“[T]he Taliban launched a very large force with a lot of well-trained soldiers … We crushed them and sent them back to Kandahar.” – then-Capt. Jason Amerine, commanding officer of ODA 574, commenting on their victory at Tarin Kowt
On Oct. 7, 2001, the United States initiated Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A), the Special Operations Command (SOCOM)-led campaign against the al Qaeda terrorist network and the fundamentalist Taliban regime providing it a safe haven. By the end of December 2001, many of the campaign’s goals had been achieved: The Taliban government had been overthrown, a new provisional government led by interim president Hamid Karzai had been installed, and al Qaeda was on the run. OEF-A’s achievements in southern Afghanistan were made possible in large part by 11 Special Forces operators – Green Berets – from Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 574 of 5th Special Forces Group, led by then-Capt. Jason Amerine.
What is remarkable about OEF-A’s success is that going in, the United States did not have a pre-existing master plan for military operations in Afghanistan. SOCOM filled that void with a radical proposal calling for an unconventional warfare response using Special Forces ODA teams assisted by Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) combat controllers who would link up with anti-Taliban forces in the country and coordinate ground attacks with air strikes. While an anti-Taliban force – the Northern Alliance – existed in the north, no such comparable force existed in the south, which was home to both the Taliban movement and the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtun. But two Afghan exiles claimed such a force could be organized there.
Though the Taliban had its roots in the Pashtun tribe, Hamid Karzai and Abdul Haq, two Afghan exiles and themselves Pashtuns, claimed that Pashtun support of the Taliban was not as strong as widely believed. According to them, most villages in the south were Taliban supporters only for reasons of survival. With American support, Karzai and Haq said they could rally disaffected Pashtuns and help overthrow the government. This struck some American leaders as high-risk wishful thinking, but a tentative agreement of support was reached. Karzai and Haq went back to Afghanistan to organize cadres. Four days after he returned to Afghanistan, Haq was captured and killed by Taliban troops. Karzai narrowly escaped a similar fate and returned to Pakistan with a handful of followers.
Meanwhile, Amerine was informed that he and his team, then stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., would be deployed to southern Afghanistan by the end of October. Amerine recalled, “Our mission was to infiltrate the Oruzgan province, link up with Hamid Karzai and his Pashtun fighters, and advise and assist his forces in order to destabilize and eliminate the Taliban regime there. More importantly, we were there to ensure that al Qaeda couldn’t operate in Afghanistan anymore.”
As the team began planning, one thing the members discovered very quickly was that their military intelligence sources had about as much information on Afghanistan as could be obtained through a non-secure search on Google.
On Nov. 5, 2001, at 10:00 a.m., in a conference room in J-Bad – Jacobabad Air Base in Pakistan – Amerine and about half his team met Karzai and his group of seven Afghan tribal leaders. After everyone was introduced, Karzai brought the Americans up to date on his recent adventures in Afghanistan and his narrow escape from capture and death. Then he told Amerine what their first objective should be: Tarin Kowt, the capital of Oruzgan province. “It is very remote but is considered the heart of the Taliban movement,” he said. “Liberating Tarin Kowt will strike a demoralizing blow to the Taliban. If they cannot control Oruzgan, their credibility will unravel all the way to Kandahar. If we take Tarin Kowt, we rip out the heart of the Taliban.”
Oruzgan, also called Uruzgan, province is in south-central Afghanistan; Tarin Kowt, a town of about 10,000 people, is located in a narrow valley surrounded by steep mountains. It has only one major road, extending south and connecting it with Kandahar. The plan the team created called for them to infiltrate near Tarin Kowt, and establish a secure base where they could raise a guerrilla force of about 300 men, large enough to secure the mountain passes and isolate the town. Once that happened, they would lay siege with air strikes. After the Taliban in Tarin Kowt surrendered, additional ODA teams would be brought in, and the anticipated influx of new recruits to Karzai’s army would be armed and trained for an offensive to capture Kandahar.
On the night of Nov. 14, the members of ODA 574 and Tech Sgt. Alex Yoshimoto, their AFSOC combat controller, together with their weapons and gear and Karzai and his small group, entered their aircraft for the trip into hostile Afghanistan. Within a few days, this handful of Americans would discover for themselves whether or not the strategic decision made in Washington, D.C., to send small teams to support an Afghan-led overthrow of the Taliban and al Qaeda was a decision of inspired, gutsy brilliance, or Pollyannaish madness.
A few hours later, the men disembarked from their aircraft and were met by a small group of Afghans sympathetic to Karzai’s cause. They were driven to a small village about 30 miles southwest of Tarin Kowt. Word of their arrival quickly spread and, on Nov. 15, after called-for air drops arrived, the team set up what one member dubbed the “McWeapons” franchise and began distributing arms and ammunition, the first stage in creating Karzai’s army.
On Nov. 16, as Amerine was figuring out how to turn a ragtag armed mob that contained at the most 60 hopefully reliable fighters into something approaching a viable fighting force, a messenger arrived from Karzai with a note that stunned Amerine. The night before, the villagers in Tarin Kowt had risen up against the Taliban and chased out the small force there. Karzai wanted to advance into the town immediately. Amerine recalled, “It was really a tough decision to make. On the one hand, we were such a weak force we didn’t really have any organic capability to protect the town. But at the same time, at least we had access to a large armada of aircraft if we needed them.” Amerine knew he really didn’t have any choice – Karzai was right, they had to move immediately into Tarin Kowt.
At sunset, ODA 574, their AFSOC controller, and Karzai and his followers – in total less than a hundred men and their weapons and gear – crowded into an assortment of 10 vehicles. With a pair of F/A-18s flying shotgun overhead, the motley convoy headed northeast to Tarin Kowt. Roughly four hours later, they arrived.
The group then split, with Karzai and his followers going to the former Taliban governor’s palace to meet leaders from the area, and the Americans getting themselves established in their new surroundings. Less than an hour later, Amerine received a request to go to the governor’s palace. When Amerine arrived, he was escorted into a dimly lit room filled with the tribal and religious leaders who had led the uprising. Karzai stepped forward and, shortly after introducing him to a number of the leaders, informed the Green Beret captain that a force of Taliban soldiers estimated to be 1,000 strong and traveling in 100 vehicles was en route to Tarin Kowt and would arrive sometime the following day. Alarmed, Amerine tried to immediately excuse himself. But, it was the first day of Ramadan, and, as a guest, protocol required he remain for a little while.
Amerine’s mind began racing. Even discounting the estimate of the approaching Taliban force by half, that still meant his 11 Special Forces soldiers, AFSOC combat controller, and an unknown number of highly motivated but untrained Afghan guerrillas would be facing about 500 well-armed, trained, and mobile Taliban fighters. With such a disparity of forces, Amerine knew that his only hope was to stop the Taliban well before they reached the town’s outskirts. Once they entered Tarin Kowt, his one real countermeasure, air strikes, would be nullified. Finally, after telling Karzai to send him as many guerrillas as possible, Amerine managed to excuse himself and rush back to his men.
Even though it was now about 12:30 a.m. and the Americans had had little rest in two days, they responded with alacrity. Yoshimoto got on the network and quickly announced that he had two Navy F/A-18 fighters inbound. Meanwhile the others pored over maps of the area to identify likely routes of attack and where they should establish their observation posts, lines of defense, and, if necessary, escape routes for themselves and Karzai. They identified two mountain passes that the approaching force could take and then marked some likely sites where they could establish observation posts where they would direct air strikes. Yoshimoto suddenly announced that the F/A-18s had spotted a convoy of eight vehicles about 20 miles away approaching Tarin Kowt, and requested instructions. The group agreed that it was part of the attacking force, probably the lead element. Amerine looked at his combat controller and said, “Smoke ’em.” A few minutes later the convoy was destroyed.
Karzai soon arrived with disappointing news – only about 30 guerrillas were available and would arrive at about 3:00 a.m. With such a small force, Amerine knew he couldn’t set up observation posts at both avenues of approach; he could only do one. The larger of the two, and thus the more likely route, was through the Tarin Kowt Pass. Together with air support, Amerine believed he could bottle up the Taliban force there and, perhaps, even rout it. At 4:00 a.m. the guerrillas arrived, none of whom spoke English. Communication would have to be by hand signals and demonstrative action. Hoping that he had guessed correctly about the Taliban’s approach, Amerine and his men grabbed their gear and weapons and headed out.
To reach the proposed observation/defense site, Amerine’s convoy had to first travel through a labyrinth of large hills and then cross a valley. By the time the convoy reached the summit of a plateau at the edge of the labyrinth, it was daylight. Amerine signaled for his driver to stop.
The sight below and before him filled the Green Beret captain with excitement. From their location, they could see Tarin Kowt Pass. More importantly, between them and that pass was a desert valley seven miles wide and forming what the Americans saw was a perfect kill zone. The Taliban convoy would be sitting ducks to air strikes along the entire route. And, because they were on an easily defended plateau, any Taliban vehicles that survived the gauntlet could be easily destroyed and bottled up as they traveled up the steep road toward them.
By this time, the two F/A-18s had been replaced by three other F/A-18s. As the Americans separated to their assigned tasks, one of them saw light being reflected off something emerging from the mouth of Tarin Kowt Pass. As more and more vehicles emerged, the Americans realized that the eight vehicles that had been bombed earlier were actually the tail of the Taliban convoy, not its lead. Yoshimoto got on his radio and gave the F/A-18s flying 30,000 feet above clearance to bomb the convoy. The first bomb was a miss. The second was on target. The direct hit of the second bomb caused the Americans to let out a cheer that abruptly stopped when they realized they were the only ones doing so. When the first bomb had exploded, the untrained Afghan guerrillas with them had panicked and dashed back to their vehicles. To the Americans’ surprise and anger, the Afghans were in the process of retreating back to Tarin Kowt. Unable to explain what was happening, the furious Americans were forced to join them. As Amerine later said, “It really felt like we were seizing defeat from the jaws of victory at that point.”
Somehow during the ride back Yoshimoto was able to send out the message: “Troops in contact!” Immediately air priorities throughout the theater changed and every available air asset was rerouted to assist Amerine and his men.
Only after the group arrived in Tarin Kowt were the Americans able to reassert a semblance of control. Commandeering two trucks, they drove to the edge of town and took the fight back to the Taliban. By this time, the enemy convoy had split into three columns and was in the process of driving over three roads through the labyrinth. Yoshimoto re-established contact with the three F/A-18s and directed them to bomb the middle column, which was the largest. As more aircraft arrived, all three Taliban columns came under attack from the air. By 10:30 a.m., it was all over. Though one group of Taliban fighters managed to reach the town via a back road, it was the only one to do so. It was quickly repulsed by Karzai’s guerrillas and then, as it retreated, bombed by aircraft. A post-battle assessment revealed that the Taliban had lost at least 300 men killed and more than 30 vehicles destroyed.
ODA 574’s victory over the Taliban in the Battle of Tarin Kowt proved decisive. Before the day was out, the Taliban’s grip in the region began evaporating. As word of their defeat spread, one village after another in the south began switching sides and Karzai had a Southern Alliance counterpart to the Northern Alliance. Men began arriving to join his guerrilla army. On top of that, Karzai started receiving overtures of possible surrender of Kandahar. Plans were immediately made for an assault on the city. On Nov. 30, ODA 574, together with a guerrilla force of about 300 men, began the offensive to seize Kandahar.
On Dec. 2, the force invested Shawali Kowt, a town on the Arghandab River and considered the gateway to Kandahar. That night, the Taliban launched a major counterattack with about 100 men. Most of the guerrillas rapidly retreated before the determined attack. Amerine and his men, together with about 25 guerrillas retreated to a large whale-shaped hill that was promptly named the Alamo, as it was surrounded. Supported by air strikes from AC-130 gunships that pounded the Taliban assembly areas, the group successfully fought off all the enemy’s attempts to destroy them. For the next two days, additional air strikes were directed at Taliban emplacements on the other side of the river. Tragically, on Dec. 5, ODA 574 and the Afghan troops with them on the Alamo suffered a blue-on-blue incident when a misdirected bomb fell on their position. Three Green Berets were killed and more than a score of warriors were wounded.
On Dec. 6, with Southern Alliance forces poised to attack the city, Taliban leader Mohammed Omar and the remaining Taliban troops with him slipped away in a convoy of motorcycles. The next day, the spiritual home of the Taliban was in the hands of ODA 574 and the Southern Alliance. Four days later, Karzai was sworn in as the prime minister of the interim government of Afghanistan.
This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.