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'Team 555' Shaped a New Way of War

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.

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)

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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.

'Show Us What You Can Do'

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 soldiers1,500 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.

WhenPhil 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 theTaliban 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 inTaqhma. "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.


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