U.S. Air Force

Combat Controllers

The Secrect Weapon Nobody Knows About


Special Forces  'new way of war'

April 3 - Two darkened helicopters rocked through a nighttime storm that had smothered the Panjshir Valley in clouds. The MH-53J Pave Lows - the largest choppers in the Air Force inventory - suddenly felt like tin to the soldiers riding in back. One helicopter was flying blind, its electronic sensors having failed.  

As the fighting in Afghanistan continues, much of what the Special Forces and their partners did in Afghanistan remains obscured by the unit's culture of secrecy and Defense Department decisions not to publicize their actions.

"PULL UP! Pull up!" someone shouted from the cockpit as a mountainside appeared out of the black.

As the chopper surged upward, Chief Warrant Officer David Diaz hung on in back and worried. He and the 11 other soldiers split between the two helicopters constituted Team 555 of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Rough weather had already foiled their mission twice - and it was a once-in-a-lifetime mission.

Team 555 had been chosen to be the first A-team infiltrated into Afghanistan during the war, the vanguard of a small, nearly invisible U.S. ground presence that helped topple the Taliban with stunning speed and tested a new template for warfare.

Shortly after midnight on Oct. 19, Diaz's helicopter thudded to the ground. But like many war scenarios, this one began off-script: Both choppers had landed in the wrong place. On a moonless night, the two halves of 555 were separated by several miles and one small mountain. With each man responsible for 300 pounds of gear and with huge, uneven rocks underfoot, exploration was out of the question.

Up ahead, Diaz saw little lights dancing toward him. "This is bad," he thought. They were flashlights, and their illumination rendered his night vision goggles useless, suggesting this wasn't the reception party he was expecting.

"I'm going to try to talk to these guys," Diaz told his men. "If I hit the ground, I expect you guys to start shooting." He began walking, a machine gun in his hands and a Beretta strapped to his thigh.

Before long, a huge silhouette loomed into view - "a monster of a man," in Diaz's reckoning - and stretched out his hand.

"Hi! I'm Hal!" the monster roared in thoroughly American English. "Damn glad to meet you!"


Thus did the Central Intelligence Agency welcome the U.S. Special Forces into Afghanistan, setting in motion a war plan that would blend intelligence and ordnance in novel ways.

The Special Forces have been quietly carrying the military's banner for unconventional warfare for five decades. At the height of their involvement in Vietnam, 3,750 Special Forces soldiers - known then as Green Berets - trained paramilitary and South Vietnamese strike forces, conducted raids and led a hearts-and-minds campaign. In the 1980s, they advised Central American militaries fighting leftist guerrillas. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they hunted Iraqi Scud launchers, conducted long-range reconnaissance and accompanied Kuwaiti resistance fighters back into Kuwait City.

But not until last fall's drive to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan did the Special Forces play the central role in a conflict. And they did it with just over 300 soldiers.

The Special Forces teams executed three missions: synchronizing the unorganized forces of ethnic Uzbek and Tajik Afghan opposition groups in the north; building small armies out of Pashtun tribesmen in the south; and providing the targeting information that enabled Navy and Air Force pilots to fire guided bombs at al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and equipment, most of the time with devastating precision.

These missions depended on a new relationship between U.S. military and intelligence personnel, and a highly improvisational partnership between U.S. soldiers on the ground and their Afghan counterparts. But under the pressures of war, these relationships were forged quickly.

Before the war began, on Oct. 7, top-ranking U.S. military officials cautioned that it would take until summer to break the Taliban's five-year hold on power.

It took 49 days, from the 555's debut on Oct. 19 until the Taliban fell to the Northern Alliance in the southern city of Kandahar on Dec. 6.

Moreover, it took just 316 Special Forces soldiers: 18 A-teams, four company-level units and three battalion-level commands, all reporting to a Joint Special Operations Task Force at the Khanabad Air Base in Karshi, Uzbekistan, 100 miles north of the Afghan border. Nearly every team also included one or two CIA operatives and an Air Force Special Operations combat controller, expert at guiding high-flying aircraft to targets.

As the fighting in Afghanistan continues, much of what the Special Forces and their partners did in Afghanistan remains obscured by the unit's culture of secrecy and Defense Department decisions not to publicize their actions. But Team 555's experience in the effort that led to the taking of the Afghan capital of Kabul highlights the emerging relationships between the Pentagon and the CIA, and between the Special Forces and the Afghan armies they assisted. This article is drawn from interviews with more than 30 Special Forces officers and soldiers, most of them from the 5th Special Forces Group based at Fort Campbell, Ky. Some team members asked to be identified only by rank and first name.

Team 555 (the Triple Nickel) won the right to be the first one in through a competitive vetting process. Diaz, 38, had spent seven months on the Afghan-Pakistan border on a CIA-led mission training members of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets in 1987; some members of his team had seen combat in Iraq and Somalia, and others had trained Arab armies in the Persian Gulf.

Hal and his partner, Phil - names the members of 555 assumed were pseudonyms - were among the CIA operatives that had been inserted into Afghanistan beginning Sept. 27 to designate landing zones, secure safe houses, vet anti-Taliban commanders and supply their troops with weapons, communications gear, medical supplies and clothing.

For weeks, Hal and Phil had been promising Northern Alliance commanders working around Bagram air base that U.S. air power was coming to defeat the Taliban. Once Team 555 arrived, the CIA operatives had something more concrete to offer.


After 555's helicopters hit the ground, Hal, a former Navy SEAL and part of the CIA's growing paramilitary unit within its Special Activities Division, reunited the separated halves of the team at a safe house in the village of Astana in the lush north-central Panjshir Valley. The area had been home to opposition leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who had retained control even during the Soviet occupation during the 1980s, up through his assassination, by operatives linked to al Qaeda, on Sept. 9.

At the safe house, the team met Phil, from the CIA's analytical branch. Fluent in Russian, he wore a beige jacket and seemed to have long-term relationships with the Afghan commanders the team would be paired with.

Phil gave a briefing on the mission: The next day, the team would join up with commanders allied with Massoud's successor, Gen. Mohammed Fahim, the Northern Alliance's defense minister. (He is now defense minister in the interim government.) They would work mainly with Gen. Bismullah Khan and two other subcommanders, including Gen. Babajan, who had commanded troops in a three-year standoff with the Taliban at Bagram.

First, they were to help U.S. warplanes destroy the Taliban front line around that airfield. Then, they were to search for and destroy Taliban and al Qaeda targets in the 35-mile stretch south to Kabul. Finally, they were to help the alliance seize Kabul, a triumph they hoped would demoralize Taliban troops in the south.

The team's movements were tracked by Special Forces soldiers 1,500 miles away in a Combined Air Operations Center at the Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. That group also analyzed pictures and other intelligence on the A-teams' targets.

When Phil introduced Diaz and the others to Bismullah Khan at their next safe house, in the village of Taqhma, he said, "Here's the Special Forces team I've been promising you."

"Okay," said Khan, friendly but reserved. "Show us what you can do."

"All you have to do is show me where to start," Diaz replied.

At 7 the next morning, a four-man survey team snuck as close to the Taliban front lines as they could to fix their position and look for targets.

The view was startling. The Taliban had added 2,000 troops to its force of 5,000 in the days since Massoud's assassination. With the naked eye, they could see Taliban tanks, artillery, troops, command posts, vehicles and ammunition bunkers. Targets. More than 50 of them.

The scouting team called back to Diaz, who had gone to the Bagram airfield control tower, which overlooked the carcasses of several rusted Soviet MiG fighters and offered the best view of the front line, 1,000 meters away. Diaz radioed Sgt. 1st Class J.T. at the safe house in Taqhma. "Bring the CAS equipment, fast!" he said, meaning the binoculars, laser designator and Global Positioning System used to identify and plot target coordinates. He asked Tech Sgt. Calvin, an Air Force Special Operations combat controller, to see if he could redirect aircraft already in the air to bomb immediately.

J.T. lugged the 90-pound equipment backpack up to the control tower just about the time the aircraft started showing up. Gen. Babajan, a stout, jovial man, had arrived by then, too, along with an entourage that filled the 20-by-20-foot tower.

"Look over there," Diaz told Babajan, handing him the binoculars. "That's the target." He pointed toward the Taliban front line, at a buried antiaircraft artillery gun sticking up from what looked like a mound of mud and at a command-and-control shack identified by a protruding antenna.

The first aircraft, an F/A-18 Hornet off the USS Theodore Roosevelt, demolished it with a blast that flung dry dirt and fiery shards of metal three stories into the air.

The fireworks were immediately upstaged by cheers and laughter from the commanders. Babajan shook the team members' hands and hugged Diaz. From the base of the tower, his security force erupted in cheers and applause.

Babajan scribbled in his notebook, listing targets struck and targets he wanted struck.

After an hour, the Taliban hit back - artillery shells whizzed by, exploding in front of and behind the tower. Calvin crouched, Phil hit the floor. Two Special Forces soldiers scrambled down the rickety staircase.

It was clear, Diaz would say later, that the team's predeployment chest-beating had given way to fear. "Everybody stop where you're at and get back up here!" he yelled. "Here's the deal. We will not be effective if we leave. Don't even bother to duck. The Taliban are bad shots."

The team stayed seven hours, until dusk, directing a continuous flow of warplanes onto the Taliban front lines until there were no more aircraft available. The tremendous roar of invisible warplanes flying at 15,000 feet overhead forced the Taliban forces to scatter into trenches and walled compounds as giant blasts of fire leapt up around them.

That night, back at the safe house, the Afghans honored the Americans with a huge feast and a long list of targets for the next day.


For nearly a week, 555 was one of only two Special Forces teams inside Afghanistan, so it had the entire range of Air Force and Navy planes at its call; F-18, F-14 and F-15 fighters, B-52 and B-1 bombers, AC-130 gunships. The Taliban troops made themselves easy targets too by returning to Bagram from Kabul in truck convoys most nights to snuggle close to the Northern Alliance front line.

Team 555's work with Fahim north of Kabul set a pattern for three more A-teams that infiltrated beginning in the second half of October: 553 in the central Bamian province, 585 around Kunduz and 595 in Dara-e Suf, a remote mountain village and headquarters for their new partner, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek warlord renowed for his ruthlessness and Machiavellian alliance shifts.

For 18 days those four teams, plus two 15-person battalion-level units - only 78 soldiers in all - accounted for the entire Special Forces presence in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Army Special Forces Command. Yet they set the stage for the fall of the northern two-thirds of the country.

With such small numbers, most of the A-teams split into four detachments of three men each to cover more territory. Some subteams went for weeks without seeing other Americans, maintaining contact via satellite radio. One was ferried into place in a beat-up, Soviet-made MI-8 HIP helicopter that "barely cleared some of the highest peaks" of the Hindu Kush mountains, according to the team's report. One three-man detachment of Team 595 worked in a dug-in observation post on a hilltop, an 18-hour horseback ride from the closest U.S. soldier.

Horses, in fact, were briefly an unfortunate fact of life for the Americans. Only two of 595's men had ever ridden before their first hours in Afghanistan; suddenly, the burly soldiers found themselves atop wiry mountain ponies, in stiff wooden saddles with stirrups so short their knees were jammed into their armpits.

The grizzled Northern Alliance commanders, for their part, had to come to terms with the Americans' relative inexperience and fresh faces. Dostum was one of many Afghan commanders who insisted at first that the Americans remain at headquarters, out of harm's way, which was too far from the action to direct airstrikes. Dostum, said Mark, the Special Forces captain assigned to him, worried that the death of one U.S. soldier might weaken the U.S. commitment to the war.

The soldiers convinced him otherwise, even though they were unsure themselves. "The problem we have as soldiers is, we don't make policy," said the team sergeant, Paul. "We can say, 'We're committed,' and the next day Congress can say, 'No, we're not.' We end up being very vague on those statements."

Air Force and Navy pilots made crucial adjustments, too.

Air power experts had disdained "tank-plinking," or hitting small numbers of troops or a few tanks and artillery pieces - until this war. The pilots and their commanders, sitting at the operations center in Saudi Arabia, had been trained in the efficacy of destroying large sites with high "strategic" value, such as top military command centers and government ministries. But these targets were missing in Afghanistan. Only after spirited, daily debates over the radios with the Special Forces teams did they learn to hit mud huts, jeeps and villages, targets that often looked civilian in nature but that troops said had been taken over by the Taliban.

Special Forces teams kept and filed reports on the number of casualties the U.S. airstrikes inflicted, but the Defense Department has refused to release the number of civilians believed killed, and has acted defensive about admitting mistakes. Finally, air planners cut their traditional 72-hour targeting cycle to as little as 12 hours. For still greater flexibility, they divided the country into 30 "kill boxes," in which pilots could loiter, waiting to be given targets.

In early November, 1st Sgt. J.T. was hunting for targets with an Afghan commander in the turret of a building southeast of Bagram when the sandbags in front of them began popping with the impact of machine gun rounds. The laser target designator was knocked to the ground.

J.T. radioed for help. "Is there anything out there?" he asked. "Please, anything." He got no response. They began to climb down a ladder propped against the building. The Afghan commander was handing the radio down to J.T. when it squawked. After they scurried back up, a familiar, if frantic, dialogue ensued during which J.T. talked the pilot onto targets.

Over the next hour, 45 bombs rained on a 300-by-100-meter area around them.

"Shack on target!" J.T. yelled to indicate a direct hit. "Shack on target!"

"It was beautiful," he recalled. "The whole area was laden with machine guns and mortars. We completely smoked everything."

They also were now within days of Kabul.


On Nov. 3, Lt. Col. Max Bowers, a 5th Group battalion commander, and seven others arrived at Dara-e Suf, joining Team 595. His job was to coordinate the battles of three major Northern Alliance commanders, including Dostum. Their goal was Mazar-e Sharif, the northwestern city that Dostum had controlled between 1992 and 1997 and that held strategic value because it could open a supply pipeline to allied forces elsewhere in the north.

By then Dostum had allied himself with his former enemies Attah Mohammed and Mohammed Mohaqiq to take the city. They were eager for Bowers's communications capability, which could link up and keep track of each.

Bowers carried a 4-by-6-foot laminated map that they marked with X's and O's and arrows as they designed the offensive. Dostum would take the plans to his war council, where Bowers would sit silently with him.

Dostum and Bowers's plan was to encircle Mazar-e Sharif. There was great concern that Taliban forces would resist and turn the battle into a house-by-house fight, "absolutely the worst kind of fight you can be in," Bowers said.

As they approached Mazar-e Sharif, Bowers's toughest job was to figure out how to get the forces of all three commanders into the city without fratricide. When they started squabbling, he would pull out from his chest pocket a piece of the World Trade Center he had been given and would say, "This is why we're here." Their squabbles, he said, were brief.

Each commander was given an Inmarsat satellite phone to speak to the others and to Bowers. Bowers also had his own line of communication with the A-teams attached to each commander. The night before the battle, with Dostum and the other commanders' troops arrayed on the ridges overlooking Mazar-e Sharif, they watched convoys of Taliban troops flee. Bowers's men called in fierce airstrikes. Troops on the hilltops, he said, "were simply ecstatic."

"We saturated the battlefield with small close-air-support cells and we hit the Taliban if they were engaging us, if they were trying to maneuver in a favorable position," he said. "We engaged them while they were moving and if they tried to retreat. They simply could not move."

The Taliban front line collapsed nearly immediately on the night of Nov. 9. Taliban soldiers ran away, abandoning trenches, leaping from tanks and scrambling into trucks and jeeps for a getaway. Hundreds fled to Samangan and Kunduz provinces. U.S. forces used aircraft to attack some of the fleeing fighters but did not ask the Afghans to intercept them on the ground, Bowers said.

Dostum immediately set his sights on Kabul and Kunduz. But so did Fahim and the other commanders. For weeks Washington had been urging the Northern Alliance leadership not to move on the capital, trying to buy time to negotiate a power-sharing agreement among Afghanistan's ethnic blocs. But the fighting was about to overtake the diplomacy.


The competition for Kabul did not rest solely with the commanders. Leading Team 555, Diaz did not want to have another A-team's general beat his general into Kabul. Fahim had led Massoud's triumphant forces into the capital in 1992, on the heels of the Soviet retreat, and Massoud had held the city for four years, before the Taliban swept into power.

"I tried to play him against Dostum by saying, 'Hey, we don't want to be last. Why aren't we starting?"" said Diaz, who was still near Bagram, trying to push Fahim's troops to begin their march south to Kabul.

Fahim agreed to ready his troops if Diaz would request strikes on a final list of targets whose destruction would make their offensive easier. Beginning Nov. 10, Team 555 called in 25 strikes that, by the team's official estimates, killed 2,200 enemy soldiers and destroyed 29 tanks and six command posts over two days. Reporters in the area soon after saw no evidence of such destruction.

Fahim's troops put on brand new Chinese-made uniforms, readied their weapons for the offensive, and stayed in garrison. Fahim had agreed to give Diaz 24 hours' notice before his troops began their move south. Diaz estimated that it would take Fahim's foot soldiers 10 days to reach the capital.

But on Nov. 12, Diaz's team sergeant, Greg, radioed with news: "They're moving out in two hours."

"We tried to stay ahead of them with the bombings," said Greg, "but at some point we did have to stop, because they were moving faster than we could calculate where they were at. We knew their objective was Kabul, and they weren't going to be slowed down by our bombing."

Fahim, said Diaz, resorted to a time-honored practice to get several subcommanders to slow down so he could take the city. "He paid them off to stop," he said.

As they moved south, the Northern Alliance allowed thousands of Afghan Taliban members to switch sides. Several suicide bombers among the instant defectors blew themselves up in an effort to kill those who were switching.

"There was a lot of handshaking involved, especially between Afghani and Afghani," said Greg. But the opposite was true for the non-Afghan fighters, the Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and others in Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda. "The Pakis and other foreigners, they couldn't care less about; they were going to kill them," Greg said.

And they did. In one case, after hand-to-hand combat in Estelef, a village on the way to Kabul that Fahim's subcommanders would not allow the Americans to bomb, the Taliban surrendered on Nov. 11. The Afghans within the Taliban forces there began killing the Arabs and Pakistanis in their own ranks. "In a lot of cases, the native Afghanis in the Taliban unit were killing them themselves," said Diaz.

"We absorbed the native Afghanis; the Arabs and Pakistanis were all killed trying to escape, supposedly," added Greg.

During the last day of the offensive, the team came under heavy fire, said J.T. One Afghan guard, afraid the Americans might get hurt, laid his body across two of them as they crouched behind a barrier and continued to call in aircraft. "They saw us as an asset, but they also saw that if one of us got hurt, [Washington] might pull us out. We didn't have to get in the trenches and fight with them. They didn't want us there," J.T. said.

By dawn the next day, Taliban forces were fleeing south from Kabul. Fahim, with Team 555 not far behind, was surrounded by a crush of cheering Afghans as he approached the capital.

The team made its way to the U.S. Embassy, which had been closed since 1989. Marines, who guard U.S. embassies around the world, would open the doors and raise the flag in front of the international media corps, but first, it fell to 555 to check the building for booby traps. They found the embassy frozen in time, the ambassador's desk still brimming with papers.

As they looked around the compound, opening drawers and peering in closets and the refrigerator, they found four soda cans wrapped in brown paper and labeled "bomb." A map of Kabul clung to the wall. Open drink bottles sat behind the Marine Corps bar, a standard recreation room in many embassy compounds.

In Kabul, the members of Team 555 moved into another safe house and befriended a couple of young shoeshine boys, whom the team outfitted in clothes and soccer equipment. They also opened the Kabul airfield, which immediately became the hub of international relief efforts.

Diaz's team was twice visited by the Afghan commanders they had worked with. They came bearing coordinates and asked Diaz to call in his bombers and fighters to an area just south of Kabul. Enemy territory, they insisted.

Calvin, the Air Force combat controller, sent the request into the base at Karshi, which passed it to the operations center in Saudi Arabia. The response, Calvin recalled, came back quickly: The target request was not Taliban, but a rival alliance faction. "It is a problem between them," the response noted.