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'Team 555' Shaped a New Way of War

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 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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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.

'Shack on Target'

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.


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