The Battle Of Mari Ghar


Special Forces
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Jul 16, 2008
Seattle, Puget Sound — PNW
The Battle Of Mari Ghar

June 26, 2006 By Sean D. Naylor, Army Times staff writer Kandahar, Afghanistan

The Special Forces noncommissioned officer ducked behind the turret of his M240 machine gun as a pair of A-10s swooped low and loud out of the clear blue Afghan sky.

The first Warthog fired a white phosphorous round, marking its target — a fruit orchard teeming with Taliban fighters exchanging fusillades of automatic weapons fire with the embattled A-team 50 meters away. the second A-10 hurtled in, its nose-mounted Gatling gun spitting flame and 30mm rounds. Tree limbs and enemy bodies splintered as the rounds hit home.

Hunkered down well within “danger close” limits, the NCO, a senior weapons sergeant, saw the devastating impact before he heard the cannon’s rasping burrrrrrp!, audible even above the nonstop hammering of his team’s six machine guns.

“Jesus Christ, that’s awesome!” he said. The entire orchard seemed to have opened up on the five allied vehicles on the road.
It was morning on the second day of what would be a 54-hour battle pitting 12 American and 16 Afghan troops against an estimated 200 Taliban fighters in a series of running gunfights. It was the fourth engagement since they had left the firebase, and the enemy’s numbers had increased at each turn.

Before they returned to their firebase, the small allied ground force, with close-air support, would kill 65 enemy fighters, earn two recommendations for the Distinguished Service Cross and three for the Silver Star. one of those soldiers would die a warrior’s death.
Into the heart of the insurgency

The mission began at 10 a.m. Aug. 7, when the “the Spartans,” an A-team from 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, drove out of its firebase in south-central Afghanistan’s Zabul province and headed west. The plan was to spend the next 24 hours conducting an “armed route reconnaissance” where intelligence had suggested a major Taliban leader might be operating that day.
Even if they didn’t come upon the enemy leader, the Spartans hoped to increase their knowledge of a route they had never driven and to disrupt Taliban activity in the area, which had been quietly growing in strength.

Few A-teams were better suited to the task. The Spartans had stood up in fall 2002 and were already on their third tour in Afghanistan. They regarded their unit as one of the most aggressive and combat-experienced A-teams in the country. But 10 weeks into this deployment, they had yet to make contact with the enemy.

The Taliban were out there.

“They’re constantly watching us from the moment we leave the firebase,” said the Spartans’ medic, a bushy-bearded staff sergeant. But the enemy was lying low in an attempt to persuade U.S. decision-makers that the Taliban insurgency was over and it was safe to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, according to the Spartans’ battalion commander, Lt. Col. Don Bolduc.
The guerrillas used the remote provinces of south-central Afghanistan as a sanctuary. It was the job of the Spartans and the other units in Bolduc’s Task Force 31 to venture into the heart of that sanctuary, find the Taliban, provoke them into battle and then destroy them.

“I have a very aggressive battalion, I am very aggressive by nature, and I believe the most effective way to separate the insurgent from the populace is to kill him,” Bolduc said.

The Spartans’ small convoy consisted of three Ground Mobility Vehicles — Humvees specially modified for special ops missions — and two pickups carrying the 16 Afghan National Army troops. The weather was hot and clear as the vehicles climbed steadily into the mountains.
6:55 p.m., Aug. 7

Taliban radios squawked to life. “The Americans are coming!” “How many?” “They’ve got three Scorpions (GMVs) and their puppets.”

The first attack came as sunset approached. the team was settling in for the night in rural mountainous terrain. A hidden enemy lashed the Spartans’ site with small-arms fire. The Americans responded with their big guns — each GMV had either a .50-caliber or an M240B machine gun in a turret, and an M240B mounted on the rear — training their fire on likely enemy hiding places. Within 15 minutes, the enemy fire died away.

The Spartans faced a choice: return to the firebase or pursue the enemy fighters they sensed were gathering ahead of them. Their team leader was undaunted. The wiry 30-year-old Athens, Ga., native knew his men had enough food and water for three days. When dawn broke, he decided to continue with the mission.

Driving into the Hazarbuz valley, the team came upon a camp of Kuchi — Pashtun nomads who, the Spartans are convinced, form the Taliban’s “early warning system,” either by serving as scouts for the Pashtun guerrilla force or by allowing the Taliban to “embed” fighters in their camps.

“All the Kuchi tents are spread in positions where they can see multiple avenues of approach,” the team leader said. “It’s pretty well thought out.” As the convoy advanced, the Kuchi struck their tents and hastened out of the valley in the opposite direction.

The team leader compared the experience to “driving up to Barnum & Bailey’s circus”; the convoy moved through a sea of 75 to 100 Kuchis and “hundreds and hundreds” of camels, sheep and donkeys. The Spartans had never seen this many Kuchis in one place and took the hurried departure as an ominous sign.

“The thing going on in the back of your mind is obviously something big is to our front if everybody’s getting out of the area,” the team leader said.

“The Americans are too strong,” the local Taliban commander told his troops. “Only fire if fired upon.”

What happened next “set the stone for the remainder of that day and the next,” the team leader said. The Spartans scanned the hillsides for likely ambush spots and then conducted “limited reconnaissance by fire,” the team leader said.

“The fight has begun,” a Taliban fighter said over the radio.
In a pattern to be repeated several times that day, an estimated 10 to 15 Taliban fighters hidden in the high ground fired a few rounds at the ANA vehicles heading the convoy. Rather than drive through the ambush, the ANA troops dismounted, halting the column’s forward movement.

the Taliban shifted their fire to the Americans, who were advancing from about 150 meters behind to relieve the Afghan soldiers. Taliban combatants raked the gun trucks with automatic-weapons fire and launched rocket-propelled grenades.

The area erupted with the explosive cacophony of combat as the U.S. troops returned fire with truck-mounted machine guns, as well as AT-4 and LAW rockets and a 60mm mortar, all while rounding up the ANA fighters and getting them back on their vehicles.

“They were waiting to be rescued,” said the team’s 34-year-old senior engineer sergeant from Arlington, Va. “They weren’t returning a whole lot of fire,” the team leader added.

The Taliban on the hillsides mistook the mortar fire for close-air support. “The aircraft are on station; get below the rocks,” a Taliban commander ordered.

Once the ANA troops had remounted, and with the Taliban hunkered down or pulling back, the convoy drove on. morale was high among the SF soldiers. The Spartans were receiving constantly updated intelligence reports that allowed them to predict the enemy’s actions.

“They were running; we were chasing them,” the senior weapons sergeant said. “The unofficial motto of this battalion is ‘pursue, pressure and punish,’” the team leader added. The Spartans were finally gaining access to the heart of the Taliban’s sanctuary. “That whole area had been like a black hole for us,” said the team’s intelligence NCO, a sergeant first class from Virginia Beach, Va.

10:31 a.m.

The Spartans drove deeper into danger. Roughly two and a half hours after the day’s first firefight, Taliban guerrillas ambushed them again, firing from eight to 10 manning positions among boulders and trees in a bend in the road.
An enemy bullet nearly found its mark, grazing the team leader’s helmet. But the guerrillas made a fatal mistake when they ran directly across the Spartans’ field of fire. The result was four or five dead Taliban, the team leader said. “There were guys going down left and right.”

11:33 a.m.

The column moved on, leaving a wide valley, heading east and moving steadily downhill until the terrain became constricted. Up to now, the Spartans had used a combination of map reconnaissance and intelligence feeds to anticipate the Taliban ambushes. But about 11:30 a.m., 500 meters east of the village of Kuchkay, the enemy finally succeeded in surprising the unit. about 20 to 30 Taliban hidden in an orchard fired a few shots at the ANA vehicles to halt the convoy, then shifted fire onto the Spartans’ three gun trucks.
The SF soldiers opened up with all six machine guns. The exchange of fire quickly grew into the team’s fiercest battle yet. The intensity and the noise of the fight were incredible.

“If they’re going full auto, we’re going times two,” the team leader said. “Everybody’s laying down immense amounts of lead.” As the gunners atop the GMVs hammered away at the enemy, “piles and piles and piles of brass” grew around the vehicles. While the other six Americans maneuvered behind the vehicles, firing their M4 assault rifles, the six gunners kept up a nonstop rate of fire, pausing only to reload.
Some Taliban were positioned among the trees, including a few up in the branches. Others were hoisting their rifles over the orchard wall and firing blindly. “Everywhere you could see there was fire coming from the grove,” the intel sergeant said.

Meanwhile, the ANA troops just kept their heads down. “I don’t think the ANA fired a single shot,” the team leader said. “They didn’t want anything to do with that grove.” Then the A-10s screamed overhead.

“Hide in the trees! Hide in the trees! The enemy can’t see us in the trees,” a Taliban fighter said over the radio. But if the Taliban thought they were safe in the orchard, they were wrong. Over the course of half an hour, the A-10s made six to eight gun runs, with each fearsome pass chewing up trees and Taliban. When the aircrews announced that they were “Winchester,” or out of ammunition, for cannon and rockets, an eerie stillness settled over the grove. “It got quiet, like crazy quiet,” the team leader said. “Is anyone there?” a Taliban commander elsewhere on the battlefield asked urgently over the radio. There was no answer.

The Spartans decided to take the opportunity to move on.
“Get off your dead asses, get in your f---ing truck or we’re leaving you,” the Spartans yelled at their Afghan colleagues, according to the senior weapons sergeant. The ANA soldiers jumped up and ran to their vehicles. The convoy was on the move again.

The vehicles stopped in an open area just short of Andar, where the Spartans faced a decision: Go north to Deh Chopan or south to Marah. The team had been to Deh Chopan before and knew it was too big a town for their tiny force.

“It would take a division to clear,” the team leader said. But the Spartans felt good about heading to Marah, a village about 12 kilometers to the southeast, where they expected to find the enemy.

The convoy entered Andar, the first of several villages it would pass through on the mission. “It was a ghost town,” the team leader said. “No kids, no adults. It was like someone had come in and told them to leave.” It started to rain. Two Taliban commanders were on the radio. One was in Deh Chopan, the other in Marah. “We’ve got the fighters; we’re assembling in Marah,” the latter said. “Marah’s where the fight’s going to be. If they come through Marah, we’ll be ready for them.”

The U.S. team leader got on the radio to Task Force 31 headquarters at Kandahar airfield and discussed the possibility of getting a quick-reaction force sent to Marah, where he was certain the enemy was massing. That message was passed to Task Force Rock, built around 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, and headquartered in Qalat, the Zabul capital about 60 kilometers to the southeast. But by now, the Spartans’ battle was being monitored by the second-highest U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan — Coalition and Joint Task Force-76 at Bagram air base, 360 kilometers to the northeast.

The message the Spartans’ “repeatedly” sent up the chain was simple, the team leader said: “If the QRF package was going to be sent in, we’d like for them to go to Marah, and we just push the enemy to them.”

As the QRF discussions went back and forth over the radio, the Spartan convoy continued south along a narrow road through rolling valleys dotted by isolated villages. Taliban units in the mountains, meanwhile, monitored their progress.

The Taliban commander in Marah again spoke over the radio: “Watch the Americans, tell us where they turn, but come meet us in Marah.”

But to the Spartans’ great frustration, at 2:56 p.m., when they had already driven 10 kilometers toward Marah, they received orders passed down from CJTF-76 to return to Andar, where TF Rock was to send a large QRF consisting of four CH-47 Chinooks and two UH-60 Black Hawks carrying an infantry company, plus four AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.

It appeared to the SF soldiers that the Rock staffers had not kept up with events on the battlefield. “I don’t want to knock our fellow brethren, but they made a decision to land in a place the enemy was not,” the team leader said. However, another officer monitoring events said the decision had been made in the CJTF-76 headquarters at Bagram, not by TF Rock.

Nervous the Taliban would shoot down a helicopter if the QRF was sent to Marah, CJTF-76 ordered the QRF and the Spartans to rendezvous in Andar, the officer said.

“It was the CJTF-76 staff that created the problems, that created the confusion, that created the delay on that day,” he added. A CJTF-76 spokesman declined to comment for this article.

Eating away at the Spartans as they drove back to Andar was the knowledge that the enemy fighters would now have more time to perfect the ambush they were preparing in Marah. The Spartans would later estimate that the additional time allowed the enemy to double or triple the force lying in wait for the convoy.

The Taliban around Andar had no intention of taking on the heliborne QRF.
“The Americans are too great,” a Taliban commander said over the radio. “They have all their mosquitoes [Apache helicopters]. Do not fight; they will shoot. Hide.” The QRF, which also included the Spartans’ company commander, was surprised to find no enemy in Andar. “They’re in Marah, like we told you,” the team leader told his company commander. (At no stage was the team leader able to communicate directly with the infantry chain of command). The QRF got back on the helicopters and returned to Qalat. To the team leader, unaware of the machinations at the higher headquarters, the infantry’s departure was infuriating.

“They basically didn’t take my word that there was a larger element waiting in Marah,” he said.

7:16 p.m.

Darkness was closing in as the Spartans headed south again. For the first time that day, the SF soldiers felt they had lost the initiative.

The enemy was indeed waiting — in a huge horseshoe-shaped rock-strewn mountainside position about 500 meters beyond the point the Spartans had reached when they were ordered to turn back. Boulders as big as Volkswagen Beetles were stacked on top of one another 100 to 200 meters from the road, providing cover and concealment. As the lead ANA pickup drove into the kill zone, the enemy again fired a few rounds to get the ANA troops to stop and dismount. When the first SF gun truck pushed up to see what was going on, the enemy opened up on it. The second and third GMVs advanced until there were 50-meter intervals between the three gun trucks.

The enemy unleashed automatic-weapons and RPG fire so intense that the team leader gave the order to break contact and pull back. But it was too late. Not only had the ANA troops disappeared, but as soon as the gun trucks got ready to move, enemy fighters at each end of the rock pile opened up, boxing in the convoy. The Spartans realized immediately that this enemy was more skilled than the Taliban fighters in the four previous engagements. They had dispersed into small groups around the boulder field so their fire could encompass the ANA and the SF contingent, “regardless of how far apart we were spread out,” the team leader said.

The GMV gunners swiveled to face the new threat and began to fire. But somewhere in the boulders a sniper put the cross hairs of his rifle scope on Staff Sgt. Christopher Falkel, the .50-cal gunner on the third GMV.

As Falkel, at 22 the youngest member of the team, poured lead into the enemy positions, the sniper pulled the trigger. A single bullet hit Falkel in the head, penetrating his helmet and killing him instantly. His lifeless body slumped in the turret.

A superb soldier whose professionalism was matched by his sense of humor, Falkel was what is known as an “SF baby,” having joined Special Forces straight from civilian life, but he had quickly earned the respect of his teammates.

“Chris was an unbelievable individual, in that he understood the warrior ethos as well as anybody I know,” the team leader said. “He died behind his gun, and he was laying waste to the enemy when it happened.” The volume of accurate, single aimed shots directed at the gunners convinced the Spartans that the enemy was not only employing snipers, but also using them to attack the gunners specifically. “Somebody was deliberately targeting our gunners … with an accuracy that it could have been nothing other than scoped rifles,” the team leader said. The round that killed Falkel “was a deliberate shot,” he said.
“It was a head shot. It was taken at an angle that would require more training” (than the average Talib gets). … “This was not a random grazing. This was one deliberate shot, and he unfortunately connected.”

After the firefight, U.S. forces recovered an Arabic translation of a Russian sniper manual from the battlefield, adding to their belief that this ambush was carried out by a much more technically skilled and almost certainly foreign enemy than they had yet encountered. Falkel’s death was a body blow, but the Spartans couldn’t pause to reflect on their loss for even a moment.

The five remaining gunners kept up a relentless rate of fire, while the other six U.S. troops ducked and weaved behind the trucks. Whenever one of them took a step beyond the shelter of the vehicles, “you’d see rounds impacting next to your foot,” the team leader said. One round hit the senior weapons sergeant’s turret and ignited the tracer rounds inside his ammo can, which set his body armor on fire. But he kept shooting, commenting later that the flames behind him seemed less of an immediate threat than the enemy in front of him.

“There was no choice,” he said. “You had to keep shooting, or you were dead.”
With the flames “kicking up pretty good,” the team leader finally ordered his senior weapons sergeant down from his turret. Meanwhile, four other SF soldiers removed Falkel’s body from his gun turret, exposing themselves to enemy fire.

The situation did not look promising. The Spartans were pinned down by a much larger enemy force, later estimated at upward of 60 fighters; they had already lost one man, and their Afghan allies were cowering in fear.

Salvation arrived in the shape of two more A-10s overhead, called in by the Spartans’ joint terminal attack controller, an Air Force staff sergeant. The planes made gun run after gun run on the enemy positions. Meanwhile, the senior engineer sergeant located the missing ANA fighters and grouped them in a ditch. The three gun trucks moved forward a few yards at a time, whenever the enemy took cover from the A-10s’ strafing. This worked, after a fashion. But the enemy fighters’ response to the A-10 attacks was different from what the team had observed in earlier fights. The guerrillas kept shooting as the planes barreled in, unless the jets were lined up on their exact locations.

Even when the A-10s hit their positions, if “they weren’t dead, they got right back up and continued to shoot,” one Spartan said.

The A-10s soon ran out of ammo, to be replaced by a second, and then a third, pair of Warthogs. Finally the SF soldiers got the ANA troops back into their trucks, and after about 25 minutes of vicious combat, the convoy moved slowly out of the kill zone. The third pair of A-10s announced that they were “Winchester.” “You just saved our lives,” the Spartans’ JTAC replied.

It was almost dark, and the team occupied the village of Ragh, about 500 meters beyond the ambush site. The crew of an AC-130 Spectre gunship spotted enemy fighters preparing another ambush site in a grove several hundred meters down the road. About 9 p.m., the gunship pummeled the 20 individuals the aircrew could see occupying the ambush site with 17 105mm howitzer rounds and 32 40mm cannon rounds. The aircrew later reported that it had never engaged a group of enemy fighters that large and seen no one at least trying to escape, the team leader said.

“That’s another reason to believe these guys are well-trained fighters,” he added. The Spartans spent the night in Ragh without further incident. Early the next morning, the team members spoke with several locals, including a friendly mullah, who gave them plenty of information on the foe they had battled in the boulders. The enemy force was 50 to 60 strong, he said. About 40 were foreigners. Most of the foreign fighters spoke Arabic, but some spoke a language he didn’t recognize.

10:15 a.m., Aug. 9

The Spartans moved out after arranging for another TF 31 A-team from their firebase with an ANA detachment to reinforce them in Marah.

They ran into another ambush before they reached the village, as the convoy snaked around a series of switchbacks that made mutual support impossible. But this time the ANA soldiers were better prepared. The senior engineer sergeant had spent much of the night explaining to them the importance of fighting through an ambush rather than dismounting in the middle of the kill zone. Although the enemy engaged the vehicles from three directions, the ANA troops kept driving, and the convoy made it through unscathed.

11:32 a.m.

The small force crossed a river and entered the outskirts of Marah. as soon as their first GMV rounded a turn, fire erupted from an adjacent orchard occupied by about 50 fighters. The other A-team arrived in support, and the six gun trucks poured fire into the grove. “As (the team’s senior commo sergeant) was working the .50, I actually saw a couple of dudes — or parts of dudes — fall out of the trees,” said the Spartans’ junior engineer sergeant. More A-10s appeared to hammer the orchard as one of the other team’s GMVs was hit by a recoilless rifle, causing a fireball and wounding the team leader and several of his men. The Spartans’ team leader took overall charge of the fight.

One of the Spartans’ GMVs had been hit by a machine gun round and lost its brakes and power steering, and the A-10s were dropping bombs on the orchard when the team leader decided it was time to move out of Marah before he lost any more vehicles.

After the Spartans conducted an ammo resupply with the new team, the entire friendly force limped out of Marah. They made it back to the firebase at 4:05 p.m.

Toll: 65 Taliban:

The fate of the Taliban leader for whom the Spartans were searching was unclear. However, intelligence later indicated that 65 enemy fighters, including one commander, had died in the battle of Mari Ghar, as the Spartans’ 54-hour combat odyssey became known.

“At the tactical level, it’s probably the most significant battle that’s taken place in Afghanistan,” Bolduc said. “And the way the Special Forces soldiers fought this battle demonstrated not only their ability to find the enemy but their understanding of small-unit tactics and their ability to overcome the enemy’s actions — massing on them, ambushing them — throughout all of these engagements. Just incredible.”

The battle of Mari Ghar has the potential to produce more high-level awards than almost any other small-unit action in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Bolduc recommended that the Spartans’ team leader, senior weapons sergeant, senior engineer sergeant and senior commo sergeant each be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their roles in the fight. Higher headquarters downgraded the recommendations for the senior engineer and commo NCOs to Silver Stars before sending all four to the headquarters of CJTF-76.

There has been no word on the status of the recommendations since early this year. However, Christopher Falkel has already been awarded a posthumous Silver Star for his actions during the battle. In addition, the Spartans’ team sergeant and the team’s intelligence NCO were written up for a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with “V” device, respectively, but asked that the paperwork be withdrawn to give other members of the team a greater chance of being recognized.

The Spartans’ medic, junior engineer sergeant and Air Force JTAC were awarded Bronze Stars with “V” devices, as was the team’s company supply sergeant, a young E-5 who had come along for the ride and found himself fighting for his life and those of his comrades. Reflecting on the battle several months later, the Spartans credited much of their success to the standard operating procedures they had developed for ambushes, which enabled them to fight through each engagement, rather than merely run from the enemy.

“If you’re constantly running from ambushes, the enemy controls the roads,” and the enemy has gained the initiative, the team leader said. “We were able to take the fight to them, and we continued to take the fight to them in each engagement.”

The Spartans were named after the ancient Greek warriors who, the team leader said, were “a very small number of individuals who were willing to take the fight to the enemy, regardless of the odds. … If anybody really looks at SF operations, that’s it in a nutshell — you go out there against the odds and try to turn the odds in your favor.”

These modern-day Spartans did much more than that in the battle of Mari Ghar, said the team’s former leader, Capt. Jim Gant. In a speech at Falkel’s Aug. 16 memorial service in Centennial, Colo., according to The Denver Post, he told mourners that the soldier died “in a battle that will make the annals of Special Forces history.”
Unity of Commad. Yes, I do believe I read somewhere once that that's important.

CJSOTF and CJTF infighting leading to zero cooperation on the battlefield and increased risk for all inolved? I'm shocked.

Good job to the Spartans. Further evidence that our boys in green beanies are peerless on the battlefield.
An amazing recounting of an intense battle.

It doesn't speak well of the ANA.

One minor issue: I wasn't sure where the CJSOTF was in this. The story mentioned the SOTF (i.e. Buldoc's command) and CJTF-76 (which i presume are the conventionals)

It also shows the reason why you need to invest in the combat skills of your support folks.

Whatever you may think of his political leanings, you have to give Sean Naylor his due as a compelling writer of combat action.