On Oct. 14, 2001, the first Airman stepped foot into Afghanistan with the mission to topple the Taliban.
The rubble of the twin towers was still smoldering and rescue crews continued working through the devastation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when special tactics set out help liberate the Afghanistan people, alongside U.S. Army Special Forces teams and Afghan Northern Alliance (ANA) fighters.
“Everyone wants a seat on the airplane to get into the game,” said Bart Decker, a retired combat controller who was one of the first Airmen in Afghanistan.
Less than a month after the terrorist attacks, combat controllers were tasked to survey and run an airfield, Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Air Base in Uzbekistan, which served as the rally point for special operations forces before the invasion of Afghanistan.
“Controlling the airfield at K2 was vitally important to running C-17 (Globemaster IIIs) of personnel and supplies and building up the base,” Decker said.
Special tactics’ secondary mission was to lead combat search and rescue teams paired with the 160th MH-47 aircraft and crew, establishing teams that would be responsible for the northern part of Afghanistan as part of Task Force Dagger, according to retired Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham, the first Airman in Afghanistan.
The final mission was to provide air and ground interface for Army Special Forces teams, attach to CIA teams in Afghanistan, and link up with the Northern Alliance. Air Force combat controllers were part of the first three special forces teams on the ground in Afghanistan. The use of precise air power would hopefully gain the trust of the ANA, a crucial relationship in the war against the Taliban, Markham said.
“It was unclear what we would encounter, and how we would get to our objective. When we met the (special forces) team, it wasn’t that in-depth of a briefing,” said Maj. Mike Sciortino, another one of the first combat controllers in Afghanistan who is now assigned to the 31st Surgical Operations Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy. “It was like, this is our team, we are going to meet up with the warlord General Dostum, and be attached (to) his guys.”
Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the leader of the ANA, had a fierce reputation amongst his fighters, and his support contributed to the good working relationship between the Americans and the Afghan fighters; he was known to say that he would rather lose 100 of his men than one of the Americans, according to Sciortino, because they brought supplies and airpower.
“The Afghan fighters are men just like us and wanted the same end state – defeat the Taliban,” Markham said. “Leaders of the Northern Alliance gave their lives to keep our team alive in every combat situation we got into. … Truly honorable fighters and men.”
Besides the challenges of unknown territory, fluid intelligence, and language barriers, a few special operators faced an unexpected test: riding horses.
“It was the wild, wild West,” Sciortino said. “When we first got in, they said we were probably going to ride horses … I had never ridden a horse before. I was like, ‘Are these guys serious?’”
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They were serious. With only four of the Americans having previous riding experience, Sciortino’s crash course on horseback riding was an eight-hour trek through the night, all uphill through mountainous narrow passes.
“There were only 34 Americans on horseback out of all the SOF teams that were there,” said Decker, whose iconic photo pictured him riding a horse into Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance. “It was not as glamorous as it looked.”
The horses had wooden saddles, which were loose and slid left and right as they rode into Northern Afghanistan. Still, this unconventional mode of transportation made sense to the special operators, as it permitted effective, low-profile transportation in the rugged terrain.
“Looking back, it was the best means for travel because some of those places we went would have been non-permissive to even motorcycles,” Decker said.
Decker, Sciortino and their special forces team were on horseback for 10 days, with the objective of reaching the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and engaging the enemy.
“Everyone was all in, 100 percent,” Sciortino said of his teammates. “Everyone was willing to do whatever it took to complete our objective, go get the folks that did this to our country … and we were going to do it to the end. A lot of us didn’t know if we were going to make it back.”
To Decker, he said the pairing of teams just made sense.
“Overall, the special forces Soldier is a great Soldier, but we know air … we know it better than anyone else,” Decker said. “Combining us on their team proved to be an incredibly lethal combination for al-Qaida and Taliban forces as we moved throughout Afghanistan to liberate the country in 49 days.”
In one particular battle, Markham called in a danger-close B-52 Stratofortress strike that eliminated thousands of Taliban fighters massing on the southern frontline of Bagram Airfield.
“We were about to be overrun, and we had a B-52 in the pattern with ‘dumb bombs’ loaded,” Markham recalled. “The crew took the steps necessary to find the way to ‘yes’ and calculate a danger-close bomb run that would knock out the entire front line of the Taliban.”
This one bombing mission turned the tide of the battle and war, according to Markham, pushing what remained of the Taliban south to Kabul. The ANA then mounted an offensive that pushed the enemy force to Kabul over the next two days.
“This was a huge morale booster not only for us but the Northern Alliance as well,” Markham said. “Through ground-controlled air strikes, we had built credibility with our Northern Alliance force and brought them confidence with the right strikes, we could defeat the Taliban on the front line.”
Once the coalition force established a front line at Bagram, combat controllers were able to direct air drops of food, water, and blankets; these supplies were distributed by the ANA to the Afghan people to continue forging stronger alliances.
At the start of the war, the special operators were given an expected timeline of six months to accomplish their mission, according to Markham. In the end, partly due to the joint cohesion of the special operations teams, they accomplished their mission in less than two months.
“The American people should know that we had a goal, and we fulfilled it,” Decker said.
These initial-response Airmen rotated home after 90 days in theater.
“Everyone came together to make it happen. No one service or agency could have done this alone,” Markham said. “Combat control just brought a tool to the fight to aid in the elimination of Taliban forces on the front line with extreme violence.”
Fifteen years later, the brotherhood that was built lives today. Special tactics Airmen today continue to be linked into all services and agencies on the battlefield, operating as a joint force across multiple domains on a global scale.
“If you look at history, and how we can do better in the future, it’s got to be the joint world, all four services coming together, and having our leaders not forget what they learned on the battlefield,” Markham said.
Capt. Katrina Cheesman and Senior Airman Ryan Conroy of Hurlburt Field’s 24th Special Operations Wing contributed to this report.