November 1, 2006  

Special forces and horses

Excerpted from “War Made New”

The MH-47E Chinook touched down at Landing Zone Albatross at 2:00 A.M. on Friday, October 19, 2001, halfway around the world from New York City, where the remains of the World Trade Center were still smoldering. It had been a harrowing “infil,” or infiltration.

The long flight from Karshi Kanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan had forced the lumbering transport helicopter to navigate the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush at night and in a blinding sandstorm. With zero visibility, two MH-60L Black Hawks that had been providing armed escort had been forced to turn back. But knowing the importance of this mission, the pilots from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (the “Night Stalkers”) kept pushing their bird deeper into enemy-held territory, relying on synthetic aperture radar (which uses microwaves to generate a picture of the landscape) and infrared sensors to avoid the numerous obstacles in their paths. The pilots waited with dread for the high-pitched crack of enemy fire. It did not come. The helicopter, bigger than a Greyhound bus, safely reached its destination in the Daria-Suf Valley of northern Afghanistan where the Special Forces team on board was due to rendezvous with the anti-Taliban fighters of the Northern Alliance.

Hundreds of miles to the south, in the Panjshir Valley, another Special Forces team was landing at about the same time to join another faction of the Northern Alliance.

U.S. aircraft had been bombing Afghanistan for twelve days, but, apart from some preliminary reconnaissance work, these were the first U.S. military units on the ground. Rather than attempt a conventional invasion of Afghanistan that risked bogging down like the Soviets and the British who had come before, President George W. Bush had decided on a bold strategy that would rely on massive amounts of U.S. air power and small numbers of U.S. commandos to strengthen the Northern Alliance, which had been fighting the fundamentalist fanatics of the Taliban for years with scant results. Large numbers of conventional American troops would be sent in only if the Northern Alliance failed.

At the core of this strategy were the Army Special Forces, popularly known as the Green Berets (they prefer to be called “the quiet professionals” or simply “operators”), organized into twelve-man A teams. Each Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) is led by a young captain and composed of senior noncommissioned officers who are experts in weapons, combat engineering, intelligence, medicine, and communications. Each ODA specializes in a particular region of the world; the ones who were now entering Afghanistan came from the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They routinely operated in the Middle East and Central Asia and spoke the languages of those areas, though they were unfamiliar with Afghanistan itself.

As well trained as these men were, they had only the sketchiest intelligence available in the days after September 11 when they were rushed into secure isolation facilities and told to prepare for a mission against the perpetrators of the deadliest assault ever on American soil. One team asked for a file on the Afghan warlord they were supposed to meet, Attah Mohammed, and was instead given a briefing on the dead hijacker Mohammed Attah. They did not know what to expect once they had penetrated the land that was known as the “graveyard of empires,” where the British had been stymied in the nineteenth century and the Soviets in the twentieth.

As soon as the Chinook’s rear ramp descended, a dozen operators from ODA 595, each weighed down by more than one hundred pounds of gear, sprinted through the dust cloud kicked up by the helicopter’s twin rotors and assumed prone fighting positions. Approaching them out of the dark was a group of Afghans wearing turbans and armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. Fingers tensed on the triggers of M-4 carbines. “It was like the sand people from ‘Star Wars’ coming at you,” the team’s warrant officer said. Luckily, the strangers turned out to be friendly. They were representatives of the Northern Alliance and their job was to guide the new arrivals to a small compound of mud brick buildings where they bedded down in a cattle stable.

At 9 A.M. the next morning a contingent of twenty horsemen bristling with weapons galloped into camp. A few minutes behind them came thirty more cavalrymen escorting General Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the leading lights of the anti-Taliban movement. Described by one journalist as “a burly figure with short, spiky salt-and-pepper hair that comes down low above his brow, giving him the appearance of an irritable bear,” Dostum was an ethnic-Uzbek warlord with a seventh-grade education who had been fighting for various sides during the long years of war that had convulsed Afghanistan. In the 1980s he had served with the Soviet-backed army against the mujahideen rebels. After the fall of the communist regime in 1992, he switched his allegiance to the mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and helped him capture Kabul. The warlords’ rule was notorious for its cruelty and criminality and led to the rise of the Taliban, a group of madrassah students who set out to impose a harsh brand of Islamic law. Dostum and his allies were chased out of Kabul by the Taliban and relegated to the northern corner of the country, where they had been fighting the regime ever since.

So far the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance had made little progress toward overthrowing Afghanistan’s new rulers. They controlled less than 15 percent of the country’s territory, and their fifteen thousand or so fighters were unable to make any headway against the far more numerous and better armed Taliban forces, which stood at least forty thousand strong, counting their legions of foreign (mainly Arab) volunteers. The rebel alliance was in disarray after the assassination of Massoud two days before 9/11 by al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists. Dostum was eager to see if the Americans could finally break the deadlock.

The Uzbek warlord requested that some of the newly arrived commandos proceed with him to his headquarters, where they could plot an immediate offensive. While part of ODA 595 stayed behind to coordinate air supply drops for Dostum’s impoverished forces, six operators led by Captain Mark Nutsch, the team leader, rode back with Dostum on tough little ponies. Raised on a cattle farm in Kansas and having competed in collegiate rodeos, the sandy-haired Nutsch was a crack rider. But most of his men had never been on a horse before. It had been more than eighty years since U.S. soldiers had galloped into battle. Now they found themselves learning horse-handling skills while traversing treacherous mountain paths three feet wide, knowing that one slip would result in annihilation. “It was pretty painful,” a master sergeant recalled of the six-hour trek. “They use simple wooden saddles covered with a piece of carpet, and short stirrups that put our knees up by our heads. The first words I wanted to learn in Dari were, ‘How do you make him stop?’”

Two days after landing, on Sunday, October 21, ODA 595 launched its first attacks in coordination with Dostum using weapons beyond the imagination of any previous generation of cavalrymen. Employing their GPS receivers, the team identified the positions of faraway Taliban bunkers and radioed the coordinates to a B-52 bomber twenty thousand feet overhead. Only a white contrail was visible in the blue sky when satellite-directed bombs began raining down. Those initial munitions missed their targets, because Dostum, fearing for his allies’ safety, would not let the Americans get close enough to the front lines to make accurate observations. But Dostum was happy. The presence of American bombs was a big boost to his men’s morale and a big blow to the Taliban. He picked up a walkie-talkie tuned to the enemy frequency and told the opposing Taliban commander, “This is General Dostum speaking. I am here, and I have brought the Americans with me.”

It was not yet clear, however, what the new arrivals could accomplish. Could a force of a few dozen commandos supported by a few hundred aircraft really turn the tide in a war that had been stalemated for years? Not even U.S. commanders were overly optimistic. They expected that it would take many months of preparation before the Northern Alliance could mount a major offensive in the spring and that Kabul might not fall for at least a year. “They thought they’d let the Special Forces go in and play around for a few months,” recalled one officer assigned to Central Command, “and then the real fight would occur when the 101st and the 82nd Airborne arrived.”

The lack of results so far was already leading some in the press to invoke the dread specter of Vietnam. Creating “another Vietnam” was the fondest wish of Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of al Qaeda. By attacking New York and Washington, they hoped to draw the world’s sole superpower into a quagmire that would result in a victory for the Afghan holy warriors to match their triumph over the Soviet Union in the 1980s. They had not reckoned on the vast differences between the Soviet armed forces, circa 1980, and the U.S. armed forces, circa 2001. The former fought to subjugate Afghanistan, the latter to liberate it. As important, the former was a low-tech relic of the Industrial Age whereas the latter was attempting to remake itself for the dawning Information Age. That transformation would be showcased in Afghanistan. …

JDAMs, Predators, Global Hawks, and various other UAVs were important, but perhaps the most momentous change since 1991 was less visible—the digital integration of these and may other systems into a war-fighting network that spanned the globe. At its heart was a series of high-tech command posts that resembled the bridge of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek. …

It was apparently CIA Director George Tenet who first came up with the idea of focusing the Afghan campaign on CIA and Special Forces operators working hand-in-glove with the Northern Alliance. He presented the idea to Bush and his war cabinet at Camp David on the weekend of September 15–16. The president liked what he heard. It was left to General Tommy Franks and his staff to figure out how to put these suggestions into practice. There was little in the Centcom commander’s background to suggest he would be amenable to such an unorthodox approach—and yet he was, if only because he had no alternative. …

The bombardment of Afghanistan finally began on Sunday, October 7, 2001, focusing on the Taliban’s handful of command centers and antiaircraft defenses. Along with the bombs came drops of humanitarian relief supplies to Afghan civilians that would eventually total more than two million daily rations. U.S. aircraft had the run of the sky from the start, but they had trouble finding worthwhile targets to hit in a country without any major industry or even many paved roads. “Coming up with a target list was having us all scratching our heads,” confessed Franks’s deputy, Marine Lieutenant General Michael “Rifle” DeLong. “We had to put our hopes in ‘targets of opportunity,’ hitting the enemy when they moved, especially when they fled the early air campaign.”

In order to keep collateral damage to a minimum, Franks kept a tight leash on the bombing attacks. Targets that involved a high risk of harm to civilians or to a mosque had to be personally cleared by the four-star general, who checked with Centcom’s lawyers and often wound up asking Rumsfeld for permission. Rumsfeld, in turn, sometimes turned to the president for a ruling. This led to scenes of Franks watching Predator video and agonizing over whether to take a shot at a convoy suspected of containing Taliban or al Qaeda leaders. It was subsequently claimed that on one occasion a Predator missed a chance to kill Mullah Muhammad Omar because of Franks’s caution; whether the Taliban leader was actually in one the vehicles spotted by the Predator may never be known. Al Qaeda’s senior military commander, Mohammed Atef, was killed, however, along with a number of other al Qaeda fighters, in a strike that involved F-18 fighters dropping bombs and an MQ-1 Predator firing Hellfires. (These drones would wind up firing 115 missiles in Afghanistan and laser-designating 525 targets.)

This punctiliousness about targeting was an outgrowth of the spread of precision-guided munitions: Now that bombs could be aimed so accurately, any civilian casualties became a major scandal. …

The early bombing of Afghanistan had little impact in part because of the commanders’ caution: They were intent on preventing any unnecessary casualties among American airmen as well as among Afghan civilians. Aircraft were ordered to remain at high altitudes out of range of man-portable antiaircraft missiles such as SA-7s and Stingers. It was, however, hard to identify moving targets from twenty thousand feet. The solution was to have spotters on the ground calling in air strikes, but initially confusion reigned at Central Command and Special Operations Command about which units would be assigned, where they would go, and precisely what they would do.

While the military planned, the CIA acted. The first Americans on the ground belonged to a ten-man CIA team, codenamed Jawbreaker, which landed in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul on September 26 to rendezvous with Northern Alliance leader Mohammed Fahim. In a scenario that sounded as if it had come out of Hollywood, Jawbreaker’s leader was an old clandestine operations hand named Gary Schroen, who was summoned for one last hurrah just days away from retirement. He was given melodramatic instructions by counterterrorism chief Cofer Black: “I don’t want bin Laden and his thugs captured, I want them dead. … I want bin Laden’s head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to be able to show bin Laden’s head to the president.”

Jawbreaker brought a vital asset for this task: three cardboard boxes packed with $3 million in hundred-dollar bills that would be useful for buying allies. (Schroen noted that “that amount … is bulky and heavy and does not fit into one of those small metal briefcases carried by the bad guys in the movies.”) But Jawbreaker had neither the equipment nor the expertise to direct the military strikes that would be necessary to eliminate al Qaeda. That was the responsibility of the Special Operations Command. Colonel John Mulholland, head of 5th Special Forces Group, who as commander of Task Force Dagger had responsibility for Special Forces in northern Afghanistan, was working frantically to get his own people into the country, but it was not easy.

Simply preparing a jumping-off point at the old Soviet air base at Karshi Kanabad (K2), one hundred miles north of the Afghan border, was a major undertaking. The logisticians who first arrived found decrepit buildings with peeling paint and shattered windows; broken-down old Soviet equipment littered the polluted landscape. Virtually everything that U.S. forces would need had to be flown in from Europe. By October 6, a C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft was landing every two hours at K2, increasing the base’s population in a single week from one hundred to two thousand personnel. Soldiers from the 112th Special Operations Signal Battalion installed a super-high-frequency satellite hub, telephone switches, secure videoconferencing equipment, and over two hundred computers. The 528th Special Operations Support Battalion took care of everything else, from digging latrines and distributing mail to setting up a mess hall where hot food could be served.

While all this was going on, Rumsfeld kept calling Franks, demanding, “When is something going to happen, General?”

On the night of October 19–20 something dramatic did happen. One hundred ninety-nine Rangers staged a low-level parachute assault from MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft based in Pakistan to seize a desert landing strip near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. At the same time, a string of MH-47 Chinooks based on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk ferried a covert direct-action unit popularly known as Delta Force (technically, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta) to seize Mullah Omar’s compound in Kandahar. Both strike teams left within a few hours of their arrival and neither one reaped much of an intelligence windfall. But Franks was happy. The next day, the Pentagon released video of the Rangers’ mission. This not only satisfied Americans’ thirst for tangible ground action, but also diverted the Taliban’s attention from more important operations occurring hundreds of miles to the north.

For October 19–20 was also the night when, far from the glare of the world’s cameras, the first two Special Forces A teams landed to rendezvous with the Northern Alliance. …

Special Forces operations at first centered around the capture of Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the center of the northern part of the country. The Northern Alliance controlled territory south of the city in the towering Hindu Kush mountains. Its principal leaders in this region were Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek militia leader, and Attah Mohammed, who led a force composed mainly of Tajiks. On Saturday, October 20, as we have seen, ODA 595 had linked up with Dostum about sixty-eight miles south of Mazar-e Sharif in the Daria Suf Valley. Thirteen days later and twenty-five miles to the west, ODA 534 landed in the early morning hours of Friday, November 2, in the snowy Daria Balkh Valley to join Attah Mohammed. Both warlords also received small contingents of CIA officers who had better language and cultural skills than their military counterparts and focused on gathering intelligence. In addition, Dostum was assigned a Special Forces lieutenant colonel who acted as his personal adviser.

What the Americans learned from their Afghan hosts was dismaying. Taliban forces not only had far more men, but they also had artillery, armored cars, and tanks, while the Northern Alliance had no weapons heavier than light machine guns. The Taliban had cars and trucks; the Northern Alliance only horses. The Northern Alliance fighters were dedicated but woefully under equipped. The Green Berets were shocked to see militiamen walking through the snow without socks, their feet clad only in plastic flip-flops, while the Americans were shivering in their heavy mountain gear. Even worse, two-thirds of the Northern Alliance fighters did not have guns.

The Special Forces operators immediately radioed for supplies, ranging from guns and ammunition to boots and blankets. MC-130 Combat Talon cargo aircraft flew fourteen-hour round-trip missions from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey to deliver what was required. Airdrops of rations, bundles of cash, and, on one occasion, even a Sony PlayStation requested by a tribal chieftain, were also used to buy entrée with the Northern Alliance. The A teams won further goodwill by offering free medical care to wounded fighters. But the most important thing the Americans could offer was air power to aid the Northern Alliance’s offensive.

The plan was for Dostum and Attah to advance in parallel through the river valleys which met at the Tangi Gap twenty-five miles south of Mazar-e Sharif. For Dostum and ODA 595, the key obstacle would be the Taliban-held village of Bai Beche. For Attah and ODA 534, it would be the Taliban-held village of Aq Kupruk. To maximize their effectiveness, both A teams split into smaller elements that spread out on horseback to direct air strikes against Taliban forces. To blend in, they grew beards and sported eclectic outfits combining elements of U.S. Army uniforms with articles of Afghan clothing. On several occasions, the small Green Beret detachments were on the verge of getting wiped out by Taliban attacks; only air power saved them. “Frankly,” Captain Mark Nutsch of ODA 595 wrote in a dispatch to headquarters, “I am surprised that we have not been slaughtered.”

The Americans’ stature grew in the eyes of their Afghan allies when they demonstrated the efficacy of their air power. While attacking Aq Kupruk, one of the Green Berets let General Attah look at a target through a tripod-mounted laser designator. “He actually watched the round go in. Attah saw the target go away — a direct impact in real time,” recalled Captain Dean, the commander of ODA 534, who does not want his last name used. “And after that all he wanted was ‘laser, laser, laser.’”

Such pinpoint raids began to strip away the Taliban’s advantage by systematically destroying their heavy weapons, blowing up their command centers, and demoralizing their troops.

Impressive as smart bombs were, they were not enough to dislodge a determined enemy from entrenched positions. The Taliban defenders at Aq Kupruk and Bai Beche repulsed initial Northern Alliance assaults even after a day or two of bombing. Victory still required the close coordination of air and ground action, just as it did during the German blitzkrieg through France in 1940. Only here the ground element would come from ponies, not panzers.

At Bai Beche the crucial breakthrough occurred by accident. A Green Beret told one of Dostum’s lieutenants to get his horses ready for action while they got aircraft into position. This was misinterpreted as a signal to charge. The men of ODA 595 watched in disbelief as 250 horsemen galloped straight at a Taliban position a mile away that was about to be bombed. They were convinced that a “friendly fire” catastrophe was about to occur. No one would ever have intentionally ordered a cavalry charge in such close proximity with an air strike. But it worked out better than anyone could have expected. One of the Green Berets recalled: “Three or four bombs hit right in the middle of the enemy position. Almost immediately after the bombs exploded, the horses swept across the objective — the enemy was so shell-shocked. I could see the horses blasting out the other side. It was the finest sight I ever saw. The men were thrilled; they were so happy. It wasn’t done perfectly, but it will never be forgotten.”

This key breakthrough in the Daria Suf Valley occurred on Monday, November 5. The next day Attah’s forces took Aq Kupruk and broke through in the Daria Balkh Valley. Taliban and al Qaeda forces were now in headlong retreat toward the Tangi Gap, with the Northern Alliance in hot pursuit. Attah and Dostum, ODAs 534 and 595, combined forces to push through this treacherous terrain. The Taliban had mined the area around this mountain pass and positioned rocket launchers and artillery to defend their positions. This chokepoint was shattered by B-52 strikes, allowing the Northern Alliance to pass through on Friday, November 9. Now nothing stood between them and Mazar-e Sharif.

The Northern Alliance forces, accompanied by their American advisers, entered the city the next day. “Entering Mazar-e Sharif was like a scene out of a World War II movie,” recalled one member of ODA 534. “The streets, the roadsides … were just lined with people cheering and clapping their hands an just celebrations everywhere. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen, other than maybe on a movie screen.”

Most of the remaining defenders fled, heading east to Konduz or south to Kabul. …

While their positions were collapsing in the north, the Taliban remained entrenched around Kabul. The CIA’s Jawbreaker team and ODA 555 (the “Triple Nickel”) had been operating for weeks out of Bagram airfield, a Northern Alliance outpost in the Panjshir Valley only thirty-five miles north of the capital. The Green Berets and an air force combat controller mounted the airfield’s decrepit two-story control tower, its glass long gone, its walls pockmarked with bullet holes, to call in air strikes on Taliban front lines located just a few hundred yards away.

They developed a cunning method of recalibrating their bombing: Following an air strike, a Northern Alliance fighter would get on his walkie-talkie and, pretending to be one of the Taliban, ask the enemy soldiers across the way, “Hey, are you OK? What happened?” One of the Taliban might reply, “Yes, we’re fine, but that bomb blew up a car next to our house.” Then, recalls Sergeant First Class Scott Zastrow, with a laugh, “We’d call the aircraft and say, OK, take out the house next to the burning car.”

Eventually the Taliban caught on and targeted the exposed control tower, the tallest building in the entire area, with their mortars, rockets, and tanks. Zastrow, a wiry, wisecracking medic, recalls that his team had some “hairy moments.” Once a tank round slammed into the base of the structure and a huge fireball roared through the control tower. The flames and heat barely passed over the heads of the Americans, who hit the floor just in time. Although some team members wanted to abandon the tower, they decided it was too good a vantage point to give up. For three solid weeks the Triple Nickel kept on calling in round-the-clock air strikes in an attempt to level the odds between their fifteen hundred Northern Alliance allies and the fifteen thousand Taliban on the other side.

The Special Forces operators and their CIA counterparts were frustrated because they could never get as many bombers as they wanted. The Bush administration did not want to risk shattering Taliban positions in front of Kabul before a provisional government was in place to take over the capital. Many officials in the State Department and CIA feared a repeat of the atrocities that had occurred the last time the Northern Alliance had occupied Kabul. It was not until Sunday, November 11, forty-four days after Jawbreaker’s arrival and after repeated pleading from the Americans on the ground, that the Panjshir Valley finally received heavy air strikes, including B 52s whose two-thousand-pound bombs shook the earth.

Taliban defenses quickly crumbled. On Tuesday, November 13, General Mohammed Fahim’s forces, accompanied by the Green Berets sporting long beards and full native regalia, entered Kabul to a tumultuous welcome. The next day, the Americans drove to the abandoned U.S. embassy building, which they found surprisingly well preserved, for an emotional flag-raising. “To us,” Zastrow said, “that was more significant than taking Kabul.”

The remaining Taliban forces either surrendered or fled south to their last remaining stronghold, Kandahar. …

The U.S. did not have many allies in southern Afghanistan, a heavily Pashtun region that formed the core of the Taliban’s support. The best bet turned out to be Hamid Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister who was a committed liberal and a fluent English speaker (an American officer quipped that Karzai spoke English “better than 50 percent of [my] guys”) but no warlord. Unlike Dostum or Fahim, Karzai did not command a sizable militia. He first returned to Afghanistan from exile in Pakistan on October 8 riding a motorcycle accompanied by just two aides. Before long he met heavy Taliban resistance and had to be rescued by a U.S. helicopter, which took him back to Pakistan. Abdul Haq, another Pashtun rebel leader who tried to infiltrate southern Afghanistan, was caught and executed on October 26. When Karzai returned via helicopter on Wednesday, November 14, the day after Kabul’s fall, he brought more help in the form of ODA 574 accompanied by a couple of Delta Force operatives and seven CIA officers. The A Team was led by Captain Jason Amerine, a tall, lean, intense thirty-year-old West Point graduate who spoke Arabic but none of the local languages. …On Friday, November 30, Amerine and Karzai led their men toward Kandahar in an odd procession of beaten-up vehicles that looked like leftover props from a “Mad Max” movie. The men of ODA 574, bearded and scruffy, fit right in.

Their next battle was fought around the village of Showali Kowt, starting on Monday, December 3. The Taliban put up a fierce resistance to prevent their enemies from seizing the only bridge across the Arghandab River just ten miles north of Kandahar. The battle raged back and forth for two days.

By this time, Karzai had been joined by Lieutenant Colonel David Fox, a Special Forces battalion commander who was acting as his personal military adviser; most of the Afghan rebel leaders had one. Early on the morning of Wednesday, December 5, eight more men from Fox’s headquarters staff arrived, bringing with them the first mail ODA 574 had received in weeks. The men sprawled out to open their letters and packages. At 9:30 A.M., just as a sergeant was opening some Rice Krispie treats from his wife, the happy scene was obliterated by a deafening roar.

Amerine quickly realized that the Taliban had nothing capable of causing so much havoc. They had been hit by one of their own bombs. It later turned out that a newly arrived air force controller had mistakenly signaled a B-52 to drop a two-thousand-pound JDAM on his own GPS coordinates. No amount of sophisticated computer gear could prevent a stupid mistake on the part of its operators.

Two of Amerine’s men were killed instantly. Another died later that day. The rest, including the captain himself, were wounded but survived. At least twenty-five of Karzai’s guerrillas were also killed and fifty wounded; Karzai was only slightly nicked. More would have died were it not for the prompt response of Air Force PJ’s (Pararescue Jumpers) in Pakistan, who hopped aboard two MH-53J Pave Low III heavy-lift helicopters to evacuate the casualties.

For ODA 574, the war was over. But not for Karzai.

While Karzai had been advancing toward Kandahar from the north, another rebel leader accompanied by another A team had been moving from the south. Gul Agha Sherzai, described by a journalist as “a squat, bushy-haired man with a big belly and a rubbery face,” had been advancing with some eight hundred Pashtun followers and ODA 583 up Highway 4, the main road from the Pakistan border to Kandahar. They ran into heavy Taliban resistance at the village of Tahk-te-pol on the night of Friday, November 23, but blasted their way through with the help of an AC-130 gunship. On Sunday, November 25, Sherzai reached the outskirts of Kandahar airport, a Taliban stronghold. ODA 583 spent the next seven days calling in air strikes to soften up the enemy positions.

While this was going on, Karzai kept busy on his satellite phone, negotiating the surrender of the Taliban garrison in Kandahar. His work bore fruit on Friday, December 7, when Sherzai’s men advanced into the city and found that the Taliban had deserted. ODA 583 accompanied them on an impromptu victory parade as the citizenry cheered and tossed marigolds at them. That afternoon Sherzai occupied the governor’s palace.

Karzai had higher ambitions. He was chosen by the Bonn Conference convened by the United Nations to become the interim leader of the entire country—an office he assumed on December 22 at a ceremony in Kabul attended by Tommy Franks. …

Routing the Taliban had not taken a year or more, as originally anticipated. The regime had fallen less than two months after the insertion of the first A teams. …Afghanistan showed how successful a netwar could be. “We had accomplished in eight weeks what the Russians couldn’t accomplish in ten years,” Lieutenant General “Rifle” DeLong noted with pride. It had taken approximately three hundred Special Operations troops and one hundred CIA officers—along with hundreds of aircraft and thousands of native allies—only forty-nine days to bring down the Taliban. Casualties on the U.S. side were minimal. Twelve Americans were killed in Operation Enduring Freedom in the fall of 2001, only one (CIA officer Mike Spann) at the hands of the enemy. As of December 31, 2005—four years after the fall of the Taliban—total U.S. fatalities in the Afghanistan theater stood at 259; roughly half of those not a result of enemy action. By contrast, the Soviets had not been able to defeat approximately the same number of Afghan enemies with 100,000 Red Army troops fighting for almost a decade and suffering 15,000 fatalities.

Although few in number and lacking in armor or artillery, the Special Forces in Afghanistan were, in a sense, the most powerful infantrymen in history because they fought not with shoulder-fired weapons, whose range and power is severely limited, but with GPS locators, satellite radios, laptops, and laser-designators that could summon pinpoint air strikes with the push of a button. Roughly 60 percent of all U.S. munitions employed in Afghanistan were precision guided — six times greater than in the Gulf War.

It must be stressed that air power had not rendered ground troops obsolete. In fact, bombing without ground troops, which took place in Afghanistan between October 7 and October 19, 2001, achieved scant results. Enemy forces could readily go to ground and ride out even the harshest U.S. bombing raids. A ground element was still required to root them out. …

The one aspect of the U.S. campaign that attracted the most attention was the unlikely juxtaposition of horses and laser designators, primitive tribesmen and precision-guided munitions, an anomalous situation that Special Forces Captain Mark Nutsch aptly likened to “the Flintstones meet the Jetsons.”

This was indeed unusual and important, but it was only one sign of the ad hoc, improvisational nature of the entire campaign. The lack of preparation time and the remoteness of the battlefield meant that there was little of the bureaucratic infrastructure that too often stifles individual initiative. The key decisions were made by captains and sergeants, not generals and colonels — something that was unusual in any hierarchical military structure. The U.S. armed forces were more decentralized than those of, say, China, Russia, or Iraq, but an internal study in 2002 found that the U.S. Army too often encouraged “compliance instead of creativity, and adherence instead of audacity” among its junior officers, who were “seldom given opportunities to be innovative; to make decisions; or to fail, learn and try again.”

In Afghanistan, that mold was broken. Opportunities for audacity were plentiful, and they were eagerly seized by the A teams.

Dean, the team captain of ODA 534, recalls that when he was sent to Afghanistan his entire mandate consisted of a handful of PowerPoint slides that told him to conduct unconventional warfare, render Afghanistan no longer a safe haven for terrorists, defeat al Qaeda, and “coup” the Taliban. How he accomplished those goals was up to him. “We were given an extraordinarily wonderful amount of authority to make decisions,” says Dean. It was not until after the fall of the Taliban that the bureaucracy of the regular army arrived in Afghanistan with its PXs and its paperwork.

Dean credits the “network approach” of the U.S. Special Forces and Air Force for the success of Operation Enduring Freedom. They could be so “decentralized but coordinated,” he adds, because advanced communications gear kept them better connected to each other than soldiers had been in any previous conflict.

Almost by accident, U.S. troops had managed to realize some of the potential of the Information Revolution while fighting in one of the least “wired” places on the planet.