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Just a month after 9/11 a handful of CIA men and U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan—backed by cavalry, cash, and airstrikes—toppled the Taliban.

At dusk on September 19, 2001, eight days after al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack claimed almost 3,000 lives, five middle- aged American civilians climbed aboard a military cargo aircraft at a U.S. airbase in Maryland. Their clothing suggested a hunting or camping trip, but their baggage told a different story.  There were maps, satellite phones and clandestine communications gear, portable generators, medical supplies, and—more ominously—several Russian AK-47 assault rifles. They also brought three large boxes whose contents tipped the scales at 45 pounds: the weight of three million dollars in $100 bills.

The Central Intelligence Agency was going to war.

Led by 30-year agency veteran Gary Schroen, the CIA team was working with Task Force Dagger, the spearhead of the U.S. response to 9/11. Dagger’s mission? Oust the Taliban government harboring al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and pave the way for the unopposed entry of conventional forces into Afghanistan. Schroen, 59, and several other CIA team leaders would have the daunting task of persuading the Afghan rebel Northern Alliance to stage an all-out attack on the Taliban. In addition to financial incentives, the United States offered the services of some 400 aircraft as well as several detachments of U.S. Army Special Forces to direct air attacks against the Taliban.

This operation was hardly the first foreign excursion into one of the world’s most barren yet contested lands. Alexander the Great made his appearance in 330 BC, conquered, lost his footing, and retreated. The British fought hundreds of inconclusive Afghan battles throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. And the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, only to beat an ignoble retreat a decade later, victims of the implacable mujahideen, Afghan opposition groups that harried Soviet forces during the 1980s.

All too familiar with these failures, the Americans would take a different tack: Rather than rely on their own military might, they would support and influence indigenous rebel forces already fighting the Taliban government. The Northern Alliance—composed of 15,000 fighters mostly from three ethnoreligious minority groups, the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara—had long been stymied in a struggle against 45,000 Taliban warriors and several thousand more foreign allies of the Taliban, who had seized power in 1996. The Taliban itself was made up largely of militants from the most prevalent Afghan ethnic group, the Pashtun. But their ranks—including many men associated with al-Qaeda—were filled out with foreign recruits from Pakistan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and various Arab countries. At the time the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed, the Taliban, having pushed Alliance forces into a corner of northeast Afghanistan, outnumbered and outgunned the Alliance, with more and better tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons.

The CIA had to convince Alliance commanders, veterans of the Soviet wars, that planes and a few U.S. Special Forces troopers would make up for the relative weakness in numbers and weaponry. Privately, the CIA estimated that success, if even possible, would take at least six months. “This was a people who frequently fight amongst themselves,” said Task Force Dagger leader Colonel John Mulholland, “and were somewhat springloaded to band together and fight against an external invader.”

CIA operatives had been secretly working in Afghanistan for nearly two years before 9/11, providing materiel and financial aid as part of the U.S. intelligence effort following al-Qaeda’s bloody 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. A day after the 9/11 attack, George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, proposed Task Force Dagger to help the Northern Alliance topple the Taliban. President George W. Bush swiftly approved and assigned it to General Tommy Franks, whose command responsibilities included Afghanistan. Franks favored this type of CIA–Special Forces effort. His study of the Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan had convinced him that introducing large numbers of conventional ground forces would almost certainly lead to a protracted war, high casualties, and possibly defeat. Harnessing and supporting the Northern Alliance fight against the Taliban would put the ground effort largely in the hands of Afghan, not American, soldiers.

There was nothing new here. Unconventional U.S. military interventions had featured joint CIA–Special Forces operations for a half century, and Special Forces were particularly adept at advising and assisting indigenous irregular forces. Most famously, 40 years earlier they had lived and worked with tribes— such as the Hmong of Laos and the Rhade, M’nong, and Nung in South Vietnam—conducting raids and ambushes against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units.

Conditions in Afghanistan were ripe for such a strategy: Afghans were already in revolt against the Taliban government. The people increasingly resisted its forcible conscription of young men; its ban of TV, movies, and music; its restrictive clothing and dress code; and its degradation of Afghan women.

Schroen and his men entered the country on September 26 by helicopter, landing in the Panjshir Valley in north-central Afghanistan about 60 miles northeast of Kabul. Schroen was ideally suited to Dagger’s mission. A no-nonsense warrior-spy brought up in the tough blue-collar union town of East St. Louis, he had served in Pakistan and closely monitored events in Afghanistan and Iran in the 1980s and 1990s. He was already an old hand at dealing with South Asian soldiers and warlords, and tracking al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden.

The CIA team, warmly welcomed by Alliance leaders, set up quarters next to an ammunition dump in a heavily guarded, walled compound. Schroen immediately began lining up support for a Northern Alliance offensive to crush the Taliban. The very night he arrived, he presented $500,000 to the Alliance leadership to finance its operations and support some of the fighters and their families during the coming campaign.

The money was received by a visiting Alliance emissary in a curious but customary manner: With little discussion he merely picked up a package on the way out. The Afghan’s demeanor seemed calculated to demonstrate little interest in cash, though it was in fact a powerful incentive. Schroen also began making monthly payments to Alliance unit commanders in order to gain an independent channel of U.S. influence to several warlords. It was a page from the agency’s playbook: During the 1980s, major mujahideen leaders had been paid as much as $50,000 a month.

On September 27, Schroen met with General Mohammed Fahim, a stubborn Tajik who was the titular Alliance military chief. After a lengthy discussion about the role of Special Forces in directing air attacks and an agreement on strategy, Schroen gave Fahim a million dollars. Such payments were often flatout bribes, but the cash was also used to hire troops and to buy weapons, munitions, fuel, vehicles—even the defection of Taliban units.

Over the next week Schroen’s team began visiting Alliance units, where they scouted Taliban positions, wrote intelligence reports, and recorded Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates of likely enemy targets.

As the operation got under way, Schroen alerted Mulholland of an Alliance request: Its leaders wanted Special Forces soldiers to wear native clothing to conceal the presence of foreigners. The matter was brought to General Franks, a blunt, pragmatic leader who had come up through the ranks. “It was a vexing problem,” he wrote later. “American soldiers fighting out of uniform might not be treated as prisoners of war if captured, but rather be executed as spies. On the other hand, any captured Green Beret would likely be executed regardless of what he wore. The final compromise required our men to wear at least ‘one prominent item’ of regulation uniform—a [Desert Camouflage Uniform] shirt, jacket or trousers would suffice. This was shaping up to be a strange war.”

Meanwhile, U.S. and allied military units began pouring into bases north and east of Afghanistan. A battalion of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division, one of the conventional combat units that would try to stabilize a Taliban-free Afghanistan, landed in neighboring Uzbekistan. Eventually, troops from 31 countries would be involved, but during October and November 2001, only a few members of the British 22nd Special Air Service Regiment would join the Americans on the ground. More important to Mulholland’s task force, a second CIA team arrived and prepared to enter the Mazar-e-Sharif region of northern Afghanistan to support the Alliance’s Uzbek leader, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. And the advance party of Colonel Mulholland’s 5th Special Forces Group, the core element of Task Force Dagger, flew from Kentucky into Uzbekistan.

In Uzbekistan, Mulholland quickly arranged for several 12-man operational A detachments (ODAs) to deploy into northern Afghanistan. These units were as good or better than any ever fielded by Special Forces. The men were savvy and well trained, with an average of 10 years of military service; each was a qualified parachutist. Many were veterans of the Gulf War. Though an ODA was usually led by a captain, Mulholland sometimes allowed a well-qualified master sergeant or warrant officer to command. Each detachment was augmented with one or two U.S. Air Force Special Operations combat controllers with direct satellite communications to airstrike staffs. Units were also equipped with Special Forces laser designators to “paint” potential targets for laser-directed airstrikes.

On October 7 Franks unleashed the first overt U.S. attack on the Taliban regime with a two-week aerial bombing campaign. Targets included al-Qaeda training camps and sites frequented by bin Laden, Taliban radar and air defense systems that featured Russian-made SA-3 surface-to-air missiles, tank-repair buildings, vehicle facilities, and communications structures. B-52s flew in from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and airfields in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. B-2 stealth bombers flew to and from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Tomahawk missiles, F/A-18s, and F-14s were launched from submarines and the carriers Enterprise and Carl Vinson.

The air effort included the first combat use of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, the first operational use of Predator-launched Hellfire missiles, and the highly accurate Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), a “dumb” bomb made into a “smart bomb” with the addition of a guidance system kit. [See “HighTech for a Short War,” page 62.] But the attack, conducted to avoid civilian casualties, lacked on-the-ground targeting and did not seriously degrade Taliban strength.

On the night of October 19, the first two of Colonel Mulholland’s A detachments flew into Afghanistan. Captain Mark Nutsch’s ODA 595 and CIA team Alpha 60 met up 60 miles south of Mazar-e-Sharif, in the northern part of the country. Nutsch’s men quickly embedded with the badly outnumbered Alliance force commanded by the colorful General Dostum.

A tall Uzbek with close-cropped graying hair, Dostum was a ruthless, devious warlord with a history of switching sides. But he could muster up to 20,000 Uzbek troops, many of them mounted, befitting descendants of Genghis Khan’s warrior horsemen. To the south, ODA 555 landed in the Panjshir Valley and met up with Gary Schroen’s team. This detachment would soon join General Bismullah Khan, the Afghan commanding the Alliance’s Kabul Front from his headquarters near Bagram, about 60 miles north of Kabul.

In keeping with unconventional warfare doctrine, detachments lived with the Afghan fighters and tried to gain their trust. The effectiveness of U.S. airpower helped win over the native soldiers. On a trek scouting a segment of the Kabul Front, members of ODA 555 mounted a dilapidated control tower at Bagram. When General Bismullah’s officers pointed out several Taliban positions in the distance, the Americans called in close-air-support planes carrying laser-guided bombs, switched on their 12-pound battery-operated laser designator, and soon directed the destruction of Taliban positions. Alliance officers cheered when they saw long-held enemy positions vanish in fiery blasts of flying debris and clouds of dust. “They were happy as hell,” one U.S. sergeant recalled. “The food got a lot better that day.”

As Mulholland’s ODAs infiltrated northern Afghanistan, the CIA teams and their Afghan agents bribed Taliban officials into releasing several European prisoners held by the government in Kabul. The CIA men also redoubled efforts to assist Northern Alliance radio-intercept operators monitoring Taliban communications, collect political information on Taliban and Alliance personalities and leaders, and pass it along to Washington.

Meanwhile, General Dostum and his Uzbek unit were on the march toward Mazar-e-Sharif, succeeding militarily for the first time in years, thanks largely to U.S. air support. Accompanying Dostum were Captain Nutsch’s ODA 595 troopers astride Uzbek ponies. From their mounts they radioed vectors to air crews, who overpowered Taliban defenders with pinpoint bombing. In a few days, the planes destroyed more than 105 Taliban armored and support vehicles, 12 command posts, and a large ammunition storage bunker. Airstrikes were quickly followed by a swarm of AK-47–toting Uzbek cavalrymen, often led by Dostum, galloping after and “scaring the hell out of the Taliban,” according to Nutsch.

Nutsch’s field report, the first to arrive at the Pentagon, stunned many officials, who had no idea Special Forces troopers were on horseback. “I am advising a man on how to best employ light infantry and horse cavalry,” Nutsch wrote, “in the attack against Taliban T-55 tanks, mortars, artillery, armored personnel carriers and machine guns—a tactic which I think became outdated with the invention of the Gatling gun.”

On October 23, Taliban forces halted Dostum’s troops 24 miles south of Mazar. But they gave way before head-on Uzbek cavalry charges. The cavalrymen were supported by heavy machine guns, artillery, and infantry on the flanks. On this northern front, the battlefield stalemate was crumbling.

Over the next week five more ODAs arrived in Afghanistan and quickly teamed up with their Alliance units: Detachment 553 joined Karim Khalili’s Hazara unit west of Bagram. ODA 585, 40 miles northeast of Konduz in the far north of Afghanistan, coordinated a systematic bombing campaign designed to wear down the Taliban mentally and physically, allowing General Bariulla Khan’s forces to advance. Detachment 534 deployed to assist Atta Mohammed’s fighters on their drive toward Mazar-e-Sharif.

Captain Patrick O’Hara’s ODA 586, paired up with General Daoud Khan’s troops (as well as Detachment 594 and the troops of the overall Alliance commander, General Fahim) moved steadily toward Konduz from the southeast in what O’Hara described as day after day of “bomb the mountain, then hit it with artillery, then take the mountain.”

During this offensive, O’Hara reported the destruction of 51 Taliban trucks, 44 bunkers, 12 tanks, and 4 ammunition bunkers, and the deaths of about 2,000 Taliban fighters. CIA radio intercepts revealed growing Taliban panic. In one instance, losses of 300 men in airstrikes provoked the Kabul government to rush a 700-man reserve north to reinforce a faltering defense.

While total success in the north was still two weeks away, a harbinger of victory came on the evening of November 10, when General Dostum proudly rode into Mazar-e-Sharif, the city he had been fighting to recover for years. “It was like a scene out of a World War II movie,” said one Special Forces trooper. “The streets, the roadsides, even outside the city, were lined with people cheering and clapping.” Dostum’s forces captured nearly 3,000 prisoners, and thousands of Taliban and foreign fighters fled south toward Kabul or east toward Konduz. The Taliban’s repressive rule had ended in Mazar-e-Sharif.

On the same day, ODA 585, the unit supporting Bariulla Khan in the far north, began using a mountaintop observation post to direct a devastating air bombardment onto enemy forces opposing Bariulla’s right flank, a mile south of the Tajikistan border. The Americans had a clear view, 800 yards to their front, of a mile stretch of Taliban and al-Qaeda positions where Arab, Chechen, and Taliban fighters had established a defense. A steady, daylong stream of fully loaded F/A-18, B-52, and B-1 aircraft converged on their positions.

One aircraft dropped the BLU-82, a deadly 7.5-ton bomb so large that it had to be transported on a sled in a modified C-130 cargo plane. Rolled out the plane’s rear ramp, the bomb drifted down suspended by a huge cargo parachute. The explosion created a mushroom-type cloud and a blast wave that could knock men down nearly two miles away. At day’s end, few enemy fighters had survived.

Success by Alliance leaders in the northern tier of Afghanistan concerned Alliance generals on the southern Kabul Front, who had not enjoyed as much air support. The Pakistani government, providing bases for U.S. operations, favored southern Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, who were occasional rivals of the Tajik-UzbekHazara Northern Alliance. General Franks accommodated the Pakistanis by choosing to liberate northern Afghanistan first, in order to provide Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun handpicked by the United States and Pakistan, enough time to organize anti-Taliban fighting units in southern Afghanistan. Franks had demanded that Alliance leaders delay their advance on the capital city.

Now, without adequate air support to mount a promising offensive on the Kabul front, Alliance leaders feared the stalemate with the Taliban in the south would continue, even as Karzai’s politically favored Pashtuns seized Kabul. They were also worried by another recent development: The CIA was reporting that up to 500 foreign Muslim volunteers were coming from Pakistan every day to join Taliban and al-Qaeda combat units along the Kabul Front. Even the Special Forces teams were not sanguine. “The good guys were heavily outnumbered and out gunned on the ground,” recalled Air Force sergeant Calvin Markham, a 16-year veteran combat controller with ODA 555. “I was starting to doubt the amount of close-air support we were going to get.”

But what American and Alliance leaders didn’t know was that ODA 555 had made wise use of the few airstrikes it had been allocated, badly damaging enemy morale and strength along the Kabul Front. That front did not feature the fluid fighting of the north, which meant GPS target coordinates were relatively easy to determine. As a result, more GPS-guided bombs were used, weapons that were more effective than laser-directed munitions, whose “paint” was sometimes obscured by dust, fog, and smoke.

The precision bombing on the Kabul Front drove the Taliban to desperate measures. On November 7, Alliance fighters contacted an opposing Taliban commander who, weary of deadly air attacks, wanted to switch sides but whose men included 20 fanatical al-Qaeda members from Arab countries. The two opposing Afghan leaders reached a solution. At an agreed-upon hour, shooting was heard from Taliban trenches. A few minutes later, 730 Afghan fighters came forward, hands in the air. Behind them lay the bodies of the executed Arabs.

The Alliance had a banner day on November 11 when Taloqan, another northeastern city, fell. The Alliance reported capturing another 3,000 Taliban fighters. Air sorties allocated to the Kabul Front were dramatically increased and Special Forces troopers there enthusiastically began directing air attacks, hitting fortifications, tanks, bunkers, artillery, and troops with machine-like efficiency.

The next day General Fahim began a major advance toward Kabul with 20 tanks, 20 armored personnel carriers, 50 pieces of artillery, and 12,000 troops. He faced an estimated 10,000 Taliban and foreign fighters with about 50 tanks and armored personnel carriers. Fahim gradually overcame resistance and then advanced quickly as the defenders gave ground amid rumors that terrified Taliban bureaucrats were fleeing their offices in the city.

For the next 48 hours, with the Taliban in full flight, Fahim’s forces, supported by airstrikes, made steady progress against delaying actions staged mostly by the foreign fighters. The U.S. insistence on awaiting Pashtun liberation forces was swept aside, overtaken by events. General Bismullah Khan’s men entered the streets of Kabul, and the Alliance took over government offices. Finally, on November 14, the Taliban’s control of the country ceased.

Toppling the unpopular Taliban regime opened the way for conventional forces to carry the war forward. In fact, a few days earlier, even as Gary Schroen and his CIA team flew home, an infantry company of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division quietly occupied an airfield at Mazar-e-Sharif. Then, on November 25, U.S. Marines made an unopposed landing at an airfield in southern Afghanistan. General Franks’s new task: establish the security to support a new Afghan government, one intolerant of international terrorism and capable of defending itself, an effort that is ongoing today.

In just 27 days, from October 19 through November 14, 2001, the Northern Alliance—with the help of some 90 Special Forces soldiers and U.S. Air Force controllers, 25 CIA personnel, $18 million in operational funds and an average 100 daily air-support sorties—brought down a Taliban regime that had held a death grip on Afghanistan since 1996. Six Afghanistan provinces were liberated, along with three major cities. Much of al-Qaeda’s combat capability was destroyed or put to flight.

No Americans were killed in the fight, while the Taliban and al-Qaeda suffered an estimated 10,000 battle deaths; another several thousand fighters were captured. Mulholland and Schroen’s successful mating of their unique organizations provided a sorely needed example of how to achieve important military results with minimal U.S. manpower and expense in blood and treasure.

The foremost success of Task Force Dagger, however, was that the United States—in the short term—escaped the fate of other foreign invasion forces and achieved a swift victory in a country with a well-deserved 2,500-year reputation as “the graveyard of empires.” The choice of using the CIA–Special Forces team to prepare the country for conventional U.S. forces ensured they would be seen not as an invading army but as an extension of the already established military coalition.

If American forces had arrived in Afghanistan under different circumstances, they would have likely faced a lengthy and bloody resistance by most, perhaps even all of Afghanistan’s tribes.


Rod Paschall, a former 5th Special Forces Group ODA and battalion commander, is MHQ’s editor-at-large.

Originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.