“I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” – President George W. Bush, speaking to recovery workers at “Ground Zero” in New York City, Sept. 14, 2001
It is a long way from a presidential notion in the Aspen Lodge at Camp David, Md., to the landing of a U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA or A-Team) in the Panjshir Valley just weeks later. Despite the challenges and distances, however, that is exactly what happened in October 2001, as the U.S. military began to strike back at al Qaeda for the attacks on 9/11. What began with the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) Cofer Black and his famous “flies on the eyeballs” briefing to Bush and his national security team took a lot of work to turn into Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A), Rotation I. Some things, like turning around the aircraft carrier strike group built around the USS Enterprise (CVN 65), then on its way home from deployment, were obvious and easy. Others, however, took a bit more thought and creativity.
Given the present-day acceptance of special operations forces (SOF) and their ability to accomplish difficult and unconventional tasks on the battlefield, it’s sometimes hard to recall that just a decade ago the public, and the political/military leadership of the United States had no such confidence. In fact, when the initial ideas of what SOF might accomplish in OEF-A were laid out, the capture of a single city (like Mazar-e Sharif) in a six- to 12-month campaign was considered a nearly impossible goal. The storied difficulties of Afghan terrain and weather, along with the documented toughness and stubbornness of Afghani fighters like those in the Taliban military were discouraging to planners at the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base (AFB), Fla. But as they would find out in just a matter of weeks, their expectations of SOF capabilities were about to be proven wrong.
Component Parts: Units and Leaders
Like any other successful military campaign, OEF-A began with a collection of personnel, units, and equipment/supplies that needed to be delivered to the battlefield. While then-CENTCOM Commander Gen. Tommy Franks, U.S. Army, would be the OEF-A Joint Task Force (JTF) commander, most of the day-to-day operations would be delegated to a pair of Joint Special Operations Task Forces (JSOTFs) under U.S. Special Operational Command-Central (SOCCENT) commander, then-Rear Adm. Albert M. “Bert” Calland, U.S. Navy. In northern Afghanistan, JSOTF-North (Task Force (TF) Dagger) was headed by then-Col. John F. Mulholland Jr., U.S. Army, the new commander of the 5th Special Forces Group (SFG) out of Fort Campbell, Ky.
The southern regions of Afghanistan were covered by JSOTF-South (Task Force K-Bar), led by then-Capt. Robert “Bob” Harward, U.S. Navy, who had just taken over Special Warfare Group 1 based at Coronado, Calif. Both officers were career SOF professionals, and would themselves become legends for what they would accomplish in the next few months. Their staffs and subordinates were drawn mostly from personnel from their own units and SOF communities, but in fact shared many assets like SOF aviation support from U.S. Air Force Special Operations (AFSOC) and the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR, The Nightstalkers). The two JSOTFs generally broke down this way:
- JSOTF-North (TF Dagger) – Built around several companies of Mulholland’s 5th SFG, TF Dagger was based at Karshi-Khandabad (K2) Air Base in Uzbekistan. TF Dagger also had a number of USAF combat controllers (CCTs/TAC-Ps) from the Air Force Special Tactics Group at Hurlburt Field, Fla., assigned, along with a detachment from AFSOC and the 160th SOAR.
- JSOTF-South (TF K-Bar) – An incredibly diverse force during OEF-A, TF K-Bar was initially based in Oman prior to moving to southeastern Afghanistan later in the fall. Formed around a U.S. Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) detachment from Special Warfare Group-1, TF K-Bar eventually included the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) – MEU(SOC), elements of the British, New Zealand, and Australian Special Air Services, and SOF personnel from Canada, Denmark, Germany, and Norway. Aviation support came from a combination of AFSOC, 160th SOAR, and other assets.
Commander’s Intent – the Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan Plan
In military circles, the “commander’s intent” is the basic operating plan that is used to lay out the goals and objectives for a campaign and/or battle. For OEF-A however, Franks was going to have to be more dependent upon his SOF commanders for guidance and ideas than any commander since World War II if he was to get anywhere in Afghanistan. One of his first decisions, and perhaps the wisest, was to not establish his headquarters early in the fight in or near Afghanistan, or even the region. OEF-A was to be the first large-scale test of a new concept called “reachback,” which was possible because of the availability of satellite communications (SATCOM) bandwidth, some of what would today be called “broadband.” By using SATCOM links as a primary communications tool, Franks would be able to minimize the American personnel “footprint” not only in Afghanistan, but also at forward operating bases (FOBs) in surrounding countries and command centers in locations around the Persian Gulf. The continuous American presence in the region since the 1980s was already a severe strain on U.S. relations with the Islamic world, and what was already being called the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) was sure to raise the tensions even further. The more immediate benefit would be the two cornerstones of military action: transportation and logistics.
More than two continuous decades of conflict had left the country with almost no developed road networks, and little in the way of public utility infrastructure. So if JTF OEF-A wanted to eat, drink, shoot, communicate, or move, it would do so with what it brought on the small fleet of helicopters AFSOC and the 160th SOAR would be able to fly in, and whatever transports like C-17s and C-130s could air-drop. So the numbers of American “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan would be heavily limited, until road networks from Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and other neighboring countries could be reopened and jet-capable airfields repaired. It was, in fact, this last requirement that would help decide where U.S. ground forces would go into first: Mazar-e Sharif and Bagram. That would allow the opening of an airfield and logistics portal from which larger ground units like the Army’s 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Division might be able to operate. Beyond that, there was not much that could be done other than to keep a sustained allied air umbrella over the Taliban/al Qaeda forces and kill anything unwise enough to move out in the open.
To assist in judging just what was possible with the Northern Alliance and other Afghan insurgent groups, the CIA’s Black sent a number of his Counterterrorism Center (CTC) field operations officers (FOOs) just days after 9/11, to once again contact the Northern Alliance forces to evaluate their willingness to work with U.S. forces in defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda forces. What they found was an insurgent army enraged by the assassination of their long-time leader, Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud, by an al Qaeda suicide bomb team. More committed than ever to retake their country from the extremists of the Taliban, the answer was a definitive “Yes!”
What did the Northern Alliance leadership want? Food, communications, medical supplies, and money, along with weapons and ammunition. Most of all, the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan needed that most valuable commodity to soldiers of any army: hope. Just weeks after 9/11, they would get all that and more in quantities and forms unimaginable just weeks earlier.
Back at CENTCOM headquarters at MacDill, the answer to those needs was just down the street at U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). There, under the command of Gen. Charles R. Holland, USAF, the SOCOM staff was coordinating with the various SOF component commands to put together a series of JSOTFs to prosecute OEF-A. JSOTF-North and JSOTF-South were just two of a number of such units specifically formed to prosecute OEF-A, which continues to this day.
The U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s (USASOC’s) 75th Ranger Regiment and 160th SOAR would conduct raids and assist special mission units (SMUs) from the Joint Special Operations Command hunt for senior al Qaeda/Taliban leaders. AFSOC would provide combat search and rescue (CSAR) aircraft and services, in-flight refueling, logistical/transportation services, and fire support from their mighty AC-130 gunships. And the Naval Special Warfare Command would supply SEAL and special boat teams to establish a maritime quarantine to keep any al Qaeda leaders from escaping to Africa and other regional sanctuaries. The most important weapons of the coming campaign, however, would come from America’s first real post-World War II SOF force: the Green Berets.
Tools and Units
Without question, the decisive weapon of OEF-A was not a GPS-guided bomb like the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) like the new MQ-1A Predator, but a tiny SOF unit based on an idea dating back a half-century: the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA or A-Team.) First laid out in its present form by Lt. Gen. William “Bill” Yarbrough, USA, in the early 1960s, the A-Team was designed to provide a 12-man team with the ability to provide useful support across the full spectrum of warfare, from peacekeeping to nuclear combat. Able to be broken into two six-man teams when needed, each ODA has command leadership, along with pairs of SF soldiers specializing in weapons, engineering/demolitions, communications, and medical skills. All are specially selected from throughout the Army, airborne qualified, and given cultural/language training relevant to the regional SFG to which they are assigned. For CENTCOM, that meant ODAs from the 5th SFG, the most decorated and experienced such unit in the Army. In addition, 5th SFG had worked hard to be able to coordinate air-ground communications and strike tactics, in anticipation of another possible invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. This was the good news.
The bad news was that the 5th SFG, like the rest of the groups within the U.S. Army Special Forces Command (USASFC) was short of personnel, suffering from fatigue after a decade of overuse for foreign internal defense (FID) missions by the State Department, and had been badly underfunded in the late 1990s.
So bad were SF funding constraints in fiscal year 2001 that no money was allotted for 5.56 mm and 9 mm ammunition for periodic weapons refresher training. Only a specially arranged allocation from Congress provided the ammunition that kept the shooting skills of 5th SFG soldiers sharp for the coming fights in the GWOT. In addition, long-awaited equipment to modernize the ODAs had been delayed as they waited their turn in line with other Army units for the new gear. All that changed on the morning of 9/11.
The new commander of USASFC, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Lambert, was just sitting down to his first staff meeting that morning when word reached the USASOC conference room of the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Like everyone else in the building he immediately knew that al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were behind the attacks, and that his SF solders would lead the fight into Afghanistan for America. By the end of that terrible day, Lambert was already in touch with Mulholland at 5th SFG, and had coordinated with then-Lt. Gen. Bryan D. “Doug” Brown, USA (the USASOC commander). He also called and reached an Alabama Army National Guard colonel (he was promoted to brigadier general March 2002) by the name of David P. Burford, who that morning had been assessing a melon field in Florida as a possible power plant site, and asked him to be the new deputy SFC commander.
Within days, Black’s Jawbreaker CTC team was reporting back the Northern Alliance’s willingness to work with the U.S. forces. In addition, Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and everyone in the federal government performed a diplomatic miracle, obtaining basing from almost everyone in the region, including Pakistan for certain missions and aircraft. In the Arabian Sea, two aircraft carrier battle groups built around the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), and an amphibious ready group with an embarked MEU(SOC) stood ready for the start of combat operations. Like a vast snake coiling and preparing to strike, the U.S. military gathered its strength and awaited the order to “go.” It came down to the ODAs of the 5th SFG to determine when that would be possible.
For Mulholland, there had not been a free moment in his life since stepping out of his shower at home at Fort Campbell on 9/11. In addition to having to command JSOTF-North at K2 Air Base, he had to get the initial batch of 5th SFG ODAs selected, readied, and deployed to Southwest Asia. In some cases, this meant recalling ODAs and key personnel already deployed downrange on FID missions, a task made more difficult by the air traffic shutdown following the 9/11 attacks. Fortunately, the command teams at USASOC and USASFC helped Mulholland and his 5th SFG staff with all manner of critical tasks, from getting new radios and targeting gear to the teams, to rapidly approving the acquisition of a number of specially modified Toyota trucks for the SF teams to use to “blend in” to the Afghan population. By early October, Mulholland and the first elements of JSOTF-North were in Uzbekistan at K2, figuring out their first moves.
It did not take much of a look at the Soviet-era, Russian-supplied topographical maps of the region to see that in the northern half of Afghanistan, three major cities stood out: Mazar-e Sharif, Kunduz, and Bagram. Take those three pieces of real estate, and everything in northern Afghanistan (including the capital of Kabul) would fall like a line of dominoes.
With this in mind, Mulholland and his team made arrangements with the CIA FOOs to send two ODAs to Bagram in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, and Mazar-e Sharif where the Taliban/al Qaeda and Northern Alliance forces had struck a Word War I-style stalemate with the vital city between them.
The presidential “Go” order for OEF-A came on Oct. 9, with strikes by fighter-bombers from the carriers, and a pair of B-2A Spirit bombers flying non-stop from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. In addition, a pair of C-17A Globemaster III transports dropped thousands of humanitarian Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs), blankets, and hand-cranked radios to Afghan civilians, to help keep them informed of breaking news and events. But within days, the strike planners ran out of targets they could identify from the air and with satellites. More than two decades of being bombed had made Afghans of any political affiliation experts at cover and concealment. This meant until the first ODAs could be sent into Afghanistan, all the allied bombs would do was make the existing rubble bounce.
Game on: The 49 Days Begin
Two senior Northern Alliance commanders under the late Massoud, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum at Mazar-e Sharif, and Fahim Khan in the Bagram/Kabul area, would get the services of the first two ODAs deployed by JSOTF-North. ODAs 595 and 555 were chosen from those available at 5th SFG, and readied for their missions. Days were spent in team isolation facilities – ISOFACs – stripping MREs of packaging, choosing weapons and ammunition, and swapping out faulty gear for new, replacement, or upgraded units. At the same time, elements of AFSOC and the 160th SOAR at K2 Air Base were keeping a wary eye on the coming bad weather of fall to their south. Despite being designed for “high and hot” operational conditions, the MH-60 Black Hawk and MH-47 Chinook helicopters of the 160th were going to be marginally capable of getting into Afghanistan due to the altitude and icing conditions in the mountain passes, along with the need to do in-flight refueling from AFSOC MC-130 tanker/transports. In addition, the lack of centralized oxygen-delivery systems meant that passengers on personnel delivery flights would have to use one-time-use “bailout bottles” to survive parts of each flight. This made such missions “one way” for the riders to their destinations.
The weather finally cleared on Oct. 19, and the two ODAs loaded up on four MH-47 Chinooks for their flights into Afghanistan. Unfortunately, their planned escort of armed MH-60 Black Hawk Direct Action Penetrators had to abort when they could not clear a pass along the planned flight route.
Each pair of Chinooks required in-flight refueling (IFR), with these taking place at no more than 500 feet above ground level, under complete blackout conditions, and without radio communications. ODA 555’s MH-47s set a new world record for combat rotorcraft missions, taking 11 hours and three IFRs by a single flight crew.
As the 160th SOAR crews and the two ODAs were headed to their landing zones (LZs), one of the most storied small units in Army history was adding to its legend. In the south near the Taliban capital of Kandahar was a hunting compound with a private airstrip that previously had been owned by Osama bin Laden. Now known as “Objective Rhino,” the airstrip and compound were raided by a SOF force led by Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. This was the same company that had fought so hard and taken so many casualties in Somalia back in 1993 during the “Black Hawk Down” firefight. Now they were getting to hit back, while making a lot of “noise” to cover the flights of the MH-47s/ODAs toward their targets.
As each flight let down on their LZ, they did so in a land of complete darkness, with no lights of any kind to be seen. Dropping the rear ramps on the big choppers, the first boots to step onto the dusty Afghan rocks and soil were those of SF team captains, warrant officers, and sergeants, the vanguard of America’s response to the evil responsible for the 9/11 attacks. There would never be many of them on the ground at any one time, nor are their names today well known or inscribed in stone on any memorial or wall.
This began the legend of what SOF professionals today call, “The 49 days.”
This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.