The movie 12 Strong arrives in theaters Jan. 19 and tells the harrowing story of the first U.S. Special Forces mission in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The following recounts the events of the Green Berets’ first mission in Afghanistan, as they sought to destroy the Taliban regime and deny Al-Qaeda sanctuary in that country.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania sent shockwaves throughout the world. While the tragedy prompted responses of love and comfort, it also inspired a sense of resolve and retribution. In fact, the sun hadn’t even set on the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center when the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. military, and U.S. Army Special Operations Command began planning a response. They would rain fire on the terrorists who had claimed the lives of thousands of innocent Americans, and on the brutal regime in Afghanistan that had sheltered them.
Task Force Dagger
It was soon clear that the initial operation, named Task Force Dagger, would involve bomb drops and small teams of special operators who would link up with local warlords and resistance fighters known collectively as the Northern Alliance. The task force would train and supply the Afghans, coordinating between the U.S. and the various ethnic groups — many of which were historic enemies of one another.
The Army’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) eagerly took on the mission, despite little available intelligence on Afghanistan, and despite the fact that few Soldiers could speak Dari or Pashtun. The task force picked up a few phrases pretty quickly and worked using three-way translations with other languages they already knew, such as Arabic, Farsi, and Russian.
“You had all of the emotions going on from 9-11,” remembered Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brad Fowers, then a junior weapons sergeant on Operational Detachment A 574. It would be his first combat deployment, and his team wound up escorting future President Hamid Karzai into the country. “There was a lot of emotions, excitement, amazement. It was an extreme honor. Looking back on it now, it’s humbling. … It was a very privileged moment in our history to see how things unfolded and what so many are capable of doing.”
“We went carrying what we believed to be the hopes of the American people with us,” added Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, former USASOC commander, in a speech. In September 2001, he served as the 5th Special Forces Group (A) commander. “If there was any fear that we had, it was that we would be worthy of the American people … the people of New York, the people of Washington, the people of Pennsylvania, the people of our great country and all those … who lost people that day. So that was with us constantly, the fear that we would not be worthy of the American people.”
After almost two weeks of bombings, which kicked off Oct. 7, 2001, the first insertion was set for mid-October. As with any covert, nighttime flying operation, the dangerous mission was assigned to the Night Stalkers of the 160th Special Operations Regiment (Airborne), “the finest aviators in the world, bar none” according to Mulholland.
But the mission to insert the Green Berets into Afghanistan, flying from Uzbekistan over the Hindu Kush mountains — which could reach up to 20,000 feet and caused altitude sickness — was something else. The weather, sandstorms, and a black cloud of rain, hail, snow, and ice was so bad it delayed the first insertion by two days until Oct. 19 — an eternity for men who pledge to always arrive at their destination on time, plus or minus 30 seconds. The weather could change from one mile to the next, from elevation to elevation, and continuously caused problems throughout Task Force Dagger.
“Just imagine flying when you can’t see three feet in front of you for a couple of hours, landing or hoping the weather would clear so you could refuel, and then flying through the mountains all the while getting shot at and hoping our (landing zone) was clear,” recalled Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Baker, now of the SOAR’s Special Operations Training Battalion. Fifteen years ago, he was a young, brand-new flight engineer on his first combat mission.
I was proud and scared. … There was a lot of stuff going on. There was bad weather. A lot of people compared those first missions to Lt. Col. (James) Doolittle in World War II because we were doing stuff no one had ever done before. … We had a mission to make sure these Soldiers got in. … It was my first time ever getting shot at. That’s a pretty vivid memory. … It was war. I don’t think I’ve ever been any closer to my fellow brothers-in-arms than I was then. All we had was each other.