Afghan Lessons May Change U.S. Warfare

The response to the al Qaeda attacks on America was a military campaign unlike any in U.S. history.

Just 200 American soldiers on the ground for most of it — guiding massive U.S. air power and improvising as they went along — toppled a government and defeated an army in less than two months.

Never before had special operations teams played such a huge role in an American war. They turned ragged bands of Afghan militiamen into a conquering army.

The lessons they learned promise to reshape American warfare forever.

Only now are these soldiers sharing their experiences. Most still insist we not use their full names to protect their families. But here is a glimpse at their story.

Oct. 19

On a moonless night, U.S ground forces draw first blood.

It's a highly visible show of force, grabbing for just a few minutes a lightly guarded command post and airfield 60 miles from Kandahar. It is, in part, a diversion.

That same night, 300 miles to the north, two special forces "A" teams — each with about a dozen men — are secretly dropped onto remote mountainsides to establish the U.S. military's first contact with a group of Afghan warlords. They are known as the Northern Alliance and have been fighting the Taliban for years.

These elite American troops have never set foot in Afghanistan. They do not know the languages or the leaders. Only a handful of CIA operatives are on the ground ahead of them.

But these soldiers — mostly Army special forces — make an immediate impression on skeptical Afghan allies.

"We were like, where do you want the bombs? And they were like, yeah right. Like you can have a plane here in 10 minutes," said a special forces medic. "Ten minutes later a plane was coming in overhead, dropping bombs …. You want to talk about immediately establishing rapport with these people."

Nov. 5

Just 17 days after U.S. soldiers arrive, the first major offensive of the war begins high in the mountains south of the strategically important town of Mazar-e Sharif.

"The terrain was so forbidding and high you simply couldn't cross it with vehicles," said a special forces colonel. "We wound up moving on horseback along with small donkeys carrying American equipment."

Sitting on mountain ridges a mile or less from the enemy, special operations teams using lasers and GPS coordinates begin calling in airstrikes, methodically shredding the Taliban front line.

Nov. 10

After five days of intense fighting, Mazar-e Sharif falls.

News of this victory has a dramatic impact throughout Afghanistan, energizing anti-Taliban forces across the north who have spent years sitting in trenches, begging the United States for help.

By now half a dozen Afghan factions in the north have been joined by American teams. There are still only 75 U.S. soldiers on the ground.

Nov. 13

In one 24-hour period, just three days after the collapse of Mazar-e Sharif, three major cities fall — Herat in the west, Toloqan in the north and finally the capital, Kabul.

"We pretty much continuously bombed 24 hours a day," said a special forces sergeant named Greg. "As soon as one aircraft left, another one would come in. Sometimes we'd have them stacked up seven deep."

Nov. 14

The day after Kabul falls, the U.S. military sends its first small team into the mountains of the south, near the town of Tarin Khowt. This is where the Taliban has its roots and greatest strength.

The team is there to help a Pashtun tribal leader named Hamid Karzai who, unlike other warlords, has no army.

"We wouldn't have been able to fight with them on our own," Karzai said. "There were about 1,000 Taliban troops. Arabs and non-Arabs and everybody else with them, and about 100 vehicles that they had. And we didn't have 10 vehicles, all of us together."

Nov. 17

U.S. aircraft, being directed by American soldiers with Karzai, rain bombs on the Taliban attackers. Karzai's small force takes the town of Tarin Khowt. It's the Taliban's first defeat in the south.

"That really cemented both our rapport with the local Afghans and I think it also established Hamid Karzai as both the leader of the people and as a military leader," said a captain named Jason, a special forces team leader.

Nov. 25

After their sweeping victories in the north, anti-Taliban forces surround the city of Kunduz and it falls — creating the largest mass surrender of the war. But it almost leads to a disastrous setback.

The prisoners — mostly al Qaeda — are trucked to an old fortress near Mazar-e Sharif, but not all of them are disarmed. As CIA agent Mike Spann and special forces begin interrogating them, suddenly there is gunfire. Spann is killed, and a bloody, three-day gun battle erupts. Most of the al Qaeda prisoners fight to the death.

"I think we're a little bit amazed at the tenacity that they displayed and the skill," said a major named Mark. "It would have been a catastrophic blow, at least at that time, had Mazar-e Sharif been recaptured by the Taliban."

The prison revolt is put down, with U.S. airstrikes pounding the prison fortress. Hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban die. Remarkably, one surviving prisoner is an American citizen, John Walker Lindh.

This is the last major battle of the north.

Dec. 9

After four days of heavy fighting, Kandahar finally falls. Hamid Karzai, now interim president, enters the city. It is pandemonium.

Kandahar is the last major city in Afghanistan to fall.

It turned out that destroying the Taliban was the easy part. The next phase for American troops, finding Osama bin Ladin and his top al Qaeda leaders, would prove much more difficult. But in less than two months, 200 American soldiers on the ground did remarkable work — changing for decades to come one model for how America is likely to go to war.