They landed in darkness on an early November night, deep in the mountains of northern Afghanistan. For six hours, they'd hunkered down in the freezing hold of the transport helicopter, tossed by heavy winds, before setting down 6,000 feet above sea level. Shouldering 200-pound packs stuffed with weapons, ammunition and communications gear, the U.S. Army's First Battalion, Fifth Special Forces A-team piled out of the chopper and onto the snowy turf.
The helicopter retreated, a roar of rotor wash kicking dirt and ice into the men's faces. Then silence. For weeks, the 13-man Green Beret team had trained and studied and obsessed about their mission. They were a tight-knit group, each man trusting the others with his life. Yet it wasn't until the chopper faded from view and the vastness of the landscape came into focus that they realized how far from home they were, and how alone: 90 miles behind enemy lines, in the heart of Taliban territory.
To the men, standing in the blackness that night, the mission ahead seemed almost impossible. The team was to find and win the trust of an elusive Northern Alliance commander they knew virtually nothing about and whose language they didn't speak, supply his ragtag team of fighters and then, with his help, storm a key Taliban stronghold, the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. After wresting control from the enemy, they were to restore order and help local leaders begin rebuilding the ravaged city. Along the way, they were to sneak up on armed Taliban camps and caves, helping to laser-guide U.S. bombers to the targets.
In the harrowing, heroic days that followed, they did just that. The fall of Mazar-e Sharif turned out to be a critical moment in the Afghan war, setting off a domino effect that quickly led to the fall of the major cities of Kabul and Kandahar, and the collapse of Taliban rule. It also provided a dramatic victory for the elite Special Forces, whose daring missions in the past had sometimes gone disastrously wrong.
Though sustained fighting in much of the country has subsided, at least for now, the U.S. servicemen who remain in Afghanistan are still at risk. Last Friday a Green Beret, Sgt. 1/c Nathan Ross Chapman, was shot and killed when he was ambushed by enemy fighters near the Pakistan border in the east. A CIA agent was also wounded in the attack. U.S. soldiers continue to comb through southern cave complexes looking for Taliban and Qaeda fighters—frustrated that they still have no clue where Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden might be. At the same time, Special Forces teams remain on hair-trigger alert in Mazar-e Sharif, keeping violence at bay.
Secretive and publicity averse, Special Forces units usually shun outsiders, refusing to divulge details of their missions even years after the shooting stops. But over the past week, a NEWSWEEK reporter was granted round-the-clock access to the Special Forces soldiers who helped capture Mazar-e Sharif, providing an unprecedented, real-time glimpse at an ongoing Green Beret mission—and a look at how foreign wars will likely be fought in the future. In this exclusive report, the soldiers recount how they fought their way to the city, and detail the difficult second phase of their mission: trying to keep peace in a country that for so long has known nothing but war.
Gathering up their gear that first night, the team spotted a campfire in the distance. It was their guides, a shabby group of Afghan fighters dressed in blankets and plastic shoes, trying to get warm over the low flames. In preparation for the mission, the American soldiers had grown their hair long and sported bushy beards. But one look at their underfed, ragged allies made it clear that no one would ever mistake them for locals.
The Afghans would take them to meet Atta Mohammed, a Northern Alliance commander who was waiting for them in a hamlet miles away. The A-team knew little about him. Preparing for the mission, they'd asked for any information the Army had about Atta Mohammed. They were instead given files on Mohamed Atta, the lead September 11 hijacker.
For the next two days, the men did not sleep as they made their way across the countryside. They were used to working through extreme fatigue and hunger. In training, they routinely performed complex tasks after days or weeks with little food or rest. They followed their guides through the night, down narrow icy trails and across steep drop-offs. Bobby, the team's communications sergeant, looked at the Afghans' skimpy clothing as a way of convincing himself that he wasn't freezing.
At daybreak, they came to the hamlet, a collection of mud huts sheltered by the mountains. Atta, a bearded, 38-year-old former schoolteacher, came out to greet them. One problem quickly became apparent: Atta spoke no English, and none of the A-team members knew Dari, Atta's language. Accomplished linguists, everyone on the team spoke Arabic and at least two other languages. One spoke French, another Chinese. No luck. At last Dean, the team commander, tried Russian, and one of Atta's men answered him. They'd found their translator.
The men had expected to encounter bumps like this, and much worse, along the way. The A-team had been together for more than two years, training all over the Middle East and Central Asia for just such a mission. Though almost none had seen combat, they had been taught to thrive in the worst of conditions. Unlike infantry soldiers, who rigidly follow the commands of their superiors, the small Special Forces teams are expected to operate as a self-sustained unit, completely on their own, without continual direction from above. If a problem arises, they've got to solve it themselves; if their plan falls apart midmission, they have to come up with a new one; if they don't know the local language, they quickly learn it. More cerebral than their Airborne or Ranger colleagues, Green Berets like to say that their training—physically brutal as it is—favors brains over brawn. Team leader Dean quotes Shakespeare from memory. Mike, the weapons expert, keeps Teddy Roosevelt's passage about men who fight "in the arena" in his diary. The young and the mindlessly gung-ho rarely make the cut. In an Army of fresh-out-of-high-school infantrymen, Special Forces are typically in their mid-30s and have college degrees.
After lengthy Afghan pleasantries, Atta got down to business. He told the Americans that he had 2,000 troops in the Darya Balkh Valley, south of Mazar-e Sharif. On the narrow, winding mountain trails, the trip would take more than a day. The team split in two, one group staying with Atta, the other circling around the mountains. Special Forces A-teams are designed to break in half. Each team of 12 has two experts in each specialty, from weaponry to communications—allowing the team to become a mirror of itself, carrying out its mission from two different locations. (In Afghanistan, the team had a 13th man, an elite Air Force Special Operations airman who helped direct airstrikes from the ground.)
The men slowly made their way down the narrow road, flanked by hidden land mines on both sides. The Afghans provided horses, but saddled them with so much gear that four of the animals collapsed from exhaustion. Two others broke their legs on the badly rutted terrain. The thousands of Northern Alliance soldiers who met the team at the other end were a sorry-looking lot. The Americans got on the radio and called in for an airdrop of uniforms, shoes, blankets, food and ammo.
Clothed and fed, the Afghans quickly warmed to the U.S. soldiers, who began drawing up a list of targets they needed to hit on their way to Mazar-e Sharif. First up: Aq Kopruk, a Taliban town a few miles away. The aim was to catch the enemy utterly by surprise in a massive air-bombing raid that would break the Taliban's hold over the region. Split up on two mountainsides, one part of the team called in the airstrikes while the other "painted" the targets with lasers, guiding the bombs to their marks.
The bloody accuracy of the attacks instantly lifted the spirits of Atta and his troops. During one bombing raid, Stan, the A-team's warrant officer, was showing Atta how the lasers worked. Just as Atta put his eye up to the viewfinder, an American bomb obliterated a distant target. Atta could see the bodies of Taliban soldiers blown into the air. "We wanted to show him we could help him beyond boots and clothes," says Dean. "From that point on, all Atta wanted was more laser." In a matter of days, Aq Kopruk fell.
The A-team won more trust by treating dozens of wounded Northern Alliance soldiers. The team was among the first American soldiers to deal with serious land-mine injuries in the country. On the night before the attacks on Aq Kopruk, as they tried to get a few hours of sleep on the floor of a cramped mud hut, wounded fighters started streaming in. One Afghan soldier had stepped on a land mine, blowing off most of his leg, leaving just a mangled bone protruding beneath his knee. His fellow soldiers had heard there were American doctors nearby, and lugged the man up the hillside for five hours on top of an old door. Jason, one of the team's two medics, had ordered an amputation saw before he left the United States, but it hadn't arrived in time. Improvising, he stretched the man out on a blanket in the mud courtyard and used his Leatherman pocket tool to saw through the bone. All the while Mike, the team's senior weapons man, kept an eye out for a mangy stray dog who tried to jump out and gnaw at the bone.
The team spent just one night in Aq Kopruk. They didn't want to lose the momentum of their first attack, or give the fleeing Taliban forces time to regroup. Stealing two Taliban trucks and one car, they ditched their horses and continued north toward Mazar-e Sharif with Atta and his men. Along the way, they called in more airstrikes. After guiding the bombs to their targets, the men moved through a gorge dotted with caves, the road littered with bodies of Taliban soldiers and the charred carcasses of bombed-out trucks.
Meanwhile another U.S. Special Forces team was also heading to Mazar from a different direction. It accompanied Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a Northern Alliance commander and Atta's rival for control of the city. A third Northern Alliance commander, Mohaqqeq Mohammed, was on the way as well.
On Nov. 9, Atta's men met up with Dostum and his troops, about an hour's drive south of Mazar-e Sharif. As Taliban soldiers, demoralized and outgunned, fled Mazar, Atta pressed on to the city. He arrived in Mazar the next day with the A-team, to cheering crowds. Screaming and crying, men, women and children rushed over to thank the American soldiers, greeting them like a rescuing army.
"It was surreal," recalls Mike, the weapons man. "We didn't know what to expect. We were locked and loaded, and didn't know whether there were any more Taliban. I wondered whether it was the same feeling the Allies had when they liberated Paris." The men were astonished to have captured the city so quickly. They had expected to spend a long, miserable winter camped out in the mountains. None thought they would defeat the Taliban until at least the spring.
In the months since the fall of Mazar, something resembling normal life has slowly returned. People watch TV, take photographs and listen to music. Children fly kites, a favorite pastime. Most women still wear burqas, but now with high-heeled sandals and painted toenails. The A-team has shifted its focus from fighting to diplomacy—a key component of Special Forces training. The men cheerfully endure the seemingly endless rounds of greetings and tea drinking that precede any meeting with local leaders. "First it's 15 minutes of I love you and you love me," says one team member. "Then drink tea, then eat fruit, then eat some more nuts and eat candy and talk a bit." By now, the soldiers all have basic Dari down.
Yet the men know better than to let their guard down. Tensions between Atta, Dostum and Mohaqqeq, the three competing Northern Alliance commanders, persist. The interim government named Dostum deputy Defense minister and Atta commander of Northern Forces. Each appointed a mayor to govern Mazar, leaving the city with two competing administrations. Heavily armed fighters loyal to all three commanders patrol the city, keeping an uneasy balance of power. A-team members never move out of their secure compound without their weapons, and keep four-wheel-drive vehicles loaded with ammunition, water, food and fuel. As one team member put it, they don't like it when people on the street come up behind them.
The caution may have saved their lives. Last Friday night, as the A-team drove through the city, they suddenly found themselves confronted by men with guns. Instantly, the diplomats once again became soldiers and drew their automatic rifles. Dean, the team leader, told each of his men which attacker to shoot if necessary. Wisely, the Afghans lowered their weapons and moved on. As it turned out, the men weren't Taliban but Northern Alliance fighters loyal to Dostum, flexing their powers and ready to shoot. For Dean and his men, it was a chilling reminder that in Afghanistan, "peace" may just be another word for war. For now, at least, it is a different kind of war than the one a few brave men helped to turn around.