Dostum immediately set his sights on Kabul and Kunduz.But so did Fahim and the other commanders. For weeks Washington had been urging the Northern Alliance leadership not to move on the capital, trying to buy time to negotiate a power-sharing agreement among Afghanistan's ethnic blocs. But the fighting was about to overtake the diplomacy.
The Race to Kabul
The competition for Kabul did not rest solely with the commanders. Leading Team 555, Diaz did not want to have another A-team's general beat hisgeneral into Kabul. Fahim had led Massoud's triumphant forces into the capital in 1992, on the heels of the Soviet retreat, and Massoud had held the city for four years, before the Taliban swept into power.
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)
"I tried to play him against Dostum by saying, 'Hey, we don't want to be last. Why aren't we starting?' " said Diaz, who was still near Bagram, trying to push Fahim's troops to begin their march south to Kabul.
Fahim agreed to ready his troops if Diaz would request strikes on a final list of targets whose destruction would make their offensive easier. Beginning Nov. 10, Team 555 called in 25 strikes that, by the team's official estimates, killed 2,200 enemy soldiers and destroyed 29 tanks and six command posts over two days. Reporters in the area soon after saw no evidence of such destruction.
Fahim's troops put on brand new Chinese-made uniforms, readied their weapons for the offensive, and stayed in garrison. Fahim had agreed to give Diaz 24 hours' notice before his troops began their move south. Diaz estimated that it would take Fahim's foot soldiers 10 days to reach the capital.
But on Nov. 12, Diaz's team sergeant, Greg, radioed with news: "They're moving out in two hours."
"We tried to stay ahead of them with the bombings," said Greg, "but at some point we did have to stop, because they were moving faster than we could calculate where they were at. We knew their objective was Kabul, and they weren't going to be slowed down by our bombing."
Fahim, said Diaz, resorted to a time-honored practice to get several subcommanders to slow down so he could take the city. "He paid them off to stop," he said.
As they moved south, the Northern Alliance allowed thousands of Afghan Taliban members to switch sides. Several suicide bombers among the instant defectors blew themselves up in an effort to kill those who were switching.
"There was a lot of handshaking involved, especially between Afghani and Afghani," said Greg. But the opposite was true for the non-Afghan fighters, the Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and others in Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda. "The Pakis and other foreigners, they couldn't care less about; they were going to kill them," Greg said.
And they did. In one case, after hand-to-hand combat in Estelef, a village on the way to Kabul that Fahim's subcommanders would not allow the Americans to bomb, the Taliban surrendered on Nov. 11. The Afghans within the Taliban forces there began killing the Arabs and Pakistanis in their own ranks. "In a lot of cases, the native Afghanis in the Taliban unit were killing them themselves," said Diaz.
"We absorbed the native Afghanis; the Arabs and Pakistanis were all killed trying to escape, supposedly," added Greg.
During the last day of the offensive, the team came under heavy fire, said J.T. One Afghan guard, afraid the Americans might get hurt, laid his body across two of them as they crouched behind a barrier and continued to call in aircraft.
"They saw us as an asset, but they also saw that if one of us got hurt, [Washington] might pull us out. We didn't have to get in the trenches and fight with them. They didn't want us there," J.T. said.
By dawn the next day, Taliban forces were fleeing south from Kabul. Fahim, with Team 555 not far behind, was surrounded by a crush of cheering Afghans as he approached the capital.
The team made its way to the U.S. Embassy, which had been closed since 1989. Marines, who guard U.S. embassies around the world, would open the doors and raise the flag in front of the international media corps, but first, it fell to 555 to check the building for booby traps. They found the embassy frozen in time, the ambassador's desk still brimming with papers.
As they looked around the compound, opening drawers and peering in closets and the refrigerator, they found four soda cans wrapped in brown paper and labeled "bomb." A map of Kabul clung to the wall. Open drink bottles sat behind the Marine Corps bar, a standard recreation room in many embassy compounds.
In Kabul, the members of Team 555 moved into another safe house and befriended a couple of young shoeshine boys, whom the team outfitted in clothes and soccer equipment. They also opened the Kabul airfield, which immediately became the hub of international relief efforts.
Diaz's team was twice visited by the Afghan commanders they had worked with. They came bearing coordinates and asked Diaz to call in his bombers and fighters to an area just south of Kabul. Enemy territory, they insisted.
Calvin, the Air Force combat controller, sent the request into the base at Karshi, which passed it to the operations center in Saudi Arabia. The response, Calvin recalled, came back quickly: The target request was not Taliban, but a rival alliance faction. "It is a problem between them," the response noted.