The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif on November 9, 2001, was the first major defeat of the Taliban and was taken by the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (Northern Alliance), along with US Army Special Forces A-Teams and precision Air Force bombardment.
The taking of the city was somewhat of a shock for both the coalition troops as well as the Taliban. US intelligence estimates thought that the city would hold out until nearly mid-2002. The Taliban had been in control of the city since 1998 and had fortified the area with a tremendous amount of reinforcement.
But the Northern Alliance teams, with a few Green Beret and Air Force Combat Controller advisors, harnessed the might of the US Air Force and decimated the Taliban or their proxies wherever they massed. By the time the Taliban withdrew anywhere between 300-500 had been killed, another 500 captured and about 1000 defected. It was a classic UW (Unconventional Warfare) success story showing what a handful of Green Berets can do working with a dedicated and tough guerrilla force. And in doing so the Green Berets of the 5th Special Forces Group (5th SFG) had conducted the first horseback mounted attack by US troops in the 21st Century.
Infiltration: Just weeks after 9/11, the US would begin the process of taking the Taliban to task for allowing al-Qaeda to use their territory. In the early morning hours of Oct.19, 2001, an MH-47E Chinook landed in Darya Suf Valley in Afghanistan and 14 heavily laden men alit and gathered their equipment and extra gear and were met by Northern Alliance fighters along with four US CIA men assigned to assist the guerrillas. The men were ODA-595 from the 5th SFG along with two Air Force Combat Controllers. Another SF A-Team, ODA-555 landed hundreds of miles south and was also linking up with other Northern Alliance fighters. These men though small in number and very lightly armed would soon be changing history.
The Northern Alliance (NA) troops didn’t have many vehicles, many of them were riding horses and when ODA-595 met with the regional commander, they quickly were issued a horse and rode for eight hours to his mountain headquarters. The commander, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum had his eyes set on Mazar-e-Sharif, because that city, close to the border of Uzbekistan controlled the road to Kabul.
The Special Forces men advising Dostum and his NA had been in two pitched battles at Bishqab and Cobaki, riding into battle on horseback and American air power had turned the tide of each in favor of the lighter armed and numerically inferior SF/NA coalition. However, the news reports coming out had painted a very different picture of what was happening. According to the news, the SF troops were doing nothing. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was demanding answers. The commander of A-595, Captain Mitch Nelson, opened his laptop to find messages questioning what his troops were doing. What he wrote was an instant classic SITREP.
“I am advising a man on how to best employ light infantry and horse cavalry in the attack against Taliban T-55s, mortars, artillery, personnel carriers, and machine guns – a tactic which I think became outdated with the invention of the Gatling gun. [The mujahideen] have done this every day we have been on the ground. They have attacked with 10 rounds of ammunition per man, with snipers having less than 100 rounds – little water and less food. I have observed a PK gunner who walked 10-plus miles to get to the fight, who was proud to show me his artificial leg from the knee down.
We have witnessed the horse cavalry bounding overwatch from spur to spur to attack Taliban strongpoints – the last several kilometers under mortar, artillery, and sniper fire. There is little medical care if injured, only a donkey ride to the aid station, which is a dirt hut. I think [the mujahideen] are doing very well with what they have.
We could not do what we are doing without the close air support – everywhere I go the civilians and mujahideen soldiers are always telling me they are glad the U.S.A. has come. They all speak of their hopes for a better Afghanistan once the Taliban are gone.”
On November 2, a third Special Forces A-Team infiltrated the area, ODA-534, along with members of the CIA SAD (Special Activities Division). They linked up with another Northern Alliance warlord, Atta Mohammed Noor 25 miles to the west of A-595.
The Taliban began trying to move a massive amount of troops including foreign fighters into Mazar-e-Sharif. Of the 4000 troops they were moving across the mountains there, only about 500 made it into the city. Massive B-52 airstrikes were decimating their ranks.
On November 9, members of the two ODAs and the CIA team positioned themselves in positions on the mountainsides and began calling in airstrikes against the Taliban at Tangi Pass – the entrance to the city where the NA/SF planned to attack.
Taliban artillery, BM-21 Grad rockets responded, but were quickly suppressed by on-call US air support. The airstrikes were taking a deadly toll on the defenders. Once the enemy had been softened up enough, the NA/SF began their assault on foot, horseback, pick up trucks and by some captured BMP armored personnel carriers.
By the time the ground attack had started by 2 p.m., the NA troops of Dostrum and Noor were meeting only light resistance. They swept across the Pul-i-Imam Bukhri bridge and quickly seized the city’s main military base and the Mazar-e-Sharif International Airport.
As they were sweeping into the city, the Taliban began to retreat en masse along with foreign fighters and al-Qaeda towards Kunduz. There were anywhere between 5000 and 12,000 troops clogging the road on every conceivable vehicle to get away.
The taking of the city was shocking as US intelligence estimates thought it would take months before a large enough conventional unit could move on it. A handful of Special Forces troops advising a “rag-tag” guerrilla army on horseback took it in a matter of days. The SF troops with the outstanding performance of the Air Force’s Combat Controllers turned the battle into a rout. The US Air Force ruled the sky and the Taliban troops were decimated whenever they attempted to mass against the Northern Alliance. The taking of Mazar-e-Sharif gave the US a much-needed airstrip where they could launch aircraft right inside the country, instead of having to fly from far away.
But soon Afghanistan was flooded with a sea of conventional US troops. The Special Forces troops were relegated to a sideshow as the Big Army moved in. And sixteen years later, the country is still not secure, now being even less so as the Taliban once again controls much of the countryside. The Big Army has since moved on and now the Special Operations Forces of the US are back to being the main players again along with US air support.
One can draw on the words of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson. Wilson was the driving force behind the covert CIA-led mission to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Once gone, the US quickly tired of the country which gave way to the Taliban coming to power. Wilson’s words could easily be the 2001 version of events just as easily as the 1989 version.
“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the end game.”
Photos: US Special Operations Command