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'Team 555' Shaped a New Way of War

The soldiers convinced him otherwise, even though they were unsure themselves. "The problem we have as soldiers is, we don't make policy," said the team sergeant, Paul. "We can say, 'We're committed,' and the next day Congress can say, 'No, we're not.' We end up being very vague on those statements."

Air Force and Navy pilots made crucial adjustments, too.

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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Special Forces Lead the Way
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Special Forces Taking Kabul
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Understanding Pakistan

Air power experts had disdained "tank-plinking," or hitting small numbers of troops or a few tanks and artillery pieces -- until this war. The pilots and their commanders, sitting at the operations center in Saudi Arabia, had been trained in the efficacy of destroying large sites with high "strategic" value, such as top military command centers and government ministries. But these targets were missing in Afghanistan. Only after spirited, daily debates over the radios with the Special Forces teams did they learn to hit mud huts, jeeps and villages, targets that often looked civilian in nature but that troops said had been taken over by the Taliban.

Special Forces teams kept and filed reports on the number of casualties the U.S. airstrikes inflicted, but the Defense Department has refused to release the number of civilians believed killed, and has acted defensive about admitting mistakes. Finally, air planners cut their traditional 72-hour targeting cycle to as little as 12 hours. For still greater flexibility, they divided the country into 30 "kill boxes," in which pilots could loiter, waiting to be given targets.

In early November, 1st Sgt. J.T. was hunting for targets with an Afghan commander in the turret of a building southeast of Bagram when the sandbags in front of them began popping with the impact of machine gun rounds. The laser target designator was knocked to the ground.

J.T. radioed for help. "Is there anything out there?" he asked. "Please, anything." He got no response. They began to climb down a ladder propped against the building. The Afghan commander was handing the radio down to J.T. when it squawked. After they scurried back up, a familiar, if frantic, dialogue ensued during which J.T. talked the pilot onto targets.

Over the next hour, 45 bombs rained on a 300-by-100-meter area around them.

"Shack on target!" J.T. yelled to indicate a direct hit. "Shack on target!"

"It was beautiful," he recalled. "The whole area was laden with machine guns and mortars. We completely smoked everything."

They also were now within days of Kabul.

Taking Mazar-e Sharif

On Nov. 3, Lt. Col. Max Bowers, a 5th Group battalion commander, and seven others arrived at Dara-e Suf, joining Team 595. His job was tocoordinate the battles ofthree major Northern Alliance commanders, including Dostum. Their goal was Mazar-e Sharif, the northwestern city that Dostum had controlled between 1992 and 1997 and that held strategic value because it could open a supply pipeline to allied forces elsewhere in the north.

By then Dostum had allied himself with his former enemies Attah Mohammed and Mohammed Mohaqiq to take the city. They were eager for Bowers's communications capability, which could link up and keep track of each.

Bowers carried a 4-by-6-foot laminated map that they marked with X's and O's and arrows as they designed the offensive. Dostum would take the plans to his war council, where Bowers would sit silently with him. Dostum and Bowers's plan was to encircle Mazar-e Sharif. There was great concern that Taliban forces would resist and turn the battle into a house-by-house fight, "absolutely the worst kind of fight you can be in," Bowers said.

As they approached Mazar-e Sharif, Bowers's toughest job was to figure out how to get the forces of all three commanders into the city without fratricide. When they started squabbling, he would pull out from his chest pocket a piece of the World Trade Center he had been given and would say, "This is why we're here." Their squabbles, he said, were brief.

Each commander was given an Inmarsat satellite phone to speak to the others and to Bowers. Bowers also had his own line of communication with the A-teams attached to each commander. The night before the battle, with Dostum and the other commanders' troops arrayed on the ridges overlooking Mazar-e Sharif, they watched convoys of Taliban troops flee. Bowers's men called in fierce airstrikes. Troops on the hilltops, he said, "were simply ecstatic."

"We saturated the battlefield with small close-air-support cells and we hit the Taliban if they were engaging us, if they were trying to maneuver in a favorable position," he said. "We engaged them while they were moving and if they tried to retreat. They simply could not move."

The Taliban front line collapsed nearly immediately on the night of Nov. 9. Taliban soldiers ran away, abandoning trenches, leaping from tanks and scrambling into trucks and jeeps for a getaway. Hundreds fled to Samangan and Kunduz provinces. U.S. forces used aircraft to attack some of the fleeing fighters but did not ask the Afghans to intercept them on the ground, Bowers said.


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