Lone survivor: the eyewitness account of Operation Redwing and the lost heroes of SEAL team 10 (8 page)

Back in the C-130, crossing into the southern wastes of the Regestan Desert, the gods of the U.S. Armed Forces with whom I traveled were asleep, except for the beach god Shane, who was still rockin’.

Somewhere out in the darkness, to our starboard side, was the Pakistani city of Quetta, which used to be quite important when the Brits ran the place. They had a big army staff college down there, and for three years in the mid-1930s, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, later the victor of the Battle of Ala-mein, taught there. Which proves, I suppose, that I’m as much addicted to military trivia as I am to the smart-ass remark.

However, we stayed on the left-hand, Afghanistan side of the border, I think, and continued on above the high western slopes of the great range of the Hindu Kush mountains. The most southerly peak, the one nearest the desert, is 11,000 feet high. After that it gets pretty steep, and it was to those mountains we were headed.

Way below us was the important city of Kandahar, which a few weeks later, on June 1, 2005, was the scene of one of the most terrible Taliban attacks of the year. One of their suicide bombers killed twenty people in Kandahar’s principal mosque. In that central-city disaster, they killed the security chief of Kabul, who was attending the funeral of an anti-Taliban cleric who had been killed three days earlier by a couple of guys on a motorbike.

I think that Chief Healy and myself, in particular, were well aware of the dangers in this strife-torn country. And we realized the importance of our coming missions, to halt the ever-burgeoning influx of Taliban recruits streaming in over the high peaks of the Hindu Kush and to capture their leaders for interrogation.

The seven-hour journey from Bahrain seemed endless, and we were still an hour or more south of Kabul, crawling north high above the treacherous border that leads directly to the old Khyber Pass and then to the colossal peaks and canyons of the northern Hindu Kush. After that, the mountains swerve into Tajikstan and China, later becoming the western end of the Himalayas.

I was reading my guidebook, processing and digesting facts like an Agatha Christie detective. Chaman, Zhob, key entry points for the Taliban and for bin Laden’s al Qaeda as they fled the American bombs and ground troops. These tribesmen drove their way over sixteen-thousand-foot mountains, seeking help from the disgruntled Baluchistan chiefs, who were now bored sideways by Pakistan and Afghanistan, Great Britain, Iran, the U.S.A., Russia, and anyone else who tried to tell them what to do.

Our area of operations would be well north of there, and I spent the final hours of the journey trying to glean some data. But it was hard to come by. Trouble is, there’s not much happening in those mountains, not many small towns and very few villages. Funny, really. Not much was happening, and yet, in another way, every damn thing in the world was happening: plots, plans, villainy, terrorism, countless schemes to attack the West, especially the United States.

There were cells of Taliban warriors just waiting for their chance to strike against the government. There were bands of al Qaeda swarming around a leader hardly anyone had seen for several years. The Taliban wanted power in Afghanistan again; bin Laden’s mob wanted death and destruction of U.S. citizens, uniformed or not. One way or another, they were all a goddamned nightmare, and one that was growing progressively worse. Which was why they sent for us.

In the weeks before our arrival, there had been widespread incidents of violence, confirming everyone’s dread that the generally hated Taliban was once more on the rise and a serious threat to the new government of Afghanistan. Even with the support of thirty thousand U.S. and NATO troops, President Hamid Karzai struggled to control the country anywhere outside of Kabul.

A few weeks earlier, in February, the Taliban flatly announced they were increasing their attacks on the government as soon as the weather improved. And from then on they launched a series of drive-by shootings and bombings, usually directed at local officials and pro-government clergy. In the south and over to the east, they started ambushing American soldiers.

It’s a strange word,
Everyone’s heard it, like
insurgent, Sunni, ayatollah,
But what does Taliban really stand for? I’ve suffered with them, what you might describe as close encounters of the most god-awful type. And I’ve done a lot of reading. The facts fit the reality. Those guys are evil, murderous religious fanatics, each one of them with an AK-47 and a bloodlust. You can trust me on that one.

The Taliban have been in prominence since 1994. Their original leader was a village clergyman named Mullah Mohammad Omar, a tough guy who lost his right eye fighting the occupying forces of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. By the mid-’90s, the Taliban’s prime targets in Afghanistan — before I showed up — were the feuding warlords who (a) formed the mujahideen and (b) threw the Soviets out of the country.

The Taliban made two major promises which they would carry out once in power: to restore peace and security, and to enforce sharia, or Islamic law. Afghans, weary of the mujahideens’ excesses and infighting, welcomed the Taliban, which enjoyed much early success, stamping out corruption, curbing lawlessness, and making the roads safe for commerce to flourish. This applied to all areas that came under their control.

They began their operation in the southwestern city of Kandahar and moved quickly into other parts of the country. They captured the province of Herat, which borders Iran, in September 1995. And one year later, their armies took the Afghan capital of Kabul, overthrowing the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his defense minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud. By 1998, they were in control of almost 90 percent of the country.

Once in power, however, the Taliban showed their true colors. They set up one of the most authoritarian administrations on earth, one that tolerated no opposition to their hard-line policies. Ancient Islamic punishments, like public executions for convicted murderers and amputations at the wrist for those charged with theft, were immediately introduced. I cannot even think about the penalty a rapist or an adulterer might anticipate.

Television, music, sports, and cinema were banned, judged by the Taliban leaders to be frivolities. Girls age ten and above were forbidden to go to school; working women were ordered to stay at home. Men were required to grow beards, women had to wear the burka. These religious policies earned universal notoriety as the Taliban strived to restore the Middle Ages in a nation longing to join the twenty-first century. Their policies concerning human rights were outrageous and brought them into direct conflict with the international community.

But there was another issue, which would bring about their destruction. And that was their role in playing host to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda movement. In August 1998 Islamic fanatics bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 225 people. Washington immediately presented the Taliban leaders with a difficult choice — either expel bin Laden, who was held responsible for the bombings by the U.S. government, or face the consequences.

The Taliban flatly refused to hand over their Saudi-born guest, who was providing them with heavy funding. President Bill Clinton ordered a missile attack on the main bin Laden training camp in southern Afghanistan, which failed to kill its leader. Then in 1999 the United States persuaded the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Two years later, even harsher sanctions were put in place in another attempt to force the Taliban to hand over bin Laden.

Nothing worked. Not sanctions nor the denial of Afghanistan’s U.N. seat. The Taliban were still in power, and they were still hiding Osama bin Laden, but their isolation, political and diplomatic, was becoming total.

But the Taliban would not budge. They took their isolation as a badge of honor and decided to go whole hog with an even more fundamentalist regime. The poor Afghan people realized too late what they had done: handed over the entire country to a group of bearded lunatics who were trying to inflict upon them nothing but stark human misery and who controlled every move they made under their brutal, repressive, draconian rule. The Taliban were so busy trying to enslave the citizens, they forgot about the necessity for food, and there was mass starvation. One million Afghans fled the country as refugees.

All of this was understood by the West. Almost. But it took horrific shock, delivered in March 2001, to cause genuine inter-national outrage. That was when the Taliban blasted sky-high the two monumental sixth-century statues of the Bamiyan Buddhas, one of them 180 feet high, the other 120 feet, carved out of a mountain in central Afghanistan, 143 miles northwest of Kabul. This was tantamount to blowing up the Pyramids of Giza.

The statues were hewn directly from sandstone cliffs right in Bamiyan, which is situated on the ancient Silk Road, the caravan route which linked the markets of China and central Asia with those of Europe, the Middle East, and south Asia. It was also one of the revered Buddhist religious sites, dating back to the second century and once home to hundreds of monks and many monasteries. The two statues were the largest standing Buddha carvings on earth.

And their summary destruction by the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan caused museum directors and curators all over the world to have about four hemorrhages apiece. The Taliban effectively told the whole lot of them to shove it. Whose statues were they, anyway? Besides, they were planning to destroy all the statues in Afghanistan, on the grounds they were un-Islamic.

The Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed in accordance with sharia law. Only Allah the Almighty deserves to be worshipped, not anyone or anything else.
Wraps that up then, right? Praise Allah and pass the high explosive.

The blasting of the Buddhas firmed up world opinion that something had to be done about Afghanistan’s rulers. But it took another explosion to provoke savage action against them. That took place on September 11, the same year, and was the beginning of the end for the Taliban and bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

Before the dust had settled on lower Manhattan, the United States demanded the Taliban hand over bin Laden for masterminding the attack on U.S. soil. Again the Taliban refused, perhaps not realizing that the new(ish) U.S. president, George W. Bush, was a very different character from Bill Clinton.

Less than one month later, on October 7, the Americans, leading a small coalition force, unleashed an onslaught against Afghanistan that shook that area of the world to its foundations. U.S. military intelligence located all of the al Qaeda camps in the mountains of the northeast part of the country, and the military let fly with one of the biggest aerial bombardments in modern warfare.

It began with fifty cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships and Royal Navy submarines. At the same time, long after dark in Afghanistan, twenty-five carrier-based aircraft and fifteen land-based bombers took off and destroyed Taliban air defenses, communications infrastructure, and the airports at Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Herat. The U.S. bombs blasted the big radar installations and obliterated the control tower in Kandahar. This was the city where Mullah Omar lived, and a navy bomber managed to drop one dead in the middle of his backyard. That one-eyed ole bastard escaped, though.

The Taliban, its military headquarters now on fire, did own a somewhat insignificant air-strike capacity, just a few aircraft and helicopters, and the U.S. Air Force wiped that right out with smart bombs as a matter of routine.

Navy bombers taking off from the carriers targeted the Taliban’s other military hardware, heavy vehicles, tanks, and fuel dumps. Land-based B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers were also in the air, the B-52s dropping dozens of five-hundred-pound gravity bombs on al Qaeda terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan, way up in the border mountains where we would soon be visiting.

One of the prime U.S. objectives was the small inventory of surface-to-air missiles and shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, stolen from either the Russians or the old mujahideen. These were hard to locate, and various caches were removed by the tribesmen and hidden in the mountains. Hidden, sadly, for use another day.

One hour after that nighttime bombardment began, the Northern Alliance opened fire with a battery of rockets from an air base twenty-five miles north of Kabul. They aimed them straight at Taliban forces in the city. There were five thunderous explosions and all electric power was knocked out throughout the capital.

But the United States never took its eye off the ball. The true objective was the total destruction of al Qaeda and the leader who had engineered the infamous attack on the Twin Towers — “the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century,” as the president described it. And that meant a massive strike on the sinister network of caves and underground tunnels up in the mountains, where bin Laden made his headquarters.

The cruise missiles had softened up the area, but that was only the start. The real heavyweight punch from the world’s only superpower would come in the form of a gigantic bomb — the BLU-82B/C-130, known as Commando Vault in Vietnam and now nicknamed Daisy Cutter. This is a high-altitude, fifteen-thousand-pound conventional bomb that needs to be delivered from the huge MC-130 aircraft because it is far too heavy for the bomb racks on any other attack aircraft.

This thing is awesome. It was originally designed to create instant clearings for helicopter landings in the jungle. Its purpose in Afghanistan was as an antipersonnel weapon up in those caves. Its lethal radius is colossal, probably nine hundred feet. Its flash and sound is obvious from literally miles away. The BLU-82B is the largest conventional bomb ever built and, of course, leaves no nuclear fallout. (For the record, the Hiroshima atom bomb was a thousand times more powerful.)

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