With the surrender of the Taliban government at Kandahar in early December 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A), Rotation I began to wind down a bit. There was still the brutal fighting in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan near Tora Bora ahead, in a tantalizingly close-to-success operation to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. Sadly, the terrain, less reliable allies in the form of the Pashto-based Eastern Alliance, and subterfuge on the part of bin Laden allowed the al Qaeda leadership to slip over the mountains into Pakistan. Nevertheless, even 10 years later, with the hindsight of what might have been, the opening weeks of OEF-A had been the most spectacular military success in the history of special operations forces (SOF) and unconventional warfare (UW).
This did not mean that it was militarily or politically perfect. The rapid fall of the Taliban following their defeats at Mazar-e Sharif, Kunduz, and other strongpoints were a mixed blessing for those who wanted a balanced, democratic transition process to emerge. When Washington, D.C., forwarded orders to the SOF personnel of Operational Detachment – Alpha (ODA) 555 to “not let the Northern Alliance capture Kabul,” they might have been
more successful spitting into a tornado. The reality of those first seven weeks of “boots on the ground” operations during OEF-A were a classic example of “catastrophic success,” which had never been anticipated, even in the fertile minds of its creators and commanders like Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Hugh Shelton, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Counterterrorist Center Director Cofer Black, John F. Mulholland, Jr., and Robert “Bob” Harward. America’s first campaign of its inaugural war of the 21st century had not just been a victory, but had in fact redefined war itself in the minds of many across the globe.
Costs, Benefits, and Lessons Learned
In terms of the personnel involved, OEF-A during those initial days was the very definition of the term “economy of force,” with estimates running to fewer than 300 sets of U.S. boots on the ground (CIA, contractor, and military) prior to the Taliban surrender. In just 49 amazing days, with the support of the U.S. military’s air and space power, the men of OEF-A did something that the massive armies of Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union never did: occupy Afghanistan. That this was done by the allied forces with only four combat deaths (three to so-called “friendly fire”) and a handful of operational casualties and aircraft losses, still stands as one of OEF-A’s signature achievements. Present-day estimates put Soviet-era (1979-1989) combat deaths in Afghanistan at between 13,000 and 16,000 out of a force that ranged between 50,000 to 100,000 personnel in country.
Not since the combined SOE/OSS Jedburgh operations following D-Day in 1944 had so few personnel been able to leverage their specialized military skills onto so many motivated insurgent fighters in one short campaign. That the synergies between modern communications, precision-guided weapons, and sensor technologies merged perfectly with the age-old principles of UW (“guerrilla warfare”) all came together in the early years of the 21st century just made the results that more surreal when they became public. Prior to 9/11 and OEF-A, few Americans were even aware of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) SOF professionals and what they were capable of doing in a quickly evolving world. The 9/11 attacks had left the country stunned, outraged, and focused on protecting the homeland, which suited SOCOM and its “quiet professionals” just fine.
This happy arrangement, however, rapidly changed when the first photos of SOF
personnel riding Afghan ponies and using mules to haul their gear and supplies hit the wires. While then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had already confirmed the deployment of “small numbers of SOF personnel” to Afghanistan, their impact is still not fully understood by most military personnel and analysts today. And what those first couple of A-Teams did in northern Afghanistan in late October 2001 was mind-boggling.
It is a matter of record that within days of the first airstrikes run on Oct. 9, 2001, that U.S. strike planners had run themselves out of obvious targets to attack. Already near oblivion status after more than two decades of sustained combat since the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was a land where hiding things from aerial observation had become an art form. But within hours of their insertion on the night of Oct. 19, 2001, ODAs 555 and 595 were delivering real-time targeting data and coordinates to allied planners and aircrews. Thanks to their ability to see “under” the camouflage and “dwell” in an area being observed, the ODAs and their U.S. Air Force CCT/TAC-Ps were able to keep a constant stream of “fresh” targets going into the cockpits of everything from Navy/Marine F-14s and F/A-18s, to massive USAF B-1B Lancer and B-52H Stratofortress heavy bombers. And once the rain of precision munitions from those aircraft began, the Taliban military began to come apart. This became what today is known as “full-spectrum” targeting.
Perhaps the most important lesson of all is about the nature of SOF units themselves. SOCOM began OEF-A with units depleted from over a decade of hard use worldwide, without having had a chance to determine their own structure and sizing. SOF units and personnel are not created overnight when a crisis breaks out, and SOF aviation in particular was always in short supply during OEF-A and the subsequent invasion of Iraq 18 months later. It took until the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2006 to fully justify a balanced expansion plan for the various component commands within SOCOM, a process that was under way as this was written. In some cases, the SOF community has had to build new schoolhouses and training programs just to start the expansion. But when America’s current conflicts begin to abate, and our SOF units begin to disengage and come home, they will return to the new bases, equipment, and infrastructure, that they so richly deserve.
Those first 49 days of boots on the ground during OEF-A have many different meanings to the various communities within the SOF world. But to a man, they all have known that this was the war that they were born to fight and win. And while conventional military forces and government agencies have taken their places in America’s global conflicts over the past decade, they have done so on a road paved by the quiet professionals of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
It was appropriate that, on May 1, 2011, it was not a cruise missile or a JDAM but U.S. special operations forces who eliminated Osama bin Laden, face to face and with prejudice. In a perfectly executed operation, U.S. helicopters flew to Abbottabad, Pakistan, and dropped special operators directly into the walled compound in which bin Laden was hiding. Within 40 minutes, the operation was over and bin Laden’s body was on the way to a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to be positively identified. No U.S. SOF were killed or wounded, not even aboard a helicopter that landed heavily and had to be destroyed in place. So ended an almost 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. While the fight against radical ideologies and the terrorism they support goes on, the raid closed a chapter in American SOF that began with “the 49 days” of OEF-A, Rotation I.
Editor’s Note: Even now, a decade later, many of the names, stories, and details of OEF-A, Rotation I remain classified, and necessarily must still be treated with discretion. As has been our editorial practice since our first coverage of SOF began, we have avoided subjects and areas that we know still are sensitive to the SOF community, along with regularly consulting with the relevant public affairs offices and personnel. Perhaps in another decade or two, a fuller telling of the OEF-A story may be possible. For now, however, our thanks go to those within the SOF, intelligence, and political communities who have shared their memories of that time with us, and you.
This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.