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.
"Pull up! Pull up!" someone shouted from the cockpit as a mountainside appeared out of the black.
The control tower at Bagram airfield gave Special Forces soldiers a vantage point to spot Taliban targets and call in Air Force and Navy bombing attacks.
(Photo by Team 555)
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: synchronizingthe unorganized forces of ethnic Uzbek and Tajik Afghan opposition groups in the north; buildingsmall armies out of Pashtun tribesmen in the south; and providingthe 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 onOct. 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.