Even before the first of the towers had fallen in New York City, and with the Pentagon still smoldering, America’s special operators were mobilizing for the war they had spent a half-century preparing to fight.
Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) combat controllers rushed to their units, while Army Special Forces (SF) soldiers began to pull out of overseas training missions and return to their home bases. What would become Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan (OEF-A) was built “on the fly” in just four weeks following 9/11.
Surrounded by countries usually hostile or indifferent to the United States, Afghanistan was the perfect hideout for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. But worldwide outrage over the Sept. 11 attacks enabled Secretary of State Colin Powell to forge a global coalition against terrorism. Pakistan reluctantly became America’s partner, while Uzbekistan became the first ex-Soviet nation in Central Asia to allow U.S. basing.
This was not an act of terrorism, but it was an act of war.
– President George W. Bush
Over 10 days, Bush administration officials hammered out the war plan. They quickly realized there would be no way to get conventional ground units into Afghanistan for months. Cofer Black, Central Inteligence Agency (CIA) deputy director for counterterrorism, is credited with the idea of a CIA/SOF-based insurgency campaign to bring down the Taliban and smash al Qaeda. He proposed sending CIA field operatives and SF teams to support the Northern Alliance, a ragtag group of ethnic warlords maintaining a precarious resistance to the Taliban in remote corners of Afghanistan. With American airpower, and resupply of weapons, ammunition, and other gear, the Northern Alliance could begin hitting back quickly, preparing the way for an offensive in the spring of 2002.
At Special Operations Command (SOCOM) headquarters in Tampa, Fla., Gen. Charles R. Holland, USAF, and his staff faced the challenge of packaging SOF units and delivering them to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Everything had to be ready in days, not months: unit training and selection, transportation, and logistical lines of supply into a landlocked region of roadless mountains and high desert. SOCOM also had to innovate new solutions to support the evolving war plan, which demanded a small, discreet footprint in the Islamic nations of the growing coalition. An example was the decision to “borrow” USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) from U.S. 7th Fleet, disembark most of her air wing, and use the flattop as a mobile SOF base in the Arabian Sea. Loaded with SOF helicopters, Rangers, and Special Mission Unit (SMU) personnel from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Kitty Hawk was invaluable as both an operating base and medical facility.
Units selected for initial deployment made up a rainbow of SOF capabilities: Navy SEALs and Special Boat Teams, AFSOC aircraft and Special Tactics personnel, Army SF, Rangers, and helicopters and flight crews from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). At the core of all this was the 5th Special Forces Group (SFG). Led by then-Col. John Mulholland, USA, and then-Capt. Robert Harward, USN, they would become Combined/Joint Special Operations Task Force-North (C/JSOTF-N) and -South (C/JSOTF-S) respectively. C/JSOTF-N, also known as Task Force Dagger, was based at Karshi-Khanabad (known as “K2”), Uzbekistan, on an old Soviet air base just 90 miles from the Afghan border. JSOTF-N’s facilities were built from an old garbage dump by USASOC signals and support personnel, and austerely supplied by long-haul airlift.
On Oct. 7, 2001, OEF-A opened with air strikes and cruise missile attacks from vessels in the Arabian Sea and B-2A bombers flying in from the United States, Diego Garcia, and Guam. This paved the way for SOF forces, inserted when the weather cleared later that month. On Oct. 19, helicopters from K2 lifted two SF Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) teams into Bagram and Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. They linked up with CIA personnel and set to work with their new partners, the Northern Alliance. Simultaneously, Rangers and SMUs dropped onto “Objective Rhino,” an airfield near Kandahar. After raiding Rhino, the Rangers and SMUs were flown by helicopter to Kitty Hawk, which became their base for the next several months.
Within hours, AFSOC combat controllers attached to the two ODAs began to call in precision air strikes against Taliban positions, many invisible to satellites or reconnaissance aircraft. Strike fighters and heavy bombers began to pound Taliban and al Qaeda across northern Afghanistan, while Northern Alliance fighters were resupplied and trained by SF personnel. Realizing the beating the Taliban and al Qaeda were taking from American air strikes, and seeing the growing power of their resupplied forces, Northern Alliance leaders pressed to take the offensive in November at the strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where dug-in opposing forces had faced each other in a World War I-style stalemate for years. Mounting some of the ODAs on horseback for mobility, Northern Alliance forces swept into Mazar-e-Sharif on Nov. 9, and took the city and airfield by storm.
More ODAs were inserted into northern Afghanistan, along with several in the south by C/JSOTF-S. Everywhere in Afghanistan, cities surrendered, and whole battalions of Taliban fighters surrendered and changed sides. The demoralized Taliban/al Qaeda forces began a disorderly retreat that ended a month later with the surrender of Kandahar. In just 49 days, with fewer than 300 sets of American “boots on the ground,” SOF achieved what 50,000 Soviet troops had failed to accomplish in almost 10 years. And while Soviet losses were more than 16,000, U.S. forces lost just three men. Despite the relatively low cost, what was accomplished was neither simple nor easy. Every part of SOCOM made critical contributions, and the lack of any component might have doomed the rest of the campaign.