During initial combat operations in northern Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (2001), Army Special Forces (SF) was tested to a degree not seen since the Vietnam War. With little time to prepare for this mission, SF teams were to land by helicopter deep in hostile territory, contact members of the Northern Alliance, coordinate their activities in a series of offensives, bring the entire might of U.S. air power to bear on Taliban and al Qaeda forces, and change the government of Afghanistan so that the country was no longer a safe haven for terrorists. They accomplished all this, and more, in the space of a few months. While the details of many of their operations remain classified, the general outline is clear.
Army operations in Afghanistan focused first on obtaining a suitable operational base outside the country but close enough to infiltrate Special Forces teams into their targeted areas of operations. Because of earlier contacts with the government of Uzbekistan, this occurred rather rapidly and U.S. forces began arriving at an old Soviet airbase near Karshi Kandabad in south-central Uzbekistan in the fall of 2001. The 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, formed the core of Joint Special Operations Task Force North, called Task Force Dagger, under the command of Col. John Mulholland. In addition to the 5th Special Forces Group personnel, the task force included aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), also stationed at Fort Campbell, and Special Tactics personnel from the Air Force Special Operations Command headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
Once in place, TF DAGGER was directed to conduct special operations in support of a number of Northern Alliance (NA) commanders in Afghanistan and to work with them to gain their active assistance in overthrowing the Taliban regime. Representatives of other U.S. government agencies who had long-standing ties with many of these organizations served as advance elements for the Special Forces. However, much of the military burden would fall on Army Special Forces and Special Operations aviators. They planned to quickly establish contact with three of the most powerful of the NA faction leaders, Generals Abdur Rashid Dostum, Mullah Daoud, and Fahim Khan. Assisted by U.S. air support, each would be encouraged to expand his footholds in northern Afghanistan and to provide a base for follow-on U.S. operations before the onset of winter. Winter in Afghanistan made mountain passes virtually impassible, and even air support was often adversely affected by the winds and storms of the harsh Afghan climate. For political purposes, the Special Forces teams were divided among the various faction warlords as equally as possible, since the United States did not want to give the impression of favoring one of these long-term rivals, now temporary allies, over the other. This policy impacted on the timetable of inserting teams, with some being held up, at times for days, awaiting the successful insertion of another team into a rival’s territory. Afghanistan’s inherent tribalism and factional splits could never be ignored despite the common enemy.
The concept of the operation in Afghanistan was to land teams first into the Mazar-e Sharif and Bagram-Kabul areas, followed almost simultaneously by insertions into the Kondoz-Taloqan region. (See Map 3.) Once these areas were secured, the plan was to move teams to liberate Kandahar, the center of the Taliban movement. Then the focus would shift to a likely area of enemy concentration in the Tora Bora Mountains. DAGGER leaders realized, however, that any success could ultimately lead to the scattering of the enemy forces into even more remote areas.
TF DAGGER launched its first teams into Afghanistan in mid-October. The first twelve-man SF team infiltrated into northern Afghanistan to the south of the key city of Mazar-e Sharif via helicopter on 19 October 2001. This insertion, and the ones that followed, were stories in their own right. The flights were in modified CH-47s, all conducted at night, into mountains up to 16,000 feet high with clouds, rain, and even sandstorms dramatically limiting visibility. The insertions were highly dangerous even for the best aviators in the Army, the pilots of the 160th SOAR. Despite these risks, all insertions were accomplished without major incident, although there were a number of close calls from the high mountains and enemy ground fire.
After a two-and-a-half-hour hazardous journey through high mountains and extremely poor weather, the first SF team reached its landing zone south of the city of Mazar-e Sharif, where they linked up with the local warlord, General Dostum. Dostum was an old regional power broker who alternately allied himself with and then betrayed Afghans, Soviets, and the Taliban. He was considered a ruthless warlord with a strong power base centered around Mazar-e Sharif. After conferring with him, the team split into two elements to better assist Dostum’s scattered forces against the Taliban.
From 19 to 24 October the Special Forces team operated in a split team manner. One element, Team Alpha, rode on horseback north into the mountains near Keshendeh Bala along with General Dostum to help him plan the attack on Mazar-e Sharif. The other half of the team, the Bravo element, moved south into the nearby Alma Tak Mountains to attack the Taliban in the southern Darya Suf Valley.
Team Alpha quickly began helping Dostum directly by calling in close air support (CAS) from U.S. B-1 and B-52 bombers and F-14, 15, 16, and 18 fighter-bombers. At first, however, the team was not permitted to move forward close enough to the Taliban positions to be most effective; Dostum was afraid they would be killed or captured. According to one Special Forces observer, on several occasions he told the team leader “500 of my men can be killed, but not one American can even be injured or you will leave.” As a result, the team had to call CAS from a distance of eight to ten kilometers away from the targets, looking across the Darya Suf gorge with weather conditions often hampering visibility. It was extremely hazy most of the time, making it difficult to visually acquire targets even with binoculars and spotting scopes. Eventually, the trust barrier was broken when it became obvious the team could take care of itself. Choosing observation posts (OPs) at their own discretion, often regardless of the element of danger, the men of Team Alpha quickly became more effective.
The massive close air support brought down by Special Forces had a huge and immediate psychological effect on the Taliban, causing panic and fear, and a correspondingly positive effect on General Dostum’s men. Starting on 22 October, Team Alpha, traveling on horseback in support of Dostum’s cavalry, decisively demonstrated to the Afghans the U.S. commitment to their cause. From an OP near the villages of Cobaki and Oimatan, team members began systematically calling in CAS missions. In one eighteen-hour period they destroyed over twenty armored and twenty support vehicles using close air support. At first the Taliban responded by reinforcing its troops, sending reserves into the area from Sholgara, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kholm. All that did was provide more targets for the CAS aircraft circling overhead and called into action by the SF team on the ground. Numerous key command posts, armored vehicles, troop concentrations, and antiaircraft artillery pieces were destroyed.
Meanwhile, the Bravo element of the team, also mounted on horseback, moved south into the Alma Tak Mountain range to link up with one of Dostum’s subordinate commanders in the southern Darya Suf Valley and prevent the enemy from assisting its forces in the north. They would continue to interdict and destroy Taliban forces in these mountains until 7 November, destroying over sixty-five enemy vehicles, twelve command bunker positions, and a large enemy ammunition storage bunker.
The work of Teams Alpha and Bravo quickly eroded the initial Taliban defensive positions. Many Taliban vehicles were destroyed, and hundreds of troops were killed. The survivors fled for their lives north to Mazar-e Sharif. In pursuit, Dostum’s forces began to conduct old-fashioned cavalry charges into the northern Darya Suf and Balkh Valleys. During these attacks SF team members were in the forefront of the action, often on horseback, even though only one member of the team had ever ridden extensively before.
Soon the Northern Alliance troops approached a critical pass just south of Mazar-e Sharif. It was a natural choke point, and the enemy was there in force. Dostum’s force could not go farther without massive fire support. Moving over treacherous terrain by horse and foot, SF elements moved into a forward mountain OP, and on 9 November they engaged Taliban defenses on the north side of the pass with close air support. Their efforts resulted in the destruction of several vehicles, a number of antiaircraft guns, and numerous troop concentrations. Coming under direct effective enemy BM-2 1 multiple rocket launcher fire on two separate occasions, they continued to engage Taliban forces with B-52 strikes. It was the heavy bombers that finally broke the back of the Taliban defenders, who now began streaming in retreat to Mazar-e Sharif and beyond.
With the way to victory opened up to him by Special Forces, General Dostum secured the city of Mazar-e Sharif on 10 November. Riding with Dostum into the heart of the city, the SF team watched as local Afghan citizens lined the streets, cheering and bringing gifts to Dostum. This triumphal progress into the city ended at the medieval fortress of Quali Jangi, where Dostum established his headquarters in the eastern entryway. The remaining sections became temporary prisoner holding areas. The fortress had been General Dosturn’s headquarters when he was in command of the city prior to Taliban rule. More important, the capture of Mazar-e Sharif was the first major victory for the U.S.-led coalition in the war in Afghanistan, giving it a strategic foothold and an airport in northern Afghanistan.