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“Triple Nickel” at Bagram – Special Operations Forces and Operation Enduring Freedom

Operation Enduring Freedom: The First 49 Days - Part 3

From the moment that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were realized to have originated in Afghanistan, there was a strong desire within the administration of President George W. Bush for solutions to permanently remove the threat posed by al Qaeda, which was being hosted in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Firing a few cruise missiles at training camps or dropping some GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) would not be 9/11 response scenarios for what became Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A).

It does not take much of a map study of northern Afghanistan and the military situation in late 2001 to see where the critical points were in the coming fight between the United States and Northern Alliance, and their Taliban/al Qaeda enemies. Mazar-e Sharif,  south of Uzbekistan, and the Air Base at Bagram in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul were the obvious places to apply pressure.

There were strong Northern Alliance leaders in both locations; Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum at Mazar-e Sharif and Gen. Fahim Khan in the Bagram/Kabul area. Both were warlords in the classic meaning of the word, and had developed their reputations for toughness and leadership during the dark days of the 1980s when they had led Mujahideen bands against the Soviets. What they would get were two Operational Detachments-Alpha (ODA), or “A Teams” that would conduct legendary Special Forces (SF) missions, and change the world in just weeks.


Getting Ready: Picking the Team

One of the first problems that then-Col. John Mulholland, along with Generals Geoffrey C. Lambert and David P. Burford faced, was the question of which teams from the 5th Special Forces Group (SFG), based at Fort Campbell, Ky., to send into northern Afghanistan first. This was a tougher question than one might think, for several reasons. One was that fully one-third of the 5th SFG had a commitment to Operation Iris Gold, which provided a full-time company of ODAs to Kuwait to help defend the kingdom from another Iraqi invasion. There also were ongoing training missions “downrange” around the world, and several important exercises overseas, including Exercise Bright Star. More pressing, however, was a robust economy worldwide that valued men with exactly the skills that SF soldiers could offer, particularly in field situations. Add a flurry of retirements by post-Vietnam SF veterans in the late 1990s, and the ODAs of 5th SFG resembled blocks of Swiss cheese, with the holes representing all the personnel they were missing.

What resulted was a triage situation, where the best ODAs became magnet teams, their personnel “holes” being filled by Green Berets from others, usually within the same company. For example, ODA 555 from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion (2nd/5th SFG), was short a team captain when 9/11 happened. To make up for this leadership deficit, the 5th SFG leadership moved the team leader from another Bravo Company team, ODA 551, to command ODA 555, nicknamed “Triple Nickel.” Other teams being prepared for deployment downrange to Afghanistan also were scavenged for personnel, effectively reducing 5th SFG to having only three effective ODAs per company in late 2001. Even with this contraction, however, very few ODAs that deployed for OEF-A in 2001 had their full allotment of 12 SF soldiers. Ten to 11 was considered “full,” with some going into battle with as few as eight or nine.

Even with these reinforcements, the 5th SFG ODAs were short some critical skills that would be needed in Afghanistan. One of these was translation services, because Pashtu and Uzbek language skills would be much more important than the traditional Arabic/Farsi language sets used by nations in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR). To help meet this need, U.S. Special Operations Command arranged for contractors to supply qualified translators to accompany the ODAs downrange into Afghanistan. The other major shortcoming was that relatively few SF solders were qualified to operate the specialized portable radio sets to call in airstrikes, particularly from heavy bombers (B-1Bs and B-52Hs) equipped with the new GPS-guided JDAM weapons. These would be critical in providing support to the Northern Alliance fighters at Mazar-e Sharif and Bagram, and key to the overall OEF-A campaign plan.

Attaching a U.S. Air Force (USAF) combat controller (CCT/TAC-P) to each ODA, making each a self-contained franchise for training, logistics, communications, operational/tactical advice, and precision targeting, solved this shortcoming. In all, it made the 5th SFG ODAs deployed to Southwest Asia in late 2001 a very lethal combination of combat skills.

The weeks following 9/11 were a flurry of activity at both Fort Campbell and the new forward base at Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Air Base in Uzbekistan. Mulholland easily decided that Dostum at Mazar-e Sharif would get ODA 595 to help break the deadlock there. ODA 555 would go to Khan at Bagram, just 25 miles from Kabul, with a primary mission of destroying al Qaeda/Taliban forces.

ODA 555 would be hundreds of miles from any allied forces, and hours from any possible extraction in the event of a collapse of the Northern Alliance forces around them. In short, Triple Nickel’s mission to Bagram wasn’t just dangerous, but hazardous in extremes unimaginable even to Hollywood movie screenwriters.

The days before the planned mid-October insertion were busy ones for everyone at K2, as Joint Special Operations Task Force-North (JSOTF-N) prepared itself to conduct sustained operations throughout Afghanistan. An isolation facility was built for the ODAs to plan and prepare for their missions, along with everything from mess facilities and fuel stowage and distribution, to satellite communications links and aircraft reception and maintenance capabilities. Every few hours, a C-17A Globemaster III strategic airlifter would fly in, with C-130 Hercules transports dropping in even more frequently. In addition, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) established a combat search and rescue (CSAR) capability to support the air campaign that began on Oct. 7, 2001, and flew practice missions to get used to the extreme conditions in which they would soon be flying combat.


Into Battle

The initial entry of the ODAs was planned for Oct. 17, but bad weather along the flight route caused postponements. On Oct. 19, the weather in the region finally cleared enough to allow JSOTF-N to launch ODAs 555 and 595 into northern Afghanistan. The flight in was extremely dangerous, flown in full blackout conditions, never more than 500 feet above ground level, even during refueling.

The MH-47E Chinooks were barely able to make it over the high mountain passes, which required the use of oxygen for the crews and passengers. Round trip, the journey to deliver ODA 555 to Bagram took the 160th SOAR crew more than 11 hours, with three in-flight refuelings, which at the time was a world record for combat rotorcraft missions.

When the ramp on the back of the Chinook dropped down into the dust of the Panjshir Valley early on the morning of Oct. 20, ODA 555 stepped into a bizarre world where ancient customs and religion were about to be mixed liberally with 21st century weapons and technology, with the binder being the training the men had been given years before at the SF “Q-Course” at Fort Bragg, N.C. The “final exam” for the course had been a simulated insurgency in the fields and hills of North Carolina called “Pineland.” Now the men of Triple Nickel were going to conduct their own real-world version of the Robin Sage final exam, this time in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan.

After linking up with their contacts from Cofer Black’s CIA Counterterrorism Center, who had been on the ground for several weeks, the men of ODA 555 moved to a safehouse, and the next day were introduced to Khan’s men, who were anything but trusting. The U.S. pullout from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal had made the Northern Alliance leadership see Americans as untrustworthy allies in their war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, and clearly ODA 555 needed to build some rapport with their new hosts. On Oct. 21, that trust arrived like a bolt from the blue.

With Khan’s men as guides, ODA 555 began to move around the Panjshir Valley, especially near the trenchlines and fortifications around the Bagram Air Base. Climbing a high spot that overlooked the base, they hit pay dirt, and the view took their breath away. Spread across the wide vista of the Panjshir Valley were literally hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda targets, all under camouflage for protection from aerial observation. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, guns, and fortifications were so densely clustered that they could not initially be counted.

Quickly, Air Force Combat Controller Sgt. Calvin Markham set up his radios and targeting gear, and went to work. Key among his tools were a PEQ-1 special operations forces (SOF) Laser Marker (SOFLAM), and a commercial GPS receiver. With these, he quickly cataloged a list of high-priority targets and their coordinates, and radioed an airborne E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to vector “strikers” to his location. The AWACS controllers were startled by the sudden appearance of ODA 555 on the ground, but realized that their verification codes checked out, and began to send loaded warplanes to Bagram. Within a short time, Markham was “stacking” strike aircraft and heavy bombers overhead, and began to make history.

Of that first bombing engagement, Markham later said, “And when he came up on the radio, the pilot was … really surprised that he was talking to American forces on the ground in Afghanistan. And then it was like ‘wow,’ we’re going to put some bombs onto the target!” Markham then laid the SOFLAM laser beam on the first target (a tank), checked his coordinates, and cleared the aircraft in “hot” to drop the weapon. Less than 30 seconds later, the target blew up in a massive explosion following a direct hit by a laser-guided bomb. For the rest of that day, Markham and the SF soldiers guided in wave after wave of precision guided munitions (PGMs) onto targets around Bagram. Their Northern Alliance hosts stood by in shock as the tiny American team destroyed more targets in a few hours than their forces had taken out in years of fighting.

The realization quickly came upon the Afghans that they not only could continue their fight, but that they could win their 10-year running war. Similar events were taking place a few hundred miles to the east, where ODA 595 was guiding in the first of hundreds of GPS-guided 2,000-pound JDAM PGMs onto Taliban/al Qaeda positions at Mazar-e Sharif, dropped by USAF B-1B Lancer and B-52 Stratofortress heavy bombers. It is reported that when the JDAMs began to hit their targets, the Northern Alliance fighters at Mazar-e Sharif jumped from their trenches, danced on the parapets, and began to taunt their enemies with cries of “grandma’s coming!” Almost immediately, the members of ODA 555 began to notice a radical change in the attitude of their hosts. Afghans around them said prayers and yelled, “Allah Akbar!” as a war cry. And now, instead of doubtful frowns, there were comradely smiles and a feeling that the Afghans were now being “protective” of the 555 team members. Only later would they find out how much so.

For the next month, ODA 555 guided a steel rain of PGMs onto enemy targets around the Panjshir Valley. The team would move around, knowing better than to spend too much time where they had been killing so many enemies, and long night marches and rides in the backs of pickup trucks became the norm. Of those early weeks, Markham commented, “It [was] very intense. The first 10 days was really incredible … we had every aircraft available to us … [And] everybody wanted to get into the fight! We were like 7-11 … we stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whatever aircraft wanted to come to us, we would work them … F/A-18s, F-14s, F-15s, F-16s, [heavy] bombers … just whatever was flying, we were putting bombs on targets!”

Along the way, JSOTF-N sent reinforcements in the form of a 5th SFG battalion commander and company staff (called an Operational Detachment-Bravo, ODB, or “B-Team”) to provide communications, support, and other services for Team 555 and Khan. They also helped Khan and his fighters plan and run a number of local spoiling attacks and raids on Taliban/al Qaeda forces, some of which resulted in violent firefights. In one of these battles on Oct. 14, Markham had the wind knocked out of him as he was thrown bodily into a trench by his Northern Alliance comrades, who then covered his body with their own.

Markham later recalled of the Oct. 14 firefight, “There were times before when I had thought things were bad and we might not make it out, but this time I was thinking, ‘This is really bad!’ We prayed, because it was all coming in on us. You fall back onto your training … and you have to be able to communicate on that radio. That is our job. Then Gen. Sharif [another Northern Alliance leader] and his men jumped on top of me and my teammates, putting themselves between us and the enemy fire. I’d never used B-52s in a ‘danger close’ airstrike before, and that basically changed the war for us right there. The devastation was amazing!”

When Markham later asked Sharif why he and his men had shielded the 555 team members with their own bodies, Markham remembered the general replying, that if something happened to him or one of his commanders, someone else would take over. “But if something happens to you or your teammates, the Taliban will go back on the offensive, raping and killing everything all the way to Uzbekistan.”

It was the ultimate “thank you.”

On Nov. 9, the ODA 595-guided bombardment at Mazar-e Sharif had done enough damage that Dostum felt it was time to take the city from the Taliban/al Qaeda forces. Two columns of Northern Alliance fighters rushed the city and its crucial airport, and broke through. More importantly, they broke the back of the Taliban/al Qaeda forces in northern Afghanistan, who began a panicked retreat toward Kunduz province, and then Kabul. While the “horse soldiers” of ODA 595 bombed the enemy forces too slow to elude them, ODA 555 was bombing everything that passed through the Panjshir Valley on the way to Kabul. Then early in the second week of November, Khan and his Northern Alliance fighters packed up their weapons and Toyota pickup trucks, and made a dash to capture the great prize of 2001: the Afghan capital city of Kabul.

Orders came from Washington to JSOTF-N and ODA 555 not to let Khan and his forces capture Kabul, over fears of new tribal warfare breaking out over the Afghan capital. The leaders in Washington might as well have sent a roll of paper towels to stop a tsunami. Joining the mad rush over the mountains to Kabul just 25 miles away, ODA 555 was the first U.S. military unit to enter the city after a short battle on Nov. 13 and 14. There they cleared the U.S. embassy complex of any booby traps and unexploded ordnance, and set up the first American mission in Kabul since the Soviet invasion 22 years earlier. Along with the other ODAs, ODBs, and SOF units from other services and allied countries, ODA 555 had just helped win a great battle, all in just 25 days since landing in Afghanistan.

Continue to part 4…

This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.


John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...