. I think he speaks about three or four languages. He's got family in the States. He's made numerous trips to the States. But the truth of the matter [is, we] didn't receive a lot of information, not a lot of background. I had a good photograph of him, so I could identify him in the dark, but other than that, not much. ...

We talked to Captain Amerine about the battle of Tarin Kowt. Presumably, you were monitoring in another country. How decisive was that battle there?

I believe that was actually probably the key battle, other than seizing Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. If the Taliban had been successful in destroying the small support base that Karzai had in the south or pushing Karzai out of the south, then I don't believe that there would be any way that he had gained enough people, enough soldiers to take the city of Kandahar. To put it another way, I don't think the Taliban would have taken him as a credible threat. So I believe the battle for Tarin Kowt in that particular engagement was actually the crucial point, and probably the turning of the south in favor of Karzai.

Where were you during that battle?

I was still in planning when that entire battle occurred.

How soon after that battle did you go in?

I want to say about a week, because we infilled in to Tarin Kowt right after Thanksgiving. So would have been Nov. 28 at about 2:30 in the morning. That was my first opportunity to meet Captain Amerine and ODA 574.

What was your infill like?

It was interesting. We had boarded the helicopters in Pakistan and flew in backs of MH-53s for approximately a six-hour flight, midair refuelling. We were taking occasional ground fire that wasn't very accurate, but [we're still taking it, and] wondering, "OK, is the link-up party going to be there? Is there going to be anybody on the landing zone?" ... I was very concerned that night that there would be someone on the landing zone, because I only had three guys, and not much of a force [with me]. So I was a bit nervous that night when we flew in.

Were they there?

Everybody was there. [We] flew in what they call brownout conditions, because of the desert environment. The rotor wash of the helicopters about 10 to 15 feet off the ground raises such a cloud of dust that you can't see your hand in front of your face. So we're sitting there. The helicopter hits the landing zone. The crew chief points "Go." We go out into this cloud of dust that you can see absolutely nothing -- not a thing. So we moved. We had a link-up point and knew where ODA 574 was supposed to be, but couldn't see it -- could not see a thing.

We moved about 300 meters to try to get out of this dust cloud. We stopped and waited for that cloud to dissipate. We were scanning with our night vision devices. I look over my right shoulder. I see a beat-up pick-up truck and what was obviously four Americans sitting in the back of it. My breathing relaxed and my heartbeat slowed down, because I knew we'd made link-up.

What did they look like? Were they clean-shaven or--

Oh, no. No, they weren't clean-shaven. One of the things that you need to understand about Afghan culture is that the growing of a beard is a sign of maturity. It means that if you can grow a beard, you can participate in the decision-making process. It was essential that the Afghans in the different councils in the different villages could see that we were mature enough, and we could participate in any decisions or upcoming decisions on any future battles.

So you merged with ODA 574 and Captain Amerine. Up until then, they'd been pretty much doing their own thing with Karzai, a small group. What happened then? How did you divide up, and what was your responsibility? What was theirs? How did it work?

When we went in, my idea was to free up ODA 574, because at that time, Captain Amerine and his team sergeant, Jeff Davis, were basically doing everything. As I'd said before, Karzai really didn't have much of a force. So when you take the team sergeant and the team leader away from the attachment and working with Karzai, that just takes away from the time he can devote to organizing and prepping the detachment for future missions.

So my idea was to go in there and step in to free up Captain Amerine. I would go in there and become Karzai's military adviser, which would allow the ODA in total to work with the indigenous forces that Karzai had on the ground.

What is referred to as the "C team?"

We have an ODA, an A-team -- that's the 12-man Special Forces A-team. We have a B team, which is a company headquarters, commanded by a major. And we have the C teams, which are the battalion commanders, commanded by a lieutenant colonel.

If the A-teams were the heart and soul of the Special Forces, what is the C team?

I am a logistics provider. I bring a little more experience. I bring a planning staff. I have access to equipment and personnel that I can designate or augment a particular mission or an upcoming mission that maybe is potentially coming down the road.

You have command responsibility?


When did you first meet Hamid Karzai?

I met Hamid Karzai the following morning the morning of Nov. 29. We were in [a small] village. He was inside a mud-walled compound, inside a mud hut.

The first time I saw him, immediately I identified him from his picture. He spoke perfect English, probably spoke it better than about 50 percent of the guys with my element. ... The thing I remember is I immediately took a liking to him. He was very easy to talk to, very friendly. But the other thing I noticed was his two satellite telephones, and he was constantly giving interviews. When I walked in there, as a matter of fact, he was giving an interview to some news agency over the phone. He sat me down and we drank tea. Then we started our conversations about what we could do for the south -- what his goals and objectives were for the south.

Part of my intent was also that I wanted to make sure that he and his commanders were involved in all the decisions that were made. I didn't want this to be an American-only operation. I wanted him involved, and make sure that he understood clearly what I thought were the best ways to accomplish his objectives in the south.

He was not a military man.

Right. If he had any [experience], I never saw it. He had very little military experience. So as I said before, my key task was to become his military adviser and advise him on all military matters.

Was Kandahar the next big step?

By the time I had arrived, Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen, and then it was a domino effect. Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen and within a few days the Northern Alliance had pushed to Kabul and the airfield had also been seized. So the north was starting to come along. In the south there had been no progress at all. Kandahar was the next big step to me, because that was the center for the Taliban. The Taliban had gotten its start in the south, and Kandahar was the epicenter. That was where [Mullah] Omar had his headquarters. At the time, he was working in the governor's mansion, and he also had a home just on the outskirts of Kandahar. So I knew that Kandahar had to fall, if there was going to be any peace in the south.

At the time, no leader emerged in the south. That's when Karzai's name started coming to the forefront, as [a] leader in the south. So very little had gone on. All of the soldiers of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan military forces are all in the north. There was nothing in the south. When I arrived on Nov. 28, Karzai had approximately 100 to 150 men. Everybody else was up north. All of the mujahedeen were fighting with the Northern Alliance or were fighting with the Taliban. So there was very little as far as friendly forces in the south. Nothing had been going on.

When I had linked up with Karzai on Nov. 28, about two days prior, Gul Agha Sherzai had crossed from Pakistan into southern Afghanistan. So basically what was happening was you had Karzai's forces moving in to Kandahar from the north and you had Sherzai's force moving in from the south. ...

Were you aware of how important Karzai was?

Within 24 hours, after listening to him and then the message traffic I was receiving from up north, I knew that he had to be protected at all costs, because he was the future of Afghanistan. Not everyone, but the United States and the international community at that time ... was posturing itself to support Karzai.

When the Bonn accords started, that's when it really became apparent that he was the man. He is the guy that's going to lead Afghanistan in the future. So that's when he took on a completely different amount of significance, in that he had to be protected at all costs. An implied task turned out to be to make sure I was providing security for him, and also while we were fighting the battle south.

Tell the story of when he addressed the Bonn convention.

We'd been in Tarin Kowt for about three or four days. My concern was that the Taliban and Kandahar would not take Karzai and his forces seriously if we did not start moving south. He was continually negotiating with the Taliban for surrender. But I told him, "Unless we move south to prove that you have a credible force and prove to the Taliban that you are willing to confront them, the surrender negotiations are not going to go. They're just going to stall."

So I walked into the building that he was staying in. We were getting ready to go, getting ready to move south. The phone rings, and it's somebody from Bonn. He picks it up and he gives his speech to the members of the Bonn accords. The speech lasts for five or six minutes. I'm looking at my watch, and I'm going, "We got to go, we got to go, we got to go south." ...

He's on the phone and he's giving this speech, because I think at the time, he had been nominated. He had not been approved, but he had been nominated. So he was briefing or providing his insights, his intent; if he were selected to be chairman of Afghanistan, he would lead the country of Afghanistan into the future.

Juggling all these things at once?

Juggling all these things at once. What you got to realize, he is what we call the S1 to the S6. He was the personnel officer, the intelligence officer, the operations officer, the logistics officer, the future plans officer, and the communications officer for his element. He had some minor leaders, but he was doing everything, and I don't know [how] he did it.

He was giving interviews, speeches, working with his commanders, working with the Americans. He was working on about three or four hours sleep a night. He would get up fresh in the mornings and begin, ready to start the day again. It just amazes me today how he was able to do all those things.

Did you talk to him about what was motivating him?

We had a number of conversations. One of the conversations I remember is that, right after he was nominated, he was asked by [a] news organization, "Now that you've been nominated to be the chairman of Afghanistan, and you're a Pashtun, how would that affect your ability to govern the country?"

I remember him saying this like it was yesterday. He says, "I am not a Pashtun man. I am an Afghan man." I believe after our conversations that he sincerely wants to improve the life of the average Afghan. He wants the average Afghan to be able to send his children to school, for the individual to have to have a job to provide the basic necessities for himself and his family.

He is very sincere in that he wants to improve their lot in life, and he understands this is Afghanistan's best chance. The entire international community is watching, and is willing [to provide] and is providing support. He realizes that this is their best opportunity to establish a free and stable Afghanistan.

What happened when you started moving south?

We moved south in a motorized formation, using standard infantry tactics. I have a forward security element that's about 25-30 minutes in front of the main body. I'm in the main body with Karzai, while Captain Amerine and half of his ODA are with the forward security element. We're moving south, and things are going pretty good. I'm thinking, "Hey, this is not too bad." Got security, and our air cover ahead to tell me the way is clear. We're moving. We're moving towards the village of Shawali Kowt and we're heading south.

In about two or three kilometers, I lose complete control of the main body. As I've said before, Karzai didn't have much of a force. But what he did have were farmers, shopkeepers, well-meaning friends -- and they all wanted Karzai to see that they were supporting him. I don't know if you've ever seen one of those desert off-road races. But within a few kilometers, the cars were just zig-zagging back and forth, and they all wanted to be seen by Karzai. They would run up to his vehicle, drive up to his vehicle and wave, and then head on back.

Of course, the vehicle of choice was the Subaru taxi. We didn't have any mechanized vehicles -- no tanks, no armor, no nothing. So we had Toyota pick-ups Subaru taxis, and Toyota and Nissan vans. We have got this ragtag element, and we are headed south.

... [We're] trying to maintain some semblance of order. The forward security element controlled by Captain Amerine is doing a pretty good job, because Karzai's nowhere nearby. So they're maintaining good order.

... We stopped [at a village north of Shawali Kowt]. The tribal elders come out to meet Karzai. They provide a place for him to live, and we decide to use that area as a resupply.

From that village you just talked about, when did you decide to move? Were you getting much resistance?

At that time, we were getting a lot of probes, but no, not much resistance. We had air cover overhead, [we had] Karzai's scouts out, who were notifying us when a probe was coming up the road. We had the high ground. We could look down the roads and once the Taliban became within visual range, then we used air power and Air Force and Navy aircraft to keep them at bay and to keep them away from us. But as far as any direct contact, at that time, no. None.

So then you decided to keep going?

Right. We got a resupply [and] we decided to move south, because the village sits near a key bridge that over that crosses a river. The river has been dry for a number of years because of the drought. But if I'm going to get the force into Kandahar, I've got to seize and take ahold of this bridge and get the force across it.

We had organized ourselves again with the fore security element and a main body. This time, I asked I asked Karzai if I moved him up a little farther in the formation, if he could keep his forces under control behind him, just in case we ran into anything so I could maneuver the element to support the forward security element. He said that they would. This movement went quite a bit smoother.

Just on the outskirts of the village, the forward security element came under direct fire. The village was surrounded by a small ridgeline. They stopped at the base of the ridgeline and walked to the top of it. Once they got to the top of the ridgeline, they started taking direct fire from the village. ... It turns out it was a very small element in the village, and the forward security element was able to handle it. Once they knew and they saw that they were Americans, the Taliban in the village ran across the bridge. On the other side, there was there was another small village. They moved in on that side of the bridge.

So basically what you had is, we controlled the north side of the bridge, and the Taliban controlled the south side of the bridge. We moved in that night, which was right around Dec. 3 ... We set up for the night, put security out, and that's when we started planning for the assault of the bridge.

Right around the evening of Dec. 4, we moved -- or I should say, ODA 574, with Karzai's forces, moved -- to take to take the bridge. There is an old castle that overlooks the bridge. Probably the castle and that piece of ground has been fought over for years between the Russians, Peter the Great and the British. It looks like a number of battles have been fought there.

Karzai's forces and 574 were able to take that that bridge without much trouble. As soon as they occupied that area, they came under direct fire from the south side of the bridge.

We had air cover overhead. We were able to pretty much neutralize the Taliban efforts on that side, and pretty much had secured the bridge. We didn't own it, but nothing could cross it. Nothing could come across that bridge to interrupt our operations in the village. That was the night of Dec. 4. ...

The village of Shawali Kowt -- there is not much there. We're talking about mud structures as there are throughout the villages in Afghanistan, but very few roofs or [no] roofs, no doors, just falling apart around you. Probably at its heyday, it may have had a thousand people live there. When we got there, I think there was about 20 to 25 folks. It is rundown. "Rundown" doesn't even describe it. It's not rundown, it's falling down. It's got a single road that runs through the middle of it.

The dominating feature of this particular village where we set up our command post is a hilltop about 60 feet high, and about a hundred meters across by 30 meters wide. It sits about right in the middle of the village. It looks like, at one time, there was an old structure up on top of it. We set our command post and our radios. My CP was right inside that bombed-out structure, with the ODA and a portion of Karzai's Afghan counterparts in positions all along that hilltop.

Where was Karzai himself?

Karzai was at the bottom of the hill. There was one building that was actually in pretty good shape. Karzai occupied that building as his headquarters, because wherever he set up, the tribal elders from miles around would come to talk to him, to sit down and talk about their problems and talk about the future of Afghanistan. He needed a place to hold these meetings, so he usually occupied the best buildings in the area.

In this case, they weren't much. Like I said, there were holes in the roof, not much glass in the windows, and just a very rundown and terrible condition. It was an old school, but it hadn't been used as a school for years. Anything of value had been ripped out of it. ...

Through the entire move south, [Karzai] was trying to organize and orchestrate the surrender of Kandahar. The negotiations became a lot more serious as we moved south. It's flattering [that what] I thought [was right] -- if we move south, the Taliban would take him more seriously. Well, that's exactly what happened. As he moved south, the phone started ringing off the hook. Key members of the Taliban talked with him, to try to come up with terms and conditions for the surrender of Kandahar.

But to Karzai's credit, he would not [negotiate]. He wanted an unconditional surrender. There would be no terms; there would be no conditions. "Turn in your weapons. Turn in your vehicles. Then we'll sit down and talk about prisoners and how they'll be handled."

So you're talking about the bridge?

Right on Dec. 4, we controlled the northern side of the bridge, so nothing could come across that bridge. The banks of the river, the dry riverbeds were steep enough that you couldn't drive up it. There were places that you could cross further down, but we could see that dry riverbed from our position. So it would have been simple to call in an airstrike and interdict anything that tried to move or cross there.

On the night of Dec. 4, morning of Dec. 5, we had enough vehicles and had enough logistical support that I was able to get the remainder of my headquarters element in. That was another eight individuals which consisted of some more communications help, my intelligence officers and the remainder of my operations section, because by this time, Karzai's force were starting to grow. It was big enough that I needed additional help in organizing logistical support and to provide some support to ODA 574. It was getting large enough so it was becoming unmanageable for one element.

So on the night of Dec. 4, morning of Dec. 5, they came in about 4 in the morning. I put them to bed immediately. We had security out and had Karzai's forces out. We pretty much were secure in our position. I got them up the next morning about 6:30, so they got about two to three hours of sleep. Immediately they started getting the lay of the land, talking to their counterparts. I brought in some linguists that spoke Persian Farsi, so that that helped us out quite a bit. ...

The entire time we were there, we had been taking intermittent fire from across the bridge. [It was] not too accurate, but we'd been taking fire. I don't know if the sun hit it just right or what, but we saw a cave entrance approximately three kilometers, about two and a half kilometers to our south. A flight of F-18s overhead had identified the cave entrance. They put the lasers on it to guide the laser-guided munitions in there and to hit the target, hit the cave entrance.

I watched two munitions impact on the cave entrance, so they fell a little short. It didn't look like much damage had been caused. The Air Force controllers, in the meantime, were talking to a B-52 overhead about using a 2,000-pound JDAM. A JDAM uses satellites to guide itself into position. Basically, you provide grid coordinates. The satellites figure it out. It makes its own adjustments, and it guides itself onto the target.

This is about 9:00 in the morning. About 9:30, as I reached down to grab my binoculars, I'm knocked to the ground. I can't figure out exactly what had happened. I look around and once I see the devastation, I knew that we had been hit by a very large munition. Originally, in the initial stages, I thought it was an R2 and it was enemy artillery. But there was no artillery in the south. All of that was up north, fighting the Northern Alliance or the Afghan military forces.

So it was determined in about three or four hours that we had been hit by friendly fire. The 2000-pound JDAM had fallen approximately two kilometers short, and had impacted on my position. At that time, two of my soldiers died immediately and one died en route to Germany. The remainder were wounded, and a number of Afghans were killed and wounded.

What was the situation like on the ground?

Initially, in the first few minutes, [there was] a tremendous amount of confusion. But the Americans on the ground that were not injured fell back on their training. First thing was [we] got communications up to notify higher headquarters what had happened. [We] put security out to make sure security was still in place to secure our position, then started treating the wounded. Everybody came together.

At that time, you rely on your training. It's just ingrained in you. You've done it over and over and over again in training scenarios. As your old football coach or old sports coach says, "You will play as you practice." It's exactly the same thing: You will fight as you're trained. Their training took over. I believe to this day that the reason so many of the wounded survived was because of the medical attention, the medical care that they received on the ground.

Simultaneously while we're treating Americans, we're also treating the Afghans. I was concerned that this would become a rapport issue. If they saw that we were just treating the Americans, they could say, "Hey, the Americans are just going to take care of themselves. They're not going to take care of us." So we treated the Afghan wounded just as we would the Americans. They were medevaced on the same aircraft; they were medevaced to Germany. In some cases, they were actually sent to the States to receive more definitive care. But they were treated just like any American soldier. In this case, they were our allies, and in a number of cases, they were our friends. ...

And Karzai was there?

Karzai was there. Karzai was wounded. It was a very minor wound along the face. I don't know if it was a piece of shrapnel or a piece of glass from one of the broken windows. We immediately picked him up and moved him to higher ground, away from the site. He set up a command post. At this time, the negotiations for the surrender of Kandahar began in earnest.

While this was all going on, while we're treating the wounded, the Taliban had decided that they were going to surrender. So he continued the surrender negotiations, while I and the my soldiers and my staff provided medical care and coordinated for medevacs and for a follow-on force to replace those that had been killed and injured.

Where were you specifically, and how close were you to where the bomb hit?

I was up on the hilltop [around] that bombed-out area. As you walk in there, the wall's about chest high. I was inside that and I was pacing it off. I was about 35 feet from the point of impact. That wall saved me. As I said, I had bent over to pick up my binoculars out of my rucksack, and it knocked me to the ground. I'd only call it divine intervention. I had no idea that at that time I decided to pull my binoculars out of my rucksack, I was down on one knee below that wall. To this day, I'm sure that wall was what saved my life.

The men who died, the Americans and Afghans -- were they close by?

There was three of us inside that wall. The Americans and Afghans that died that day were outside that wall, in two manned positions around that hilltop. They just didn't have the protection of that wall. They were down in low dugout positions. A bomb of that size and an explosion of that magnitude wounded everybody on the hilltop. Those folks who were at the bottom of the hill were actually knocked back down. So it was a tremendous explosion. ...

Where was the body of 574 at that point in time?

Pretty much, 574 was up on the hilltop with me. There were a few that were at the base of the hill. But the majority of them were up on top of the hilltop with me. I believe 574 had 10 folks. I think six of them were up on the hill, and the other four at the down at the bottom of the hill, which is about 60 foot. We were about 60 feet above them.

What job were they preparing to do?

We were preparing to put together a plan to move south into Kandahar in case the Taliban did not did not surrender, because while we're working in Showali Kowt, you've got Sherzai fighting from the from the south towards Kandahar. ... So I was looking at a combined attack from the south and from the north, and squeeze the Taliban between us, because Kandahar sits in a bowl. It's got dominating terrain on a northern side. We could get up in the mountains and use Air Force air and Navy air and take out key installations and key targets from those positions without much chance of the Taliban coming and getting us.

When airstrikes of any kind are called, then that's up to you? Is that what it was?

I have myself or one of the commanders, Captain Amerine or Major Buldoc. We had the final approval authority to release ordnance. On the day of Dec. 5, we had three air force controllers with us. They do the actual mechanics of it. But the final approval to drop the ordnance is with one of the U.S. commanders.

So any one of you can do it?

Any one [of us could,] because there was always somebody up and awake, so if one of us was down sleeping, or if I was with Karzai, one of the three of us could authorize the release.

Was that you that day?

That was me that day. ... I was the guy that authorized the release.

What went wrong there? I know we're waiting on the investigation. But how do you try to piece things together and make sense of them?

The first thing is that I think about those three soldiers every day. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about Master Sergeant Jeff Davis, Staff Sergeant Dan Petithory and Staff Sergeant Cody Prosser. I think about them, I miss them, They were great soldiers, great Americans, and they were doing what they loved. So you never forget. This past Memorial Day was especially tough and July 4.

But like I said, you really fall back on your training. I know that I have to get south. Kandahar has to be taken. If we're going to have a stable Afghanistan, if the Afghan people are going to have a chance, if Karzai's going to be able to move to Kabul and establish his interim government -- So that's what keeps me going; the overall objective is a secure and stable Afghanistan.

Do you ever second-guess and think, "Maybe I shouldn't have called in the strikes that day?"

Every day. I second-guess every decision, especially when one of my soldiers gets hurt or gets injured, or even one of the Afghan soldiers. "Could I have done it better? Is there something I forgot? Was everything in place?" I think about it and I second guess-myself every day. I'm sure that there was something I could have done better. There was something I could have done to prevent it. Was that cave that important that day?

But it's just something I'm going to have to live with for the rest of my life.

Did you call in airstrikes before?

We had called in too-numerous-to-count numbers of airstrikes. But like I said, once the targets were identified -- and it was always an American identifying the target -- was becoming more and more confusing once we moved south. But yes, we had called in airstrikes, but I guess that the mechanics of it were done by the Air Force.

When Karzai found out that it was a friendly fire incident -- and of course a lot of his soldiers were killed -- how did he react to that?

... He wasn't upset at me. He wasn't upset at the Americans. He was upset at the loss of his soldiers, at the loss of his friends. I'm not trying to be callous about this; at the same time, he was also dealing with the surrender of Kandahar, which I'm sure had him preoccupied. He expressed his sorrow and his grief at the loss of American life, the loss of Afghan life. But he also understood that that he had to move to Kandahar. Kandahar had to be secured, and so he continued on with what needed to be done. ...

At the same time the Bonn Conference named some--?

Yes, right about the same time, the Bonn Conference named [Karzai] interim chairman of Afghanistan. While this is all going on, though, the Taliban is sending up a delegation from Kandahar. They know where we're at. They have no idea that we had this friendly fire incident, and they're coming up the road. So we got with my security element and told them that we would allow one vehicle to come across with four folks.

That's when Karzai and these four individuals negotiated for the surrender of Kandahar. This is on Dec. 5. There was one more negotiation, one more meeting on Dec. 6 that came back up. On the night of Dec. 7, we moved into Kandahar

Karzai's goal was to stay in Omar's house, and he wanted to spend the night in Omar's bedroom. At this time, because of the successes we'd had and the Taliban's surrender, we had over about a thousand or 1,500 followers.

An interesting story, though, in this thing, when the surrender happens -- I'm sure everyone's read and heard how the Afghans would change sides. Well, we had a number of Taliban change sides. One minute you're shooting at them, and the next minute they are now your allies and your friends.

... We've got these former Taliban looking at us and going, "Oh, this is what an American looks like," because up to that point, they'd never seen us. Everything had been done by Karzai's forces, and we had stayed in the background. So they'd never seen an American. "So this is what an American looks like. Oh, he's got two legs and he puts his pants on the same way we do." So it was just kind of an unnerving situation -- one day they were my enemy, and the next day they're on my side and we're all heading towards Kandahar.

How did you believe that they really were on your side?

All I could do at the time was trust Karzai. We had developed relationships with some of his key leaders. They provide our local security and [we'd] trust in the local security and trust in Karzai that they would take care of us, which they did. They were not allowed to get anywhere near us. If they picked up a weapon, they could have engaged us, but they were not allowed to get within 300 or 400 meters of us. We were very well taken care of by Karzai and his followers.

So when did you arrive in Kandahar?

Like I said, the days get fuzzy. But right around Dec. 7, we moved into Kandahar. We moved into Omar's compound, which became just an absolute nightmare. There was rooms and facilities for us to move into. But once the people of Kandahar realized that Karzai was there -- Kandahar's a city of approximately half a million folks -- hundreds of thousands just swarmed in. [They] wanted to see him, wanted to meet him, because we're in the center of the Pashtun population. With Karzai being a Pashtun, they just want to be seen by him, want to show their support, want to thank him for what they've done to push the Taliban out. ...

What was Omar's house like?

There wasn't much left of it. The Air Force had done a good job. I think they'd hit it with everything in their inventory: cruise missiles, 2,000-pounders, 5,000-pounders. ... It was painted multicolored [and had] a number of murals on the walls. But it had its own mosque. It had an office space off to one side, so it was a very large compound. It was completely walled in and probably occupied like three or four kilometers of ground. By Afghan standards, it was the best home in Kandahar. But actually there wasn't much left of it. What Karzai thinks was Omar's bedroom had been hit by a bomb that came right through the roof. So Karzai never did get the chance to spend the night in Omar's bedroom. ...

[Do you think that Taliban leaders escaped during the negotiations for the surrender of the city?]

I am sure that key Taliban leaders escaped during negotiations for the surrender in the south. I am absolutely certain that Karzai knew nothing about it. What I believe is that the Taliban believed if they kept Karzai at bay in the north and Sherzai at bay in the south, [with these] negotiations and a set date to surrender, this gave them the time to pick up, get in their vehicles and drive off. Karzai set absolutely no conditions. It was an unconditional surrender: Give up your weapons; give up your vehicles; turn yourselves in; and then we'll turn you over to the Americans. So Karzai in no way, shape or form was involved in any type of conspiracy to allow the key Taliban leaders to escape. ...

I have no hard facts that [Mullah Omar] was there at any time when I moved south. I assumed that he was. But his facility had already been hit. We talked about how his home had already been hit. So I don't know if he was actually in Kandahar during those negotiations at all.

One of these armchair strategists will say to me, basically, "Look, [in] Kandahar, the U.S. should have had lots more troops on the ground to prevent precisely that something like that [from] happening." As somebody who was there, how practical would it have been to involve much more U.S. ground troops there?

What we've got to understand is that 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 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.

When did you last see Karzai?

It's Dec. 14, and we sat down and had a long talk about our experiences and the things that we had gone through and the events of Dec. 5. Of course, he thanked the Americans and thanked the American Special Forces for everything they've done. But the thing that I'll always remember -- at that time, he told me, "You Americans you gave is our country back."

And I thought to myself, "What better compliment?" The Special Forces' motto is "De oppresso libere" which means "to free the oppressed." Here I've got the future chairman of Afghanistan telling me, telling the American people, the American Special Forces, that we have given the Afghan people their country back.

What did he say about Dec. 5?

He was sorry for the loss of both Afghan and American lives. He understood that it wasn't done intentionally, these type of things happen. He just hoped that it never would happen again.

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