“They established benchmark standards of professionalism, tenacity, courage, tactical brilliance, and operational excellence.” – Secretary of the Navy Gordon England, Presidential Unit Citation ceremony for Task Force K-Bar, Dec. 7, 2004
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States suffered the greatest terrorist attack on its soil when four teams of terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners. Two crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, destroying them, a third smashed into the western side of the Pentagon, and a fourth, intended for the Capitol, instead crashed into a field in Pennsylvania thanks to the heroic efforts of the airliner’s passengers. Even before the debris had settled over the ruins and wreckage, plans were prepared and ordered and were issued for Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A), the military response against al Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks, and the Taliban, the rogue government harboring them. In a radical departure from past military campaigns, OEF-A would be primarily a Special Operations Command (SOCOM) campaign. When operations commenced on Oct. 7, 2001, the task was daunting, with some feeling that SOCOM had bitten off more than it could chew. The Taliban controlled approximately 80 percent of the country and the outnumbered and outgunned anti-Taliban Northern Alliance had its back literally against the wall, hemmed into a small region in northwest Afghanistan. By April 2002, the Taliban government would be eliminated and the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan destroyed. One important reason for the dramatic turnaround in such a breathtakingly short period of time was the SEAL-led coalition special operations unit designated Task Force K-Bar.
In September 2001, Navy SEAL then-Rear Adm. Albert M. Calland III was tasked with leading the initial phases of the war in Afghanistan. He divided the country into two commands: Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-North (CJSOTF-N) and Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-South (CJSOTF-S). The ground troops for CJSOTF-N, named Task Force Dagger, were primarily Special Forces operators – Green Berets – and became famous as the “Horse Soldiers” for their use of Afghan ponies in the campaign. They were tasked with coordinating missions with the Afghan resistance, fighting “the war for Afghanistan” to defeat the Taliban government. CJSOTF-S, named Task Force K-Bar, was tasked with fighting “the war on terrorism” and working unilaterally to destroy al Qaeda’s ability to conduct operations in the country.
Then-Capt. Robert Harward, a Navy SEAL, was the commander of Task Force K-Bar, a coalition force of approximately 2,800 troops – roughly 1,300 ultimately stationed in Afghanistan and another 1,500 in an assortment of bases throughout the theater of operations. In addition to SEALs, Marines, Navy Seabees, Army Special Forces, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) troops, Army helicopter support, and Army 4th Psychological Operations Group personnel, Task Force K-Bar included special operations personnel from Joint Task Force 2 (Canada), the Australian Special Air Service Regiment, New Zealand Special Air Service, Kommando Spezialkräfte (Germany), Jægerkorpset og Frømandskorpset (Denmark), Jegerkommando og Marinejegerkommandoen (Norway), and Turkish Special Forces.
In the seven months of its existence, from October 2001 to April 2002, Task Force K-Bar carried out more than 75 missions, destroyed about 500,000 pounds of explosives and weapons, conducted sensitive site exploitation, and leadership interdiction missions that led to the killing of more than 115 Taliban and al Qaeda leaders and the capture of an additional 107 senior Taliban leaders. It accomplished an unprecedented 100 percent mission success rate, a feat even more impressive given the wide variety of the missions.
Those missions included special reconnaissance; direct action; search and rescue; recovery dive operations; boardings of high-interest, non-compliant vessels; sensitive site exploitation; hydrographic reconnaissance; destruction of multiple cave and tunnel complexes; apprehension of military and political detainees; and identification and destruction of al Qaeda training camps.
Harward established his headquarters in Oman in early October 2001, and immediately ordered a series of anti-smuggling and reconnaissance missions. One of the members of his planning staff was SEAL Lt. Cmdr. Mike Cura, a training and administration Reserve (TAR) officer. His work as a joint planning officer and night operations officer at headquarters and in reconnaissance operations in Afghanistan resulted in him being the only TAR officer ever to receive the Bronze Star. Anti-smuggling missions included the interdiction of vessels in the Arabian Gulf suspected of carrying arms that would be offloaded in remote areas of the Pakistani coast. Reconnaissance missions involved the insertion of teams throughout southern Afghanistan.
Unlike northern Afghanistan, which is mostly mountainous, southern Afghanistan has large areas of deserts and plateaus where transport by off-road vehicles is much easier. The SEALs had in their transport inventory the ideal vehicle for the terrain they would encounter there: the Chenoweth Fast Attack Vehicle (FAV), also known as a Desert Patrol Vehicle. Basically a dune buggy on steroids, the 2,700-pound FAV mounts an air-cooled VW engine generating 200 horsepower, and has a top speed of more than 80 mph and a range from 200 miles, expandable to 1,000 miles with optional fuel bladders. With a weapons package that includes an M2 .50-caliber machine gun, a Mk. 19 40 mm grenade launcher, and an M60 7.62 mm machine gun, a ground clearance of 17 inches and a payload of 1,550 pounds, it’s a deadly “shoot and scoot” vehicle of the first order. Shortly after Harward set up command, AFSOC MH-53 Pave Low helicopters from the 20th Special Operations Squadron began night flights into southern Afghanistan, offloading SEAL recon teams and their FAVs.
According to intelligence, air strikes coordinated by the recon teams on the ground were proving so effective that within a month the strategic initiative was beginning to shift against the Taliban. Harward saw an opportunity to advance the timetable of initiating major ground operations in Afghanistan. He tasked his intelligence team with finding a suitable site where he could establish a forward operating base in country.
They identified a small desert outpost beside an airstrip in the Registan Desert of southeast Afghanistan about 190 kilometers southwest of Kandahar. Believed to be a drug distribution hub, the compound was surrounded by a wall 3 meters high, with reinforced guard towers located at each corner. On the night of Nov. 21, 2001, SEAL recon teams covertly landed near the outpost, on terrain that some compared to the surface of the moon. The intelligence the team transmitted gave Harward the final pieces of information he needed. The mission to seize the compound and airstrip was scheduled for Nov. 25.
On the night of Nov. 25, CH-53E Super Stallions and AH-1W Super Cobra gunships from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) lifted off the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu stationed in the North Arabian Sea and headed north. By the time they were “feet dry” – over land – above Afghanistan, they had been joined by KC-130 Spectre gunships and other aircraft. As they approached the outpost, the SEALs hiding near the airstrip were given the order to secure it. The SEALs quickly did so. Minutes later, the CH-53Es arrived. The Marines promptly disembarked and captured the outpost without a shot being fired. At a distance of 689 kilometers, the capture of the outpost, soon named Camp Rhino, was the longest amphibious raid in history. It immediately became an important base of operations for the campaign, and made the ground war in Afghanistan possible.
Perhaps the SEALs’ most challenging missions were the high-altitude reconnaissance missions. Then-Cmdr. Kerry Metz, USN, Task Force K-Bar director of operations, later said the teams conducted “missions in some of the most hostile environments ever operated in.” These included “special reconnaissance teams operating in the mountains of Afghanistan above 10,000 feet for extended periods without resupply.” One such mission was the multi-day surveillance of the al Qaeda fortress of Ali Kheyl that resulted in a raid. Located near Khost, the multi-storied structure was 14,000 feet above sea level. Harward later said, “That place was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. We expected to see Steven Spielberg at any minute!”
Photos later released of Task Force K-Bar observation posts established in snow banks and in rugged rock outcroppings show teams hidden beneath asymmetrical tarps and so well camouflaged that, particularly in the case of sites located among rock outcroppings, that when the tarp’s base was secured to the ground, the observation post was undetectable even from a few feet away.
Arguably the most significant, certainly the most spectacular, mission conducted by Task Force K-Bar occurred in January 2002 in a narrow canyon in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, about 16 kilometers southwest of Khost and four kilometers from the Pakistani border. The place was called Zhawar Kili.
Created by the mujahideen guerrillas fighting the Soviet Army during the Soviet-Afghanistan War (1978-92), Zhawar Kili was initially used as a training base. Because of its strategic location close to the Pakistani border, it soon expanded into a major base for supplies and combat operation planning as well. At its height during that war, it contained at least 11 major tunnels, some extending as far as 500 meters into the mountain, and facilities included a hotel, a mosque, arms depots, repair shops, a garage, a small hospital, a communications center, and a kitchen. Following the rise of the Taliban, intelligence determined that the canyon had subsequently become an al Qaeda base of operations. In 1998, U.S. cruise missiles had been launched against the complex in response to al Qaeda’s bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Though intelligence had determined that there were multiple targets of interest in Zhawar Kili, the extent of al Qaeda’s use of the canyon was unknown.
In December 2001, a recon mission for Zhawar Kili was green lighted. The plan called for a straightforward intelligence-gathering operation lasting just 12 hours. In early January, a SEAL team was covertly inserted. What they discovered was that the intelligence assessment of “multiple targets of interest” was a huge understatement. Al Qaeda had expanded the site and turned it into a sophisticated logistics, command and control, and training complex containing three areas, one above ground and two separate cave areas covering about 9 square miles and containing more than 60 surface buildings and a network of more than 70 caves. It contained everything from towed artillery and tracked military vehicles to, literally, the kitchen sink.
As soon as this information was transmitted to headquarters, a complete rethink of the mission was initiated. The result became a nine-day combined-force operation that included air strikes by B-1 and B-52 bombers and tactical carrier and coalition aircraft. More than 100 sorties a day were flown, dropping more than 400,000 pounds of ordnance, much of it precision-guided munitions.
After all the al Qaeda insurgents in Zhawar Kili had been either killed or captured, the SEALs, supported by Marines, began gathering a treasure trove of intelligence. Ultimately more than a million pounds of explosives and equipment was discovered, with the SEALs destroying about half of that, as well as most of the caves.
The ability of SEALs to conduct a time-sensitive joint operation on the fly was dramatically demonstrated the following month. In late February, Harward in his headquarters at Camp Rhino received the message that “Mullah K has left the building. He’s on the move.” The video camera of a Predator drone on a surveillance mission in Patika province had picked up the image of senior Taliban leader Mullah Khairullah Khairkhawa leaving one of the buildings it had under observation. Harward immediately alerted his staff and within 30 minutes a mission to capture “Mullah K” was drawn up. It called for a joint team of 40 SEALs and Danish special operations troops to fly in on an MH-53M Pave Low helicopter with an AH-64A Apache helicopter escort and capture him. Thirty minutes later, the mission was done, and Mullah Khairullah Khairkhawana was in a holding cell under guard in Camp Rhino.
By March 2002, the strategic situation in Afghanistan had reversed. A new transitional government led by Hamid Karzai was in place in the Afghan capital of Kabul and the Taliban and al Qaeda were on the run. Conventional forces were arriving as part of the transition to a new stage of ground operations. In April, Task Force K-Bar’s mission was over, and the many units that composed it were in the process of returning to their respective units and countries.
The spectacular success of SEALs in Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan demonstrated their versatility to operate not just in every possible combat environment, but to also successfully conduct complex, and even critical, time-sensitive joint missions on a moment’s notice. A number of the senior officers from Task Force K-Bar were interviewed by dignitaries and the press. One such officer was Metz, who spoke before members of Congress in May 2002. In his statements, he also made a point of praising the special operations personnel from the other nations, stating, “We were fortunate to have the finest special operators from a coalition of seven nations.”
America’s gratitude did not end with verbal praise for the task force’s achievements. On the morning of Dec. 7, 2004, President George W. Bush arrived at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and presented the Presidential Unit Citation to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-South/Task Force K-Bar. The citation read:
For extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy in Afghanistan from 17 October 2001 to 30 March 2002. Throughout this period, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-SOUTH/Task Force K-BAR, operating first from Oman and then from forward locations throughout the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan, successfully executed its primary mission to conduct special operations in support of the United States’ efforts as delegated to Commander, U.S. Central Command through the Joint Forces Special Operations Component Command, to destroy, degrade, and neutralize the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership and military. During its six-month existence, Task Force K-BAR was the driving force behind myriad combat missions conducted in Combined Joint Operations Area Afghanistan. These precedent setting and extremely high-risk missions included search and rescue, recovery dive operations, non-compliant boardings of high interest vessels, special reconnaissance, hydrographic reconnaissance, sensitive site exploitation, direct action missions, apprehension of military and political detainees, destruction of multiple cave and tunnel complexes, identification and destruction of several known Al Qaeda training camps, explosion of thousands of pounds of enemy ordnance and successful coordination of unconventional warfare operations for Afghanistan. The Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and coalition partners of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-SOUTH/Task Force K-BAR set an unprecedented 100 percent mission success rate across a broad spectrum of special operations missions while operating under extremely difficult and constantly dangerous conditions. They established benchmark standards of professionalism, tenacity, courage, tactical brilliance, and professional excellence while demonstrating superb esprit de corps and maintaining the highest measure of combat readiness. By their outstanding courage, resourcefulness and aggressive fighting spirit in combat against a well equipped, well trained, and treacherous terrorist enemy, the officers and enlisted personnel of Combined Joint Special Operations Task-Force SOUTH/Task Force K-BAR reflected great credit upon themselves and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Armed Forces.
This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.