PBS interview with the "Horse Soldiers"

Ravage

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Those of us who read the book know them as "Horse Soldiers". But those in the community know them as members of ODA 595 and ODA 555 ("Triple Nickel"). PBS did an interview with these extraordinary men:

ODA 595:
What is [your Special Forces] unit, that we see in front of us here?

Paul, Master Sgt.:
What we have here is a standard Special Forces detachment Alpha, which is a 12-man unit of Special Forces soldiers, consisting of a captain, a warrant officer, and an operations NCO, two medical NCOs, two weapons NCOs, two engineers and two communications sergeants. And we're equipped to go out and conduct special operations throughout the world.


What kind of operations are called special operations?

Mark, Capt.:
Special operations consist of direct action-type missions, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, which encompasses both direct action and special reconnaissance and can fluctuate between a rural or an urban type environment. We also conduct foreign internal defense where Special Forces teams travel to other countries in the CENTCOM region and work with foreign militaries training their soldiers, establishing military-to-military relationships, exchanging ideas and just tactics and how each other works. ...


Can you talk about the philosophy of the way you are trained? Is that unique to this team?

Mark, Capt.:
This detachment primarily focuses on unconventional warfare. In doing that, in training for that type of mission, all the members of the detachment are thoroughly trained in communications, thoroughly cross-trained in communications, basic medical skills, first aid, initial trauma assessment, etc., as well as weapons proficiency of all types. And that also includes all of us being cross-trained in calling in close air support. This higher degree of cross-training allows us to operate and train in small two-man elements up to 12 men. The team has done this for years. And that is their standard operating procedure.


Could each one of you talk about what your role is on the team?

Bill, Sgt.:
I am a medical sergeant on the team. I provide medical care for the team and any of the host nations that I go to.

Bob, Chief Warrant Officer:
I'm the team tech, and I help with the operations of the team.


What's that mean?

Mark, Capt.: He's the deputy commander.

Bob, Chief Warrant Officer:
Yes, exactly. The executive officer.

Mark, Capt.:
I'm the detachment commander. I'm in overall command of the detachment with the mission to advise and assist up to a battalion-sized foreign unit.

Will, Sgt.:
I'm a communications sergeant. My responsibility would be to maintain radio equipment, pass traffic, any information that we have to higher and from higher leadership. Set up radios and equipment to call CAS [close air support.]

Vince, Sgt. 1st Class:
I'm the senior communications sergeant. My job is to maintain communications with the higher [commanders,] ... and ensuring that we get our messages back up to higher headquarters.

Mike, Staff Sgt.:
I'm weapon sergeant on team. My main responsibility is to make sure our weapons are fully capable, and ready to go. I also train the detachment on foreign weapons, also U.S. weapons, and also advise on tactics.

Paul, Master Sgt.:
I'm Operations NCO. My primary job is to ensure the training of the detachment. Secondary job is then to help write and prepare the orders to deploy us. ...

Pete, Staff Sgt.:
I'm the engineer on the team. My primary mission is to train the team on demolitions. And also if there's a mission where [we] blow something up, be the advisor on that. And also another role that's just as important is the logistics, not only for us but for the host nation. Providing everything from food and clothing to vehicles.

Paul, Master Sgt.:
One thing about the training that all the soldiers receive, they basically have given you their basic duties. Everyone also has secondary training that they have received, that they call upon throughout their missions to assist us -- sniper training, SCUBA, HALO, ... there's a whole long list of other things that go in to being a Special Forces soldier that is called upon whenever we go and do these operations.


What about "warrior diplomats?" Somebody used that term.

Paul, Master Sgt.:
One of the things that you get by being in this job for any length of time, you go to a lot of different countries. Every year we're going to two or three different countries, working with foreign soldiers who, when we go work with them five to ten years later, will be the senior military leaders of that country's military.

We're really not officially trained in it, but we are developed through on-the-job training to become diplomats, because the senior guys, anyways, they go there, they work with these foreign soldiers, they work with a whole bunch of different people. I mean, to go to a foreign country, not only are we working with the foreign government, we're working with our own government just to get there. So you become more politically attuned. And in our case, during this war it was very easy. They wanted about the same thing we want. So it's kind of easy to do. ...


Can you tell us the date when you first got your orders to go into Afghanistan?

Mark, Capt.:
We got our orders in mid-October. And the mission we received was to conduct unconventional warfare in support of General Abdul Rashid Dostum. And we were to render our unconventional warfare operational area unsafe for terrorists and Taliban activities. This is wide open. There is no left and right limit. Just a very broad, open ended mission of, "Get in there, figure it out and make it happen." ...

Bob, Chief Warrant Officer:
When we did get tasked with the mission, though, our first objective was to study Dostum. What was he like, who was he. And the intelligence we got on him at first was nothing like it was when we saw him, totally different.

Bill, Sgt.:
They said he was a frail, wounded man. Just kind of your old guy kind of picture.

Bob, Chief Warrant Officer:
"He had diabetes, he was crippled." But when we first met him, nowhere was he like that. He almost looked like Santa Claus, if Santa didn't have a full white beard. ...

Mark, Capt.:
When we first met him, he was healthy as an ox. He came riding up with his Northern Alliance horsemen and jumped off his horse and gave us all a firm welcome handshake. And over the next few weeks and months, as our relationship grew, the guy was phenomenal. He was working 20-hour-plus days, hardly sleeping. He was just always on the go, always talking to someone, always trying to coordinate actions of the Northern Alliance forces to make it happen.


Tell some stories about the infil, and then when you finally got on the ground. What was that like?

Bill, Sgt.:
The infil was excellent. It couldn't have been smoother. It was probably the smoothest helicopter ride I've ever had in my life. It was straight in. ... The only shaky point was when we did in-flight refueling. And that's because you've got an aircraft that was just right on top of you, and you could see it out the window.

Mark, Capt.:
We're flying blacked out in this MH-47 helicopter from the 160th. Immediately after taking off, they're conducting this in-flight aerial refueling. So it's kind of bumpy as they're refueling the helicopter. They're doing this at a very low altitude, blacked out, under night-vision goggles, which they train constantly for. And upon completing the aerial refueling, then we're dropping down to an even lower altitude at a screaming air speed, just headed into Indian country. And we hit a surprise sand storm and heavy fog which created near-zero visibility conditions, and the armed escort aircraft had to turn back, and we flew alone through the mountains the remainder of that trip. And the pilot gave us a perfect infiltration. They put us right down in the exact location we were supposed to be, right exactly on time. And from our perspective, it was a perfect infiltration, in the back. But talking with the pilots, it was an extremely harrowing infil. ...

Bob, Chief Warrant Officer:
Well, that was their time to chew their nails. When the ramp drops, then it's our time to chew our nails.


And what happened then?

Paul, Master Sgt.:
If you've ever been around a helicopter, they kick up a lot of dust. We all had very heavy packs on our backs, just around a hundred pounds worth of equipment, and a couple of extra bags. We came out the back of the helicopter through the dust and clouds. You saw the Afghans coming out to lead us. It was a tense time, and very eerie, because they wear robes with AK-47s coming out of them.

Bob, Chief Warrant Officer:
It was like the sand people from "Star Wars," coming at you. Of course, you can't see their face because it was dark. And you're just looking up. And they've got their weapons. But they're greeting you.

Bill, Sgt.:
The only thing that made it any kind of smooth was we knew that there should be somebody there. You just pretty much have to trust that those were the people.

Mark, Capt.:
... We went through our linkup procedures with these folks, and then confirmed that it was them, friendly forces. And then they moved us into a compound for the night. They seemed a little upset that we insisted on pulling our own security that first night. But we just got in there and we don't fully trust these people. Yes, we're there to work with them. But we were going to ensure that we maintain our own security. And so, for this first night, we have American Special Forces sergeants with Northern Alliance soldiers, guarding the other members of the element while they sleep.


Where did you sleep?

Mark, Capt.:
In the finest caves and buildings that Afghans could provide. We were sleeping in a cleaned out cattle stable. They had laid some carpets down on the ground. We had two or three pet mice and rats that were running around the area. That was our home for the next several days.


And when did you meet Dostum?

Mark, Capt.:
Mid-morning the next day, General Dostum arrived at the compound. The compound was on the edge of a clearing. First, about 20 horsemen came galloping up. They're armed to the teeth, looking pretty rough. And, the heavy beards, RPGs. Your typical Soviet small arms is what they possessed--light machine guns, AK-47s, RPGs. And they come galloping up on horseback. And about ten minutes behind them, another 30 horsemen arrived with General Dostum. This was his main body of his personal body guards, coming there to meet us.


Sounds like a scene out of a movie.

Mark, Capt.:
Exactly. This was our first chapter in the Wild, Wild West events that we would participate in everyday. It was incredible.

Bob, Chief Warrant Officer:
He jumped off the horse. He shook our hands. Thanked us for coming. Led us into his little base camp, and grabbed Mark and I, went up to this little hill, threw out a map, said, "This is what I want to do today."

Mark, Capt.:
He had this incredible map that was hand-drawn of the entire country of Afghanistan, the major roads, lines of communication, and all the known cities, the major cities, and the known Taliban locations. And, he quickly explained his strategy and campaign plan to us. And, he wanted us to go right away with him to his mountain headquarters, and show us where the Taliban was located. And that was fine with us. We were ready to get up there, and get close to the enemy, and see what we could do.

So right away, six members of the detachment, including myself, would mount horses for the first time. And, we would ride with General Dostum, approximately four hours, to his mountain headquarters.


You mean mount horses for the first time in your life?

Mark, Capt.:
For some of them, yes.


What was that like?

Bill, Sgt.:
Scary. Invigorating. I mean, we were going up stuff a foot wide. You were a thousand feet up on a cliff that you knew, if you fell, you were dead. It was very invigorating, I think that's probably the [word]. Fortunately, I had a very good horse. So, no big deal for me. I know some of the guys had some aggressive horses. Andy had a very, very aggressive horse that liked to fight other horses. And he had a little more of a hard time controlling it.

Paul, Master Sgt.:
That's the one thing about it is, in my time there, I don't remember seeing anything but studs. They were all male horses. And anytime you get that many male horses together, they start to fight, whether you're on their back or not. You'd get out there with a whole group of these male horses with a Type A personality, and none of them would want to be last. So they'd start taking off running with you on them. Or they'd start fighting and biting each other. That was a constant hassle with the horses.

Pete, Staff Sgt.:
While we were first riding up, you're looking around thinking, "Here I am riding a horse in the middle of Afghanistan." It's a little weird. It's kind of a little bit further out than the things you might have thought you'd normally be doing. It was definitely interesting, though.

Mark, Capt.:
All these guys did an incredibly magnificent job learning how to ride under those type of conditions, the first time in combat. A few of them had ridden horses when they were five or six years old that were going around and around in a little carnival or circus.... And now they're learning how to ride in combat in mountainous terrain, narrow treacherous mountain cliffs, often riding at night. And there are mines in the area. Over the next several weeks, we were riding ten to 30 kilometers per day. We were wearing out some horses. And Will became known as "the bravest horseman in all of Afghanistan."


How'd that happen?

Will, Sgt.:
I had a particularly good, strong, spirited horse one day. We had been riding for a few hours, not terribly long. And I had already gone through several ordeals with this horse, being thrown off, and drug for kilometers through the desert, but nothing seemed to tire this horse out.

So, when these guys would come down off of a high mountain pass, they would double back, I guess. I don't know what you would call it, zig-zag down an incredibly steep slope. If you had fallen off the side of this thing, I mean you would fall to your death probably. But these horses would zig-zag down in each others' tracks.

I had zero control of my horse for some reason. And, he's coming down this mountain pass. And right where they're breaking, and going into the zig-zag, happened to actually be General Dostum. When our horses came together, he looked at me a little concerned. And I wasn't sure why. But I think he knew why, being more of a horseman than I was. And my horse turned and faced straight down the hill. And I was thinking, "Hmm, this is going to be a pretty quick zig-zag, I think." And he crouched down like a cat, and just sprung off the side of the mountain.

And, I think about three to five horse lengths later, his front feet hit. And, this guy just took off like lightening down the side of a cliff. The only thing that went through my mind was this 1980s movie, "The Man from Snowy River." And so, I was like, "Okay, the guy from Snowy River, he put his head on the back of the horse, and he put his feet up around his neck."

And so, my feet came up, my head goes back. And I have like horsetail on the back of my head. And this guy just tears down the side of this mountain where at the bottom of it is like a gully about six to 12 feet deep, and about four feet wide.

So, he comes to that thing. And of course, I'm thinking, "Well, we're going to crash because we don't have wings or brakes." And he successfully jumped over that. And, I just pulled back on one side of the reins. Because pulling back on both of them didn't do anything. And we ran around in a pretty tight circle until he stopped.

And I guess about 20 minutes later, the General and some of his entourage had finally caught up. And he had stopped, and looked at me kind of strange again, but a little different this time. And, he said something to me. And he started off again on his horse. And he turned around, and he said something again. And I knew that he was pretty serious about what he was saying. And, then we walked off. And, his translator said, "The General just paid you a great compliment." And I was like, "Wow, that's great. What did he say?" And, he said, "Truly, you are the finest horseman he has ever seen."

And I'm thinking, "Great. Let him think that anyway." And then he had stopped and said, "In addition to this, I was the most daring and brave man he had ever known." So, I guess if you get a good horse, he'll make you famous. A cowboy is nothing without his horse.


Let's talk about the objective, about Mazar-e-Sharif. Why was that important? How long did you think it was going to take to get there?

Mark, Capt.:
Part of the end state for our team was to advise and assist General Dostum in capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, but specifically to secure the airfield, or one of the airfields, around Mazar-e-Sharif so the U.S. could begin to use it as an air bridge, begin to flow in logistics, more troops and forces, and build up in Afghanistan, then to move on against the Taliban.


And how long did you think it was going to take you to get Mazar?

Mark, Capt.:
We anticipated that we'd be in those mountains until spring; again, establishing rapport with the Northern Alliance forces, assessing their capabilities, training them in larger scale operations, and then mounting their spring offensive to capture Mazar-e-Sharif.

Upon meeting General Dostum, 24 hours after we hit the ground, we were calling in our first close air support mission against the Taliban that he pointed out to us. ... General Dostum and his forces, the Uzbeks, were very aggressive in nature. And he wanted to mount an attack the next day. This was fine with the detachment.

... So we began, with General Dostum's forces, to attack. We had some small success the initial days that we did this but it began to build and build. And we began to push our way down out of these mountains. We quickly realized, because of the austere conditions, "Hey, I don't want to live here in the mountains all winter in this situation." These guys are aggressive. And, combined with all the Type A personalities on the detachment, we began to push as hard as we could for Mazar-e-Sharif. ...


What was Dostum like? You spent presumably a fair amount of time with him.

Mark, Capt.:
General Dostum was upfront and honest with me, and any member of the detachment, in any dealings that we may have had. And we were truthful and honest with him in the operations that we were going to conduct, and how we were going to go about accomplishing those objectives, like capturing Mazar-e-Sharif. We were just honest with him. And he was honest with us.


I mean, he's got a pretty nasty reputation, as you know.

Mark, Capt.:
Yes, he does. He has a very nasty, sort of ruthless reputation. And so does everybody else in that part of the country. No one's clean over there. But, somehow, we were able to find this common bond in capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, and the common bond of bringing all these different ethnic factions together to join with General Dostum, and mount a coordinated attack through the Dar-e-Suff Valley, and into Mazar-e-Sharif. ...

Bill, Sgt.:
I know one thing, too, just talking to Dostums' soldiers, their perception of Americans was not your warrior type. I guess they had seen some aid workers back before. So, what they saw as an American was not your ditch-digging cowboy type. That just wasn't what they had seen. They had seen us as more kind of a soft person. I think that was a lot of the initial thing. As it went on, by the time we got to Mazar, just dealing with them, it wasn't that way anymore. We weren't those guys. And it changed their view of Americans in a way.

Bill, Sgt.:
... It's the Dark Ages over there. When they see America, it's the computers, and its satellites. And, when you take an American out of that world and put him into their world, I think they were very surprised that we were able to do it.

Mark, Capt.:
We were living in extremely austere conditions. I mentioned, the first night, we slept in a cattle stable. From then on, we were either living on the open ground in our sleeping bags, in the fall, in the mountains in Afghanistan or we were living in caves wherever we went. ... The food that we had available-- I mean we were only carrying the tasty Army MREs. We each have half a dozen of those. But then the troops that we were there with, they were starving. So we began to share what little food we had with them. And this went a long ways towards establishing rapport. ...


Once you're on the ground, you start engaging the Taliban. Were you getting a sense of, "let's get the ball rolling?"

Mark, Capt.:
... Yes, I did receive a message that there was a sense of urgency, that you need to get moving, you need to get going. And, at the time I read this message, I was sitting on a mountaintop at about 11:00 p.m. at night, had just been riding all day. And we've been on the ground for over a week now. And we've watched and fought alongside these Northern Alliance guys through several small unit engagements for almost a week now, watching them lose casualties, seeing how they operate, providing fire support in their attacks.

We had attacked every single day. And now I get this report saying, "Hey, you need to get off your ass and get moving." And, I sat down at that point and wrote out a very detailed, lengthy message that described, again, we are moving by horseback. We are advising a man in how best to employ his horsemen and light infantry in attacking Taliban armor, which includes T-55 tanks, artillery pieces, ZSU23-2s, which is an air defense gun, against mortars, machine guns, RPGs, mines. We are outgunned technologically in that area as far as the Northern Alliance fighters are concerned. The Northern Alliance fighters only have small arms--the AK47s, light machine guns, and RPGs. They do not possess tanks, no heavy weapons, no mortar systems. We were outnumbered, initially. And, we were going against a more modernized enemy on the battlefield. ...


So you wrote your memo and what happened after that?

Mark, Capt.:
I received word some days later that it went all the way through the chain of command, through Mr. Rumsfeld, to President Bush.


And, did that change the messages coming out of Washington?

Mark, Capt.:
From where I was at, I don't know. I wasn't concerned about the messages coming out of Washington. I was concerned about how we were going to capture Mazar-e-Sharif. ...

Paul, Master Sgt.:
... The biggest problem we had wasn't that we couldn't talk to the aircraft or fire support effectively. It was the distances that we were from the battle lines to employ it initially. We were getting good results. It's just that it wasn't as great as they could have had because of the distances involved. As the battles went on, we got closer, and everything got better... .

Mark, Capt.:
I needed extra radios so I could further split my 12 men down. They sent me two additional radios. And they sent me two additional personnel. ... So now with the 14, we split the team into four three-man teams, and one two-man command control element, myself and Vince, traveling with General Dostum.

So these teams of three NCOs are out there spread over 60 kilometers of rugged mountainous terrain. And from our first engagements against the Taliban, we sat down. We did after-actions, the lessons learned. What did we do right? What did we do wrong? What can we do better tomorrow? And we immediately realized, "We can win." We can win with these Northern Alliance forces. But we've got to strip the armor and the artillery off the battlefield. And, from the second day on, we split out a three-man team that would always operate on the flank or into the rear of the Taliban positions to prevent them from mounting any type of counter-attack or reinforcements. As we would push forward with the Northern Alliance troops, and push the Taliban back, we would reposition members of my team deeper into the Taliban rear. They got pushed, the first time, about a nine hour horse ride away from my location. And I am a four hour horse ride away from the other six members of my detachment.

Later, as we progressed after the first week or so, we pushed these three NCOs another 12 hour horse ride, by foot and by horse, along some pretty tough mountain terrain to get into the flank and the rear of the Taliban. Those guys got out there and linked up with the Northern Alliance commander and about 300 troops. And they remained out there for almost 12 days, on their own, calling in their own resupply drops, engaging the Taliban in small unit engagements on that side of the gorge.

Those three men had the mission to slam the door shut on the Dar-e-Suff Valley, and prevent any type of reinforcements or counter-attack from coming in, while the rest of the team supported General Dostum's force in pushing forward through the front line defense, and cracking through that, and reducing it however we could.

So we have one team deep to west that's interdicting and preventing any type of reinforcements from coming in. I have another team of three young staff sergeants that are operating in the rear of the Taliban and on their flank. And their mission is to strike the reserve forces of the Taliban front line position, prevent them from mountain any type of local counter-attack. And then the other two elements are up close, supporting the Northern Alliance forces in the assault, and helping them to breach through the defenses.


That's pretty aggressive.

Mark, Capt.:
Yes, very aggressive.


Who's decision was that?

Mark, Capt.:
Overall, it was my decision. Every ODA is trained to operate as a split detachment, two teams of six. In isolation, we had discussed that we would go down to three teams of four. But there was much gnashing of teeth regarding splitting below a four-man team, just in order to accomplish the mission.

Paul, Master Sgt.:
The detachment has been trained to operate in three-man teams. The big reason we couldn't split below that was because of our lack of equipment. We didn't have the radio systems to be able to split beyond that.


Why take such an aggressive approach? Wasn't that more risky?

Mark, Capt.:
Yes, it was risky. But we felt comfortable with those risks. We saw how protective General Dostum was of us. And we began to have this trust and rapport developed with certain key commanders that were in the mid-level range of his commanders. These guys were matched up with a team of three of my own NCOs. They were communicating in Arabic or in Russian. And, as our comfort level, working with them, grew, their level of working with us grew. We recognized there were obvious risks. Especially if anyone of us became a casualty. You only had the other two members of the detachment there to help stabilize them immediately. And, it was, as I said, a 12 to 18 hour horse ride away from the nearest Americans that could come in there to help you out. ...


And, you thought just by seeing the situation on the ground that the Taliban was weaker than you thought they were? Why were you able to get information that quickly that you could actually take such an aggressive strategy?

Mark, Capt.:
We knew, through General Dostum's intelligence net, the approximate strength of the Taliban units, how they were equipped. We knew when Taliban reinforcements were leaving Mazar-e-Sharif, and counter-attacking or coming down south into the Dar-e-Suff Valley to reinforce the Taliban division there.

Bill, Sgt.:
We knew the air that we brought into it was just such a massive thing. ... You walked in there, and you saw the terrain, and you saw these two forces that were fighting each other, you knew that the technology that we'd bring into it, just the airplanes dropping bombs, it was just going to totally weigh it to our side. That, unlike some of the other generals that were in Afghanistan, Dostum was a very aggressive man. And we're aggressive, in that the faster I get from Point A to Point B, this mission is done with. And that kind of added to it. And this guy was right along with us. So everything just meshed together.

There were slow times where you thought, again, that this may take months, again, where the Taliban would truly fight back hard. They'd hit a position. And you'd think, "Well I'm not going to get out of here for a long time." Because I was the guy that split out to the flank and I didn't see what was going on in the front. But these guys that were on the front, on the actual front lines, they just pushed harder, and they'd break the back of those guys.


How'd you do that? How'd you break the back of those guys?

Mark, Capt.:
By coordinating the Northern Alliance attacks with close air support. We would bomb the snot out of them in the morning, right up until the ground forces would move into their assault positions, about mid-afternoon, and begin to engage the Taliban with direct fire. Then we'd shift our fire onto the rear of the Taliban positions, to let the ground force, the Northern Alliance units [close in on] the Taliban front line positions.

Once they closed with the Taliban, their technique can best be described as the swarm. They were at the gallop, firing their assault weapons, not accurately, but it was scaring the hell out of the Taliban. And they would simply ride down any Taliban that attempted to resist against them or refused to surrender. And we had a front row seat to this every day. And as they took these objectives, we would bring in the close air support again, with the priority going to the guys that were on the flanks or the rear -- my units were on the flanks or the rear -- to prevent any type of counter-attack, to prevent their withdrawal even, and slice them up. ...


And when you're doing that, when you're killing these Taliban, are you thinking you're avenging September 11th?

Paul, Master Sgt.:
... I've been in the military a long time. I thought of it as, "I've been sent here to get rid of these guys. The faster and the better I do this, the sooner I get rid of them, the sooner I go home to my family." Some of it was, "Yeah, these are bad guys that have done bad things to my country. They're going to get bad things in return." But I didn't think of myself as an avenger. I thought of myself as a soldier doing my mission so that I can carry on with my next mission, which is to go home.

Mark, Capt.:
No member of the detachment, to the best of my understanding, personally knew anyone in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. I know I personally did not. But we all realized how extremely lucky we were to be among the first military units put on the ground, into Afghanistan, to engage in combat against the enemy. And, in realizing how extremely lucky we were, it was a great feeling of pride, and a feeling of, "I'm not going to fail. There are too many people counting on us in this task."


These guys you're fighting, were they almost exclusively Taliban at this point? Or were they Al Qaeda?

Mark, Capt.:
We had some Taliban and Al Qaeda. We had a large number of foreign fighters, they are Al Qaeda. We had a large number of Pakistanis, Saudis, Yemenis, some Iraqis that we fought against, as well as some Chechens.


Do they fight differently, the foreigners?

Mark, Capt.:
The Al Qaeda? I would say they fight a little better because they have received some specialized training.

Will, Sgt.:
They were less likely to surrender as well. ... The foreign Taliban or the Al Qaeda, what we call the hardliners there, they were not ever prepared to surrender. And so, you would have sort of conscripts from Afghanistan who were forced to fight with the Taliban, who would either turn tail and run, or they would secretly make a pact with General Dostum, once the bombs started coming in, to surrender and join his forces. And they proved to be good. And they pledged their allegiance to us. And they were good guys and loyal to us, and to Dostum. But the hardliners, the Arabs, the Chechens, the Pakistanis, they were there to die and to become martyrs. And they did.

Bill, Sgt.:
They were the ones that they gave the vehicles to, also. Like where I was, all the armored vehicles, that was your Al Qaeda. And they would be the ones manning all the big guns. If you had your Afghani Taliban, you'd give him a rifle and that was it. If you had a large piece of machinery, that was your Al Qaeda running all those, which made it even worse, since those are the guys that fought even harder.

Bob, Chief:
And the hardliners, again, like Will said, they would escape as the NA forces were going to take a city or a town. They would escape, and dig into the next town or city and be prepared for another attack from the NA forces. ...


In the minds of the military planners, Condoleezza Rice [link] and all these people, they were petrified, they all said to us, of getting bogged down, of having the same thing that happened to the Soviets or the British, or another Vietnam. They wanted boots on the ground. What came across in all of our interviews was, the operative idea was, we gotta be serious. But we've also got to make sure that we're not getting stuck there.

Will, Sgt.:
I think the key point in this entire thing is that Special Forces has always been able to do this mission, which is to go in, work with, train, advise, fight alongside of an indigenous force effectively enough to lead them to victory. What we do, in doing that, is we do, we keep the regular Army, which are just our regular soldiers, out of conflict. We let someone take care of their own problems. We help them, we assist them to do that. The key thing here is that we were let, the reins were let loose. And we were allowed to act how we've been trained. We were allowed to be the fighters that we are, free thinking, spontaneous. And we did it. We spread out. We did exactly what we were trained to do. And that was victory. And that is what Special Forces does.


And you think people, lives were saved because of that?

Will, Sgt.:
I know lives were saved. I know that, because we never committed a large conventional force to this, not only were lives saved, because we could not have as successfully moved a large force through here. We would have moved a larger force. But it would have been hard. And they would have been able to assault and kill a lot of our guys. It's just hard terrain. It's a harsh environment. But, four- or three-man teams can move quickly, can move by horseback. You can't put a tank on the back of a horse. You can't put helicopters on the back of a horse. But you can a couple of skinny SF guys on the back of horses, and we can take the fight to the enemy.

So, I know that lots of lives were saved. I know that an incredible amount of money was saved in supporting 12 men as opposed to a thousand-man task force of armor, and artillery, and infantry, and aviation assets that would have had to go, and been used to fight these guys.


But what about playing devil's advocate? You know, because there was just small forces on the ground, a lot of guys got away, a lot of the Al Qaeda in particular slipped away. We just didn't have the manpower on the ground to stop them.

Bill, Sgt.:
They would have got away anyway. You couldn't have stopped people. We were working on stuff that you couldn't even take an ATV in. So, how could the regular Army have tracked them any faster than what we were doing? It was almost impossible. Then a guy, a Taliban, could just as quickly take off his black robes, walk into a village, you're not going to stop him. Fortunately, with us, a small group of people, you had so few, if any, civilian casualties because we weren't just going through laying waste to villages.

Paul, Master Sgt.:
See, I disagree wholeheartedly. I think more of them were caught by the way we did it than if we would've used conventional forces. And the reason is, because we were working with the Afghans, the Afghans were fighting for their own country, they realized that they were fighting for their country, and they would run the country when they were done with it. Not America.

When they went through the village, Afghans know Afghans. They could tell friends. "That guy's a Pakistani." I couldn't tell. So if I was a conventional Army guy going through there, that guy just stands over there like a meek farmer, they'd have gone right by him. An Afghan knew instantly, "Hey, they guy is not from here. He's a bad guy." And they'd go round him up. And they knew that throughout the north anyway.

And the other thing is, like I said, when it's done with, now we're not having to start from ground one, developing a government. The military leaders that fought for their country are the basis for the next government in Afghanistan. And that's good for Afghanistan, and it's good for America.

Mark, Capt.:
I can tell you in the North, having 12 and then 14 guys from just this team alone. And I'm talking about just this team, we destroyed several hundred enemy vehicles. We liberated probably 50 or more towns and the six northern provinces, which is hundreds of square miles. We planted thousands of determined Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the north. So those that escaped, they chose wisely in trying to run away. ... We captured several thousand other fighters, foreign Taliban as well as Afghan Taliban. And, hundreds more of these local Afghans defected to the Northern Alliance side. ...

There was some frustration sometimes. Unfortunately, some of them probably did get away. But I know that, to the very best of our ability, and the best of the other abilities of the teams around Mazar-e-Sharif, and other parts of Afghanistan, were doing everything humanly possible to prevent any Al Qaeda from escaping.


One of the things I'm interested in is are the war aims -- the war aims of America, not necessarily the mission that you were given, but the war aims in peoples' minds about, "We're going to get these guys. We're going to get bin Laden and Al Qaeda." Was that always the same as what actually your mission was on the ground, the mission you were given? I mean, ultimately, that was the goal but the objective on the ground was to capture Mazar and to help the Northern Alliance. And were the two goals always given equal weight?

Paul, Master Sgt.:
One supported the other.

Mark, Capt.:
Yeah.

Paul, Master Sgt.:
By getting rid of the Taliban, and capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, it gave us the ability to maneuver throughout the north to look for the bad guys. Without having that ability to maneuver, we wouldn't be able to look for the bad guys. You had to take care of one before you could do the other.


What happens when Mazar actually falls? Where are you guys? You've all been spread around. How did you then link up?

Mark, Capt.:
On around the 6th of November, we break through this Taliban defense in the Dar-e-Suff. And we were riding just as hard and as far as we could go everyday in pursuit of the Taliban. And, we kind of leap-frog our little, small detachment elements through the Balkh Valley. And Paul and Mike and Matt end up being taken from the rear, initially held in the reserve, being brought forward under cover of darkness to the very front line position, by truck, that had been captured from the Taliban. And then they mount horses, they ride up into the ridge, onto the ridge. And then they'd walk a ways further, and they find themselves an observation post, and hunker down for the night.

And, this happens on the night of the 8th of November. And on the morning of November 9, they give the Taliban a wakeup call from some close air support. And, for whatever reason, the Taliban had given us the heights on either side of the pass. They had employed a reverse slope defense, meaning they have given up the heights, and they're on the low ground, on the far side of the pass. And Mike and Paul and Matt are looking right down on top of them. And they employed, with some success, a lot of mines in the path, which did cost some Northern Alliance casualties as we pushed through there. This was where we received the largest number of Northern Alliance casualties throughout our time there. They also effectively employed some BM21 multiple rocket launched artillery, three separate salvos in and near that pass, with some success.

Mike, Staff Sgt.:
That was their final counter-attack measure was the BM21 barrages. Early in the morning on the 9th, we hit five or six different spots. And they retreated. The Northern Alliance moved up. And the Taliban Al Qaeda did their final counter-attack which was a BM21 strike. And, after that was over with, they pretty much fell from there. And the remaining Taliban Al Qaeda actually retreated to the east to Kunduz.

Mark, Capt.:
... General Dostum's forces pushed through the pass there, late in the afternoon. This was kind of a close call there for a little while. We had suffered some casualties. The Northern Alliance fighters are coming back draped over a horse, coming back to the near side with their buddies leading their horses back to the rear. One of my medics and other members of the team helped stabilize a large number of these casualties. And we're seeing these dead Northern Alliance fighters going back, being taken back to their home by their friends. And, so morale is kind of starting to wane there in the pass.

We pushed forward with myself, and Pete, and Chad, and Will, and Steve, one of the Air Force guys. We went forward, three of us on horseback, and the other two on one of the golf carts, one of the John Deere Gators that had been brought in. And we moved up into the pass to see what we could do to help out. ...

It was an incredible sight moving through the pass. As Pete and I rode up there horseback, all these fighters were up in the rocks, taking cover from the initial volley of BM21 artillery that had come in. And these guys saw us coming. And they just walked down to the road. And they lined the road. It was like something out of a Civil War print. These fighters just lined the road for a couple hundred meters. And as Pete and I rode through there on horseback, they just fell in behind us.

And we rode up and met with the local on-scene commander there. And when we got up to that point, the guys that were behind us, they just went screaming off our left flank, and charged through the pass. And we called in Steve, our Air Force attachment, and Paul's team, they called in a couple of more sorties of close air support on the far side to the pass. And this Northern Alliance force went through, and then pushed up to the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif. By now, it's dark, and we're anticipating again another counter-attack. So we are looking to find positions that we can defend from, and call CAS to help us if the Taliban mounts another counter-attack out of the city toward General Dostum's forces.

During the night of 9 November then, Commander Atta, along with Dean's team, pushed through the pass into Mazar-e-Sharif. And then the next morning, we link up with General Dostum, and all members of my team, except for Bill, Andy and Steve, who were still out to the east, we accompany General Dostum into the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif. The streets are just line with cheering crowds of people. And again, we have to revert to the grip-and-grin technique that we had developed from day one, of walking off that helicopter of this is a very uncertain situation. So, we are ready to fight if necessary. But at the same time, we were waving and smiling, and seeing people. ...

We assembled our team in Qala Jangi [west of Mazar-e-Sharif] in the fortress. But as we assembled our team there for the first time and got everybody together, all the local Afghan civilian and military leaders from all factions rallied at Qala Jangi for this big meeting.


If you read the media reports, there were allegedly atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance against captured Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners. [Were you exposed to any of that?]

Mark, Capt.:
No member of this detachment ever witnessed any atrocities being committed. We talked extensively with all of the Northern Alliance commanders about respecting basic human rights. At no time did they plan or, that we're aware of, attempt to conduct any of these atrocities.

Bill, Sgt.:
It wasn't just like we advised them, we lived with them. At this one point, when we were out in the flank, I hadn't seen the rest of the guys in almost three weeks. Our guys were running out of food up where we were. But there were goats and sheep grazing in a valley below. Some of them hadn't eaten in a week or two. I would probably have gone down there and taken some, but these guys wouldn't. They were starving but they wouldn't go take animals. This is a rough group of guys. They've lived a rough life. But they definitely weren't the butchers that I guess they're trying to make them out to be now. I lived with my three hundred guys day in, day out. And, if anything, they would have gone hungry instead of going to take a sheep. So to me, that's pretty much the opposite of whatever's trying to be said now.

Paul, Master Sgt.:
What I'd like to bring up is, after [the fall of] Kunduz, we went to the Sherberghan prison. At the Sherberghan prison Dostum was caring for a large number of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners. Dostum and his soldiers was doing the best job that they could to take care of those personnel. You would have these UN aid workers, or from some other organization show up and say, they don't have enough blankets, they don't have enough to eat, where's the fresh water. Well, I could go out to the guy in the guard shack and he didn't have a blanket. He was getting barely one little bowl of rice a day, and he was drinking water out of the same place the prisoners were. The prisoners were being treated the exact same way as Dostum's forces were. I didn't see any atrocities, but I easily could have. Some prisoners may have died because they were sick or ill, and Dostum's forces just couldn't give them any care because they didn't have it.


If you had seen atrocities or thought some were about to happen, what would you have done? Obviously, you couldn't stop anything.

Mark, Capt.:
Our responsibility if we witnessed any human rights violations was first, to attempt to prevent it without placing ourselves into any extreme danger. If we could not stop it, then we were to report it. We would have had to advise our Northern Alliance commander that we would have to leave. We'd be ex-filled from the country.


Did Dostum know that?

Mark, Capt.:
Yes.


You said earlier that Dostum thought you had a death ray. What can you tell me about that?

Mark, Capt.:
Due to the altitude that the aircraft was flying with the laser-guided munitions, when it dropped its ordinance the bomb was falling for a minute and half to two minutes. If you timed it just right, as the laser target designator is engaging and [targeting the] enemy position, you let your Northern Alliance commander take a look through the laser target designator. He sees it going, but he doesn't see the bombs fly into the target. He hears that chirping noise from the laser target designator and then the enemy position explodes. They believe that we have the death ray, and this was a myth that we were willing to perpetuate. Every one of us on our rifles carried a smaller laser. We let the Northern Alliance guys look through our night vision goggles. ... I think Will has summed it up best. This whole situation is like the Flintstones meet the Jetsons. And those guys could not fathom that we have some sort of aiming device that would allow us to hit a target at night on the first round.

Will, Sgt.:
I think something that's key in all this is that both Northern Alliance and enemy communications were, for the most part, CB radios. They would be arguing with each other in the heat of battle. The Taliban would be saying, "nanny, nanny, boo, boo" and the Northern Alliance would be saying, "hey, we're coming to get you." They would also tell the Taliban about this death ray. At Kunduz, we were negotiating back and forth to try to get these guys to surrender. They were saying, "We'll surrender, we'll march into your camp, but we want to keep our guns." Dostum finally said, "Put your guns down, take your jackets off, march in here or we're turning the Americans onto you with the death ray." Instantly you could see the guys bend over. They put their guns down, they took their cloaks off and they started marching in, in single file right up into the middle of our perimeter, because they knew that it was over if that death ray was coming out.

Mark, Capt.
This was also perpetuated by the presence of the AC 130 Spectra gunship. They had a female fire support officer that was on the radio. Dostum heard her voice and he brought Mohammed Fazal, who's the former Taliban chief of staff. He's trying to delay this surrender in Kunduz while his forces are attempting to recapture Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum brings Fazal near the radio so that he can hear this female voice. Fazal hears her voice as it's being explained to him, through the translators, that we have the angel of death overhead, from the AC 130 gunship. Dostum explains to him that we have the angel of death overhead and that we possess the death ray. If they don't surrender now all of their troops will burn in hell. Fazal jumped on the radio and his men were surrendering within minutes.

Mark, Capt.:
I want to touch briefly on the Afghan way of war. [In their minds] you don't have to destroy all of your opponents. You have to demonstrate to your opponents that you have the force to beat them. The A-teams on the ground combined with technology and the close air support assets could demonstrate that [we had the] force with Northern Alliance to successfully defeat the Taliban. ...


When did you actually leave?

Paul, Master Sgt.:
We were given notification of there being aircraft for us and in two hours be on it. They extended it; we had about six hours to pack everything up and get on an aircraft and fly out to another country to meet the secretary of defence. Because we'd left on such short notice, we sent approximately half the team back in to say good bye to Dostum. Dostum was quite upset with our leaving. Probably because of the way it happened, and partly because we had gone through a lot of fighting together. He wasn't quite ready for us to leave.

Mark, Capt.:
Yeah we eh, we were ordered out quite rapidly and without General Dostum's knowledge. He was out of town and we got word that we were to be quickly ex-filled, to brief Mr. Rumsfeld. We ex-filled, but I did not want to go out that way. Four other members of my detachment volunteered to go back in with me. The five of us went back that same night, right back into Mazar-e-Sharif. We linked up with General Dostum the next morning, and began to explain to him that our time with him was over and that it was time for them to carry on, on their own. [They should] continue to work together, all the ethnic factions to keep peace in Mazar-e-Sharif and in the northern provinces.

Bob, Chief Warrant Officer:
It almost must be said that, that evening, when we came back we explained it to our commanders about the way we left. They said, by all means, if you need to go back... and let's support him. They were behind us. ...

Vince, Sgt. 1st Class:
I think it he was kind of hurt when we first left cause we gave him no warning. We knew that was not the way we should do it. We'd worked with him and he was more than just an advisor. He was our friend and we had developed relationships over that time. So we wanted to go back. He knew we'd leave eventually but I think he was hoping that we'd stay there probably about six months to a year to help them get settled into Mazar-e Sharif, and with the new government.

Mark, Capt.:
It was very difficult. These guys that we fought, sweat, bled beside, and slept beside and trusted with our lives, and they've trusted us with their lives as well, and their future. They were leaving and they repeatedly asked us to stay for several more months to help them get onto their feet. We had to assure them that other American forces were going come in there and would now stand side by side with them to help them get the country on it's feet again. And specifically in the north, to get the north going again to get the shops open, get the hospitals and clinics open, and get the schools open. ...

[General Dostum always] referred to every one of my men either by first name, which is all he needed to know, or by commander, "Commander Bill," "Commander Pete." Every one of my men was referred to as a Commander, and held in the highest regard as an Afghan warrior. We're all now part of that inner circle of the military commanders there. Rank was totally immaterial. I mean, it was what you were as a soldier, what you could demonstrate your capabilities were. ...

Bob, Chief Warrant Officer:
So much did he trust us and respect us, that he said that, if we ever go to war in another country, that he would gladly send his men with us to fight. That speaks pretty much for itself there.

Bill, Sgt.:
That's a long horse ride. ...

Operational Detatchment Alpha (ODA) 595 from the U.S. Army's 5th Special Forces Group partnered with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan. They combined forces with Mohammed Atta and ODA 555 to take down Taliban stronghold Mazar-e-Sharif in November, 2001. This was the first significant Taliban defeat. This interview was conducted on August 2, 2002
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/campaign/interviews/595.html
 

Ravage

running up that hill
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in Wonderland, with my Alice
ODA 555 ("Tripple Nickel")

[Where did you arrive in Afghanistan?]
Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
Just north of the Kabul into the Panjshir Valley, the Hindu Kush.


Why had you gone there?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
Well, we didn't know it at the time, but that was basically the high-water mark of the Soviet empire. When we hit the ground, we found out why the Taliban couldn't go up in to those mountains, and why the Soviets couldn't either. Our guys were mountain hillbillies, the best kind. They owned those mountains. ... That was their backyard.


Which Afghan leaders were you assigned with?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
We were assigned with Fahim Khan's men in the Panjshir Valley.


Who was he?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
He was, for lack of a better word, a warlord who was underneath Ahmed Massoud, who was killed on Sept. 9. ... [He worked with Massoud] during the fight with the Soviets. Actually, Massoud and Fahim had been kind of chased out of Kabul by the Taliban when they took over. They were chased up back up into the mountains north of Kabul. ...


How much information did you get before you went in about Fahim Khan, his other commanders and what the military situation was on the ground?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
As far as tactical information, we got hardly anything. We got a good political overview of what was going on the hierarchy and what their objectives were. ... And that was pretty good. But as far as tactical information, it was real sparse and contradictory. So we just pretty much focused on the spot we were going to land and what we were going to do when we got there. From there, we were going to have to play it by ear, and pretty much feel it as we go.


Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
They had told us that where we were landing was a secure spot. But whether they meant that the spot where the helicopter's touching down, 500 meters around it, ten miles around it, we really didn't know. So it was kind of touch and go there at first; show up and see who shows up to shake our hand.


Who showed up?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
The Afghans. ... [Laughing] Yes, yes, yes, many Afghans...

Russell, Staff Sgt.:
Flashing lights, yes, showed up at our helicopter landing site.


Fahim Khan was the main commander there. Did you [work with him directly?]

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
He didn't like to meet people. I guess after what happened to Massoud, he was very scarce. [Ed. Note: Massoud was killed by two assassins posing as television journalists coming to interview him.] When he did meet with people, it was unannounced [and] at weird times. He only wanted to meet with one of our guys and he didn't want to meet with anybody else. So we dealt with his lower commanders. General Sharif pretty much was our contact with everything higher up.


What was he like?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
He was great. ... Very smart, very helpful. I mean, he was eager to please. We were bringing stuff to the table he needed, and when he got it from us, he was very, very helpful in giving stuff we needed, like our food got better, more trucks would show up, more guards would show up -- stuff like that. ...

Where was the front line in comparison to where you thought the front line was?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
They couldn't tell us where the front lines were. That was one of the questions. We said, "OK, this is where we're landing? Where are the front lines? Are we getting shot at as soon as we land, or is there some kind of a... buffer between us?" It turns out it was about 40 miles away. ... So there was plenty of room for us to maneuver without having to worry about getting shot at until we actually went and wanted to go down and engage the Taliban. ...


So once you're on the ground, you link up with the commanders there. What happens then? Does he move down towards the planes? How did that happen? What happened?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
The first day we got in, they took us to a house. ... They fed us and we got a bunch of information. Then the next night, we moved down closer, [where] we met Ismail Khan at another house called "the eagle's nest," because it was on the side of a mountain up a different valley. We stayed there for a day. From there, we went down to the front lines to survey the front line. We said, "Look, we need to move closer." So they found us another place closer, and that's where we stayed the whole time until the offensive.


Why did you want to move closer?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
[There were too many] logistical problems getting to and from the battlefield. I mean, they didn't want us on the battlefield because [Taliban and Al Qaeda] were hunting us, and figured we'd be safer if they moved us some place where his trusted guys could watch us. So we'd go from there, move up to a certain part of the battlefield, do what we needed to do, and then we'd move back, because it was the border. The front lines were too porous and they weren't secure. ... They didn't feel ... that it was secure enough.

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
It wasn't rigid like an American or European war, with trench lines and machine guns laid in with designated areas of fire and a no man's land. Heck, the fuel that our host nation guys were burning in their vehicles came from Pakistan through Kabul. They came through enemy-controlled territory up to us, so they had their guys walking across the border, finding out information. I'm sure that they were doing the same thing to us.


Give us a sense of the lay of the land there, and the porous front lines. How long had that front line been there?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
They were entrenched. It's been there about three years. ... They went back and forth, you know, Taliban one day, Northern Alliance the next day. They'd get the information on each other. They just didn't have the means to do anything about it. So it just sat there in a stalemate until we showed up.


Why did that make a difference?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
In order to do an offensive, you need to have superior numbers, especially if the guys you're going against are dug in. Standard military is 3-to-1 odds. You want 3-to-1 greater numbers. Well, neither side had that. Neither side could attack, so they just sat there. When we showed up, we started taking out their numbers. Yes, we started hitting their artillery and their tanks and started hitting their trench lines until we dwindled them down to a number that they felt was satisfactory that they could attack against. When we got to that point, they attacked.


Why was that piece of territory so important in the big picture?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
To the big picture? I think it's more Kabul's stature than a tactical significance. It was the capital of Afghanistan. The first one to get there holds that status.


What do you remember the first time that you called in air strikes with [Northern Alliance commander] General Babajan?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
General Babajan takes us up into the tower. We didn't go down there to call any of our aircraft in, we were just going to survey the front lines. and he starts pointing out all the enemy positions. [We were] like, "You mean that's Al Qaeda right there, and that's Taliban?" He knew. "Yes, General So-and-so lives in that house. This is where his lines are." So we said, "Wait a minute," and got on the radio. "Hey, any aircraft coming this way?" "Yes, it'll be there in two hours." So we'd call back up and have these guys bring down some laser equipment and we started dropping bombs. ...


Who did you hit, and what was his reaction?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
We hit a Taliban commander and a C2 element, a command and control element that was controlling the Bagram air field. [The Northern Alliance] owned three quarters of it, but the southern eastern end of it was covered by the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. They were all set up in what used to be a village, but they had moved all the civilians out. They'd made it in to a military garrison, and that's where they covered it.

They could shoot at us all day long from there, but they didn't actually have troops on the air field. When we got up there, he just started pointing out the targets where all the gun positions were, where all the commanders were, the radios. We just started taking them out with the laser, one by one. [General Babajan and his men] were giggling. They were all laughing and joking about it and slapping each other on the back. They were happy as hell. The food got a lot better that day.


Up until then, do you think they appreciated the kind of firepower that you could bring them?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
No. General Sharif knew. He saw what the Russians did, so he knew the potential. But they had been promised stuff before. The air campaign had started -- I'm not sure how many weeks before that -- and they weren't really hitting anything. They were up at 25,000 feet, just dropping area targets, and he wasn't impressed with that. Then when we came down there and started hitting pinpoint targets maybe only a kilometer in front of us, they were like, "All right, this is for real."


Can you tell the story of when you were up in the tower and a bomb drops, and you monitor the Al Qaeda radio?

Russell, Staff Sgt.:
We were out in the west. Our western [observational post] had a large amount of people that lived around it that were other soldiers. ... So when we decided to go to that OP, a lot of soldiers would leave their fighting positions to come watch the Americans do their magic -- bring the bombs in on the enemy targets. They had these little walkie-talkies that worked basically on a repeater system. They had all the same frequencies that the Taliban had.

I'm sure that they talked back and forth to each other, and probably cussed each other out on the radio from time to time. But Northern Alliance guys had guys that could speak and probably talked the same slang in Arabic and sound just like a Talibani or an Arab soldier.

They did it, and they were able to talk to them and ask them questions when we would drop a bomb, and it sounded like a fellow Talibani soldier. The Talibani guy possibly sometimes was crying, or all the time they were saying, "That was close. They missed us. Can you give us some help or support? They missed us to our west or whatever by whatever distance." They would translate to us, and tell us, and we would just adjust our fire, based on the information that they gave us.

Then the next thing you know, that guy who was basically saying how far we missed them by-- he would no longer was there. You'd hear people on the other end of the radio complaining or [being] upset about a friend he'd lost on the radio.

Of course, Northern Alliance guys didn't care. They were happy about it. By the end of the conversation, they'd close it, and close it with a good cussing or something. I was just amazed. I couldn't believe that they were able to do that for us; helped us in a very big way. ...


When did you get a sense that the momentum was really with the Northern Alliance, pushing in towards Kabul?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
I think most of us had it in our mind that we were going to be there until the spring. We were going out and bombing every day, but being the first team on the ground calling in aircraft, we had a monopoly. We had all the aircraft we could possibly want. But as more teams came in, they only had a set number of aircraft, and started getting pushed down in priorities, kind of revolving around. We were like, "Wow, this could take a while," especially if something doesn't happen. It was General Dostum up in Mazar-e-Sharif that kind of upped the ante by taking Mazar-e-Sharif with one of our other teams. It kind of forced some of the other units into action. ...


The pace of events changes, and then suddenly the Taliban leave Kabul. Then the city's kind of wide open. There was a political debate over whether the Northern Alliance take Kabul. What was going on? How [did] that happen from where you guys [were]?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
I went up to talk to General Sharif. We had known there was an agreement between Fahim Khan and General Franks, I believe, that he was going to stop short of Kabul. I went up and I talked to General Sharif. General Sharif was like, "Sure we'll stop," and he goes, "But you know, some of the local commanders have family down there," and he kind of let it known that they weren't going to stop. Politically, yes, you know we were going to stop. [But] if a guy is trying to get back to his old home in Kabul, then who's going to stop them? They're not going to stop them, and that's what ended up [happening].

[Some people were asking], "[Were] there gangs running around Kabul?" Someone had to go in there and secure it to make it safe for the people. So that's why they went in.


Was that what was going on in Kabul?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
... When we rolled in, the city was in chaos. But they were definitely celebrating, and there was no authority [that] had been associated with the Taliban. The Taliban had fought up to the front line as those guys had pulled back. They had just basically scared the heck out of the civilian apparatus that was in place. I mean, the whole infrastructure -- police, fire, government -- turned tail and took off.

Should they have gone in? I don't know. Did they need to be in there? Yes, because they added stability to the city. When we got in there, they had Northern Alliance squads, eight to 10 men, in each intersection. They weren't doing anything. They weren't harassing the populace. They were just giving a stabilizing effort to the whole area, letting them know, "OK, we're in here. Now we're in charge."


[What happened when the Northern Alliance started their assault on Kabul?]

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
... On that final day, they actually waited until we managed to talk them into giving us more time to react. They finally started their attack right after a B-52 strike that landed about a thousand meters to 1,200 meters south of us on Taliban positions. In between us and the Taliban were [U.S.] regular troops and some [Northern Alliance] militia that we'd saw march forward. Basically, that opened the floodgates. It broke the Taliban's back. Their defenses were brittle. They either broke and ran from there, or changed sides -- which happened a lot. They were bought out, except for the Arabs. Quarter was given to the Afghanis. If you were a Taliban Afghani, well, most important [is] that you're Afghani. But if you were Arab or foreign of any kind, there was no mercy. You were still a combatant. The option wasn't there to change sides.


What would happen to them?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
They would usually fight, because they had no place else to go. They were exiled from their home countries into Afghanistan; this is their safe haven. I mean, they had planned to hit on the World Trade Center from here. They had no place else to go. All of a sudden, the Northern Alliance is rolling down the road in trucks, tanks, jeeps, anything with wheels, with American bombs falling in front of them. They had to stand and fight; they had no choice.


How soon after the B-52 attack did the Northern Alliance actually enter Kabul?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
The B-52 strike was around two or three, and that night, the Northern Alliance entered Kabul. But it was a mad rush. ... Something that we thought would take a couple of weeks -- to fight our way down there -- happened in a matter of hours. The next day, we rolled in with General Sharif and the staff and some more troops. As they moved in to another part of the city, we didn't encounter any resistance.


What was it like entering Kabul?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
It was surreal. I mean, heck, we'd gone into Afghanistan about a month after the towers fell, and a month after that, we were in the capital city of what had been an enemy country. People lined the streets. There we were in the convoy. They didn't know we were Americans, but we were in the convoy with the Northern Alliance, and people were just standing at the side of the road, cheering and laughing.

Another thing I remember, driving through the city that day, they had these buses full of people with guys dancing on top and trailers streaming off the back of a taxi in front of it, because people just got married. They were playing music, and everybody was playing music.

One thing I'll always remember are the kites, the children playing with the kites, because the whole time, the Taliban didn't allow that. They didn't let the children play with balls, play soccer or football or whatever they call it or play with kites or anything like that. It was just like an immense weight had been lifted off them. The future is still uncertain, but at least things were better than they had been. ...


How long did you end up staying in Kabul?

Frank, Sgt. 1st Class:
It was a little bit over a month. We got there right before Thanksgiving, and left right after Christmas, I think. ...


What was it like when you when you left? Did you have a chance to say goodbye to General Sharif and the people that you were with?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
Once it was over, it was kind of hard for us to stay in contact with them, because now their fight was over, for the most part. They were trying to set up civil government, and it was hard to stay in contact.

One day, though, Frank and I were standing outside the embassy. There was a large crowd on the main street coming from Kabul International Airport into the center of town to the presidential palace. But there was also a large group in front of the American Embassy. By this time, the Marines had shown up. They had secured the embassy and there was Department of State staff there. Well, we decided that we're going to go down, and since we blended in so well, we're just going to stand by the side of the road and make sure nothing silly happens.

We're nonchalantly pulling it off, "OK, we're Afghani" until General Sharif drives by. Of course, the outside of the embassy in most countries is secured by the host nation, and the inside perimeter is secured by the Marines. General Sharif stops by to say hello to his troops on the outside. He gets out, shakes their hand has a few words with them.

I remember this for a fact -- Frank here was leaning up against this taxicab. General Sharif is kind of short in stature; he has to climb up into the truck. He looks right over the windshield and makes direct eye contact with us and raises his hand, a big smile. So in the middle of this big parade, we're out with hundreds of people lining the street, we end up in the middle of the road, hugging. He ends up giving us the Afghani kisses on the cheek, and he ends up whisking us away to his truck.

[We went] back and we ended up having some chai and talking about old times, old army buddies. It was kind of funny. ...


Do you have any memories or stories that you know you're going to tell your grandkids? What's the most enduring moment through this that you take home?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
I think it's definitely going to be that day on that rooftop with all the machine gun fire coming round us, [and] that B-52 strike hitting so close to us. It's a sound and a sight and a feeling. It was like watching fireworks -- [that's] the only thing I could equate it to on the civilian side. You don't see it. You hear it, but you feel it. You just don't feel it in your chest; you feel it deep down in your guts, just this huge rumbling roar. It shakes the very earth you're standing on or laying on at that time.

I thought for sure the roof was going to collapse -- and we were a thousand meters away, six-tenths of a mile. But it's something I'm always going to remember, and probably never want to be that near again.


And that's the one that was decisive?

Steve, Sgt. 1st Class:
Yes, that was the one. That was the one -- the final blow that they were looking for.

Operational Detatchment Alpha (ODA) 555 -- known as "Triple Nickel" -- was deployed to the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul. Its mission was to join Northern Alliance warlord Mohammed Fahim Khan - the military successor to Ahmed Shah Massoud -- and liberate the Afghan capital from the Taliban.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/campaign/interviews/555.html
 

ABNRGR28

Airborne Ranger FOG
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Farmingdale, NY
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. It was well researched and well presented. The real men, the "Horse Soldiers," are valiant, heroic, incredible Warriors!
 

AssadUSMC

Ruining hajis' days
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No VA
I thought the book was rubbish. The guy wasn't there. I can't deal with all these dudes writing books about stuff, but then were never there. The guys who were embeds or were participants and wrote stuff (Not a Good Day to Die, Generation Kill, First In, etc.) are what I give credibility. I purchased "Horse Soldiers" expecting more, but it was mostly anecdotes I've read many times before. Disappointing..

:2c:
 

Brando

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Bragg
I read First In and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Thanks for posting this, was very enlightening and interesting.
 
T

tip001

Guest
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. It was well researched and well presented. The real men, the "Horse Soldiers," are valiant, heroic, incredible Warriors!

Yes they are. True Heroes. Great interview, thanks for posting!
 
S

Smurf

Guest
As an aside, I think it's sort of funny that 555 is a dive team, and were the first guys into a landlocked country. :)
 

The91Bravo

BNDN - Been Nowhere Done Nothing
Verified Military
Joined
Jul 1, 2007
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1,125
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In a van, down by the river...
The following guy:
Could each one of you talk about what your role is on the team?

Bill, Sgt.:
I am a medical sergeant on the team. I provide medical care for the team and any of the host nations that I go to.


That was Bill Bennett. He was on ODA 595 and was killed in Ramadi on 12SEP03...
Rest easy Bill.


I read this article a couple years ago, but glad to see it posted again. Thanks Rav
 
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