Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
T . S . E L I O T
By December 2001, only three months after America was attacked on September 11, Delta Force was already on the ground in enemy territory, an elite group of American commandos cutting their teeth in this new war on terror by rampaging from cave to cave in Afghanistan’s snow-covered Tora Bora Mountains, hot on the heels of Usama bin Laden and laying waste to scores of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
The vicious fighting did not last long, however, and by December 17, our frustrating allies, the Afghan mujahideen, felt they had done and seen enough to publicly declare victory. The muhj looted some conquered caves, pillaged the dead terrorists, and came down from the rugged mountains for a triumphant return to the ancient city of Jalalabad, where they licked their wounds and took stock of their hard-earned treasure.
Of course, the main objective of the attack had been to kill or capture bin Laden, and despite the optimistic claims of the muhj, we were not sure that had been accomplished. His body had not been recovered from the rubble in the mountains after the fighting. Could he have been buried alive in one of several hundred caves? Did his most loyal fighters secretly remove his remains from the area?
If bin Laden survived, nobody was saying so. Maybe a helicopter belonging to the unreliable Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence, a longtime Taliban supporter, had scooped him up and ferried him across the border. Perhaps he put on a woman’s burkha and slid into the back of a taxicab for a drive southwest to his old stomping grounds in Khost? Or did he ride bareback on a white stallion through the high mountain passes and trot safely into Pakistan? Did he just sling his AK-47 comfortably over his shoulder and simply walk out under his own power, helped by nothing more advanced than a wooden cane? And if bin Laden did happen to survive, was he wounded? If so, how bad? Was there a doctor who tended his battle wounds? A lot of questions and no answers. No one knew.
As the months slowly passed, Usama bin Laden’s disposition–dead or alive–remained a mystery to even the most advanced intelligence services. Not a single acronymed agency could say for sure. The CIA, NSA, FBI, DEA, DOD, DOJ, MI5, and MI6 knew little more than the general public. No videos or authentic audiotapes of bin Laden had been released during that crucial time, and every possibility was examined at one time or another in scores of newspapers, magazines and online postings from all corners of the globe. In the absence of proof, it was all complete speculation.
So a year later, as the winter of 2002 approached, Delta theorized that the answers to the unanswered questions might lie in retracing our steps in Tora Bora, where someone still in the area might be holding the secret to how he escaped. Maybe by backtracking, we could finally put the jigsaw puzzle together and provide some actionable intelligence. Someone still in the area might be holding the secret that would provide us with some clue, some trace of bin Laden.
Delta Force had never left Afghanistan, and less than a year after the original battle in the mountains, our squadron found itself rotating back into the country, just in time to hunt the elusive, ghostlike leadership of the Taliban and al Qaeda during the Christmas and New Year holidays. If we could not be with our families for that special season, what possible better alternative was there to being in a war zone with Delta teammates? To a man, we were proud to be there.
Unfortunately, the operational pace had not improved much from the previous year, because intelligence was still so scarce on our high-value targets. Usama bin Laden remained HVT no. 1, and his right-hand man, the Egyptian terrorist Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, was HVT no. 2. Unfortunately, both still wear those designations at the time of this writing, and continue thumbing their noses at the international community.
We spent many days and nights looking for a golden nugget. For countless hours, we studied satellite imagery of suspected bad-guy compounds, patiently watched hour after hour of live video from the Predator drone aircraft, and analyzed stacks of classi.ed military intelligence reports or CIA cable traffic. Everything required close attention if we hoped to discover some inkling or HVT signature that would show that our targets were indeed down there.
That was not enough, because if we found something, we had to be ready to move instantly. We spent long stints on the local pistol and rifle ranges and worked out hard in a gym that looked like a circus tent, where we pumped iron and burned calories on the treadmills. To hone the fine edge that Delta demands, we repeatedly rehearsed various mission profiles with the expert .yboys from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). Some of what little time was left over was spent doing things like enjoying DVD miniseries movies like The Sopranos and Band of Brothers.
Finally, a nugget was turned up through hard work by the CIA and a bunch of rough-and-tumble, tobacco-chewing good ole boys with thick beards, Green Berets with a Special Forces Group of the Alabama National Guard.
The neighbors of an Afghan gentleman whom we will call Gul Ahmed had dimed him out to CIA assets. He lived in the large Agam Valley, a dry and rocky riverbed that sprawled along a north-south axis thousands of feet below and to the east of bin Laden’s Tora Bora sanctuary. A single-lane road had been cut through the valley by the bulldozers and earthmovers of the construction company owned by Usama bin Laden’s family in Saudi Arabia during the jihad against the Soviet Union. Legend had it that a young bin Laden himself rolled up his sleeves and worked that land from the seat of a bulldozer.
The suspect, Ahmed, was not only a well-known local supporter of al Qaeda, but also managed an elaborate weapons cache operation up and down the strategic valley that leads directly across the border and into Pakistan.
Besides his propensity for dealing arms to terrorists, insurgents, and the highest bidders among area tribes, the dossier said, Gul Ahmed also was a key figure during the previous year’s fighting, which took place almost within earshot of his backyard. The turncoat neighbors said that Ahmed and his sons provided logistical support—food, water, medical supplies, firewood, and ammunition—to al Qaeda during the battle.
These acts alone made him a personality worth targeting, but not necessarily important enough that the gig had to be executed by Delta. The Green Berets from Alabama were more than capable of rounding up Gul Ahmed and his relatives. However, there was something special about this cat.
One key piece of information threw the ball into Delta’s court. Ahmed allegedly had hidden a severely weakened and wounded Usama bin Laden in his home for three days the previous year, while hundreds of mujahideen and forty or so Western commandos painstakingly searched the mountains for the al Qaeda leader. The intelligence packet also claimed that toward the end of the battle, Gul Ahmed’s hospitality and tribal contacts were reported to have been good enough to smuggle the terrorist mastermind through a snow-swathed mountain pass that was just seven miles to the south, and out of our reach.
Well, well. That changed things a little bit and made it a little more personal. Mr. Ahmed was given the moniker of a "known al Qaeda supporter," a designation normally accompanied by a mission statement of "kill or capture." Again, that alone was no big deal, but pulling it off would have a rather pleasant spin that would make the assault troops tighten our chinstraps a little tighter and affix our olive drab Velcro American flags a little straighter on our shoulders. If this intelligence on Gul Ahmed was true, it would provide the .rst viable lead on anyone that could help us piece together the puzzle of how bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora.
The thought of going back into Tora Bora was exhilarating. We couldn’t have been happier to visit this gentleman’s family and pay our respects.
We needed to know if the HUMINT—intelligence gleaned from humans—of bin Laden .nding a refuge, even for a short time, in this al Qaeda facilitator’s house was factual. It would have been nice for everybody if we could have simply dropped in to see the man during the day. Sit around cross-legged on a colorful Afghan rug, sip some lukewarm tea, and grub on nuts and dried dates while we asked a few questions.
Somehow we felt that would not work. This gentleman probably would respond only to a little more aggression.
The .rst order of business was to locate Ahmed’s bedroom, and one of the best reconnaissance operators in the business volunteered for the job. He was known in Delta as Shrek, affectionately named after the movie cartoon character with whom he shared a similar large and muscular build. He sported a deep bronze tan from the sun’s glare off the snowy peaks in northern Afghanistan, and much of his face was covered by a thick brown beard that he had grown over many months. Shrek might draw notice on a street corner in Iowa, but would .t in well among the Afghan locals. He had proven his skills time and again, and as much as any Delta operator, Shrek had developed a good feel for the people of the area and understood the very different culture in which honor, hospitality, and revenge are valued like Americans cherish baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. He had been decorated for valor while chasing bin Laden through the mountains almost a year earlier, and in my opinion there was no better man for this job.
We had a lot of information, but Shrek would hopefully provide us with actionable intelligence we needed to present the situation for a strike to our higher command. Intelligence had to be actionable. Not a guess, not too sketchy, and not too old to receive approval to execute a mission. No actionable intelligence equaled no mission launch and typically would send the whole lot of us back to sliding another movie into the DVD player or pumping more iron under the big tent.
We were asking Shrek to hang it all out, to undertake the sort of mission that most American men can only experience vicariously through Tom Clancy novels or Tom Cruise Hollywood thrillers. On his own, he would have to burrow into a dangerous haystack that was made up of dozens of log-and-mud-walled adobes jammed together on a steep, terraced ridgeline, and discover the needle that was the home of Gul Ahmed.
"Oh, yeah," I added during the initial briefing, putting one more big task on his broad shoulders. "While you are there, we also need you to confirm that Mr. Ahmed is at home and not shopping across the border in Pakistan."
As Shrek made his .nal preparations, I stopped by his tent and found him dressing for success with a well-worn Afghan mujahideen outfit, including the baggy drawstring pants and a shirt down to his knees. The one thing wrong with his attire was that a red and green baseball cap with the emblem of the Hard Rock Café—Washington, D.C., a souvenir he had picked up when we were in the nation’s capital six months earlier, was perched on his hairy head. He replaced it with an old, .oppy wool hat of the kind worn by the muhj.
Both of us were on our third tours in Afghanistan, and although we had discussed and briefed back the plan several times, we felt more comfortable with the mission when we could look each other in the eyes one last time. It was important that he understood exactly how we expected to communicate, what was critical to report immediately, and what could wait. More important, I wanted to give Shrek that warm and fuzzy confirmation that, should shit go wrong out there, the boys would pause The Sopranos and come to the rescue. He might be working alone, but he was Delta, part of the team. However, we both knew the truth was that we would not magically appear at his side whenever he rubbed the magic bottle. From Bagram, we would need two hours in a helicopter traveling as hard and as fast as the pilots could push it. Nothing we could do to change that.
Into a small bag, the meticulous professional delicately placed a mini video camera that he needed to capture critical information for the assault force; the structure of the walls, type of doors, location of the door hinges, height of window sills, high wires, possible approach routes, the locations of armed guards, possible escape routes, and a dozen other things. He added a small handheld global positioning system, or GPS, that would provide the exact coordinates that would be critical for any surgical clandestine operation. Last in the bag was a small satellite phone that would serve as his only link to us, the lifeline to his teammates and safety.
Finally, Shrek picked up his most precious weapon, his baby, a 7.62mm German-made H&K G3 assault rifle topped with a HOLOsight red dot scope, IPTAL infrared laser, and a high-powered CQB light. He rubbed it warmly.
"Hey, brother, aren’t you gonna have a heck of a time hiding that weapon from curious locals and the muhj you come in contact with?" I asked.
Shrek looked at me sideways, with those piercing eyes almost hidden behind all that thick hair. He looked scary. He carefully placed his prized H&K rifle under his sleeping bag to protect it from the horrendous fine dust that inevitably covered everything. "Dalton, I’m only saying goodbye for a few days, but like some of our old ladies back home, she would be pissed at me for leaving her behind." His personal protection on this trip would be a folding-stock 7.62mm AK-47 assault rifle, which could be easily hidden under his robes.
Shrek was happy. I wondered if we would ever see him again.
In the city of Jalalabad, Shrek caught a ride for the long trip south to Tora Bora on what might be considered a bus, but was only a clunker of a foreign-made minivan from the 1980s. The other passengers were a dozen Afghan men who ranged in age from seven to seventy, and it was crowded and stuffy. He adjusted his uncomfortable position because the hidden AK-47 was jabbing him in his lower left side.
Growing bored, his thoughts drifted to home and his old pickup truck. That beat-up beast looked strange enough by itself, but its driver, a big, bearded man in ragged civilian clothing, resembled a terrorist on steroids. After 9/11, when all military posts upped their gate security and started strict checks on suspicious vehicles and people, even the greenest military policeman could not resist pulling it over, and Shrek would be stopped three out of five days a week. But now, as an American commando on a singleton mission, his truck seemed like heaven compared to the bus, and home was very far away.
He didn’t dare to speak to the other passengers, since he was trying to pass as an Afghan. When the jitney crossed tribal lines, he had to contend with armed checkpoint guards who were hungry for whatever booty for passage they could draw from the unsuspecting and unprotected strangers on the little bus. Discomfort and danger he could handle. It was the stench trapped inside the small minivan that was his worst problem. As he jolted along, Shrek prayed for a head cold and a stuffy nose, and wondered: Don’t these guys ever take a friggin’ bath?
The rest of us set up back at the air base to plan the hit, and we would spend days reviewing possible courses of action, throwing out ideas or techniques we knew would be useless for this particular mission.
There were about three dozen buildings in the general target area, and just to the south, four more buildings were built into a 60-degree slope that ascended to the west behind them. Ahmed would be in one of those four. Below the houses was row after row of damp, terraced farm fields that stair-stepped down to the rocky valley floor.
Recent satellite imagery showed hundreds of bomb craters that were still recognizable, even a year later. Several days were spent conducting a detailed terrain study that led to a big decision: We discarded the use of helicopters for insertion. After weighing the risks versus gain and the chance of compromise, we decided to go with our own version of the Trojan horse. Of course, it was not a new idea.
In 1400 b.c. at a place called Troy, the Greeks built a large wooden horse as a gift to the Trojans, who had proven to be a formidable foe after two deadly engagements. The Trojans accepted the strange present and hauled it through the gates of the city wall. That same night, following several hours of strong drink and feasting, the Trojans fell into a deep sleep, allowing Greek warriors Achilles and Odysseus, along with a couple of dozen commandos, to silently slip from the horse’s belly and attack. The legendary impregnable city of Troy was sacked. Delta had first contemplated using the Trojan horse concept back in 1979 while developing courses of action to rescue the fifty-three American hostages seized by Iranian militants in Tehran.* During the months of planning for Operation Eagle Claw, one option was to drive across the border from Turkey and into Iran hidden in the back of trucks. The overall option was discarded as being too risky and providing zero flexibility, but the idea remained.
The final plan for that Iran raid was to go in by helicopter to a rendezvous point roughly fifty miles from Tehran, load onto civilian trucks stashed at the hide site, and drive to the target area under the cover of darkness. Once at the embassy compound, the bearded operators in blue jeans and black dyed army issue field jackets planned to scale the ten-foot wall and rescue the hostages. That entire mission, of course, was aborted when a sudden sandstorm intervened, wrecking helicopters and costing lives.
At this point, I must preserve some details of our own updated Trojan horse scheme in Afghanistan to protect the tactic for future operations. Suffice it to say that if a bored Afghan militiaman at a roadblock separating tribal lines looked in the back of either truck, the farthest thing from his mind would be that the actual load was a dozen American commandos on a business outing.
We procured a couple of standard Afghan cargo trucks that suited us just fine. White tarps with large innocuous lettering stamped on the sides were tied to rusty metal rails along the truck beds. It was critically important that the trucks appear normal to casual or curious eyes. They had to appear boring, but simultaneously also be obvious, and appear as large, loud nuisances that needed to be quickly moved out of the way so things could be brought back to normal at any checkpoint. We would be hiding in plain sight.
But to make it work, we also had to surrender some advantages. There would be no sandbagged floors to protect us from the blast of a land mine, tossed grenade, or roadside bomb, and no armored plating to provide 360-degree protection from gunshots or shrapnel. That sort of heavy protection would add a lot of weight to the trucks and make them sag on their axles, and therefore draw unwanted attention.
Twenty-two Delta operators donned desert camouflage fatigues kitted up with black or green Kevlar helmets and green, black, or tan vests with ceramic plates to provide basic lifesaving protection against the thundering velocity of a 7.62mm round .red from an AK-47 rifle.
All of us wore custom-sewn web gear that resembled souped-up Batman belts more than anything military. These vests provided a pocket or clip for everything imaginable—various explosive grenades, .ash-bang stun grenades, six thirty-round magazines of 5.56mm ammunition, six spare pistol magazines, quick-tie tourniquets, .ex cuffs, Spyderco or Horrigan special knives, handheld infrared pointer, Garmin GPS, spare batteries, tubular nylon, snap link, Leatherman tool, mechanical breaching tools, explosive charges, and fuse igniter systems. Finally, we also had one item that none of us ever wanted to use—special medical kits to stop a buddy’s bleeding, or your own.
Each helmet was adorned with state-of-the-art flip-up ANVS-9 night vision goggles, or NVGs. Peltor ear protection, of the type worn by shooters and hunters, was connected to each operator’s interteam personal radio. Each operator was armed with personalized suppressed M-4 assault rifles and the sidearm of choice—M-1911 or Glock variant—all professionally tooled and pampered by the best gunsmiths in the world. The year before, we had dressed for battle in garb indigenous to the country. This time we carried a lot more bells and whistles.
Most guys wore a subdued three-and-a-half-inch-by-two-inch American flag velcroed on their shoulder, chest, or helmet. Some chose a full-color flag and others chose the patches of the New York City Fire Department or the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. A few mavericks had patches that I have no idea what they represented. All wore black and luminous yellow call sign patches on their shoulders—a common practice in every special operations unit and since adopted by many conventional units. In Delta Force, the uniform standard is largely personal choice. Sure, some things are required, such as the color of fatigue top, needed to recognize friend or foe while moving through dark back alleys and shadowy hallways, or the specific equipment that must be carried by each team member. But comfort and efficiency are the most important factors in dressing for close combat. Bloused pants, shined boots, and starched fatigues are hard to find inside Delta. As long as an operator can do his job on target—slide down a rope from a hovering helicopter, enter the breach, eliminate the threat efficiently, and dominate the room—why should I care if he wears a Mickey Mouse patch or one from his local hometown bail bond service? Time is precious and we spend it on the important stuff and take great care not to get run up a tree by the proverbial Chihuahua.
In Delta, big-boy rules apply.
As things came together, we broke another operator, Ski, away from a staff job he had been assigned to do at Bagram to go down to the Jalalabad safe house and give Shrek some company. Ski was more than happy to get away from the computers in order to have the possibility of some action. A Green Beret in his previous life, Ski’s jet-black hair hung unevenly from under his wool hat, reached his collar in the back, and hid his forehead and even his eyebrows in the front. His beard was so thick that it ran up his cheeks to just below his eyes. When he spoke, it almost seemed as if a ventriloquist were nearby, because if you were hard of hearing, the only indication that he was talking was the jerky up-and-down movement of the Marlboro cigarette between his lips.
Shrek and Ski sent back photos and exact grid coordinates of Mr. Gul Ahmed’s residence, and our intelligence shop confirmed it was the same building we originally suspected based upon our conversations with the CIA and the Alabama Green Berets. With that information, it was time to launch.
Shrek also had solved the mystery of a strange and eerie monument that had defied identification by our imagery analysts.
Standing just to the east of the Ahmed home was a large rock formation that appeared naturally left after thousands of years of .owing river water following centuries of melted winter snow snaking down from the mountains. The large rock was roughly the size of eight tractor-trailers all turned on their noses, with their tails straight up, and glued together at their sides. It appeared on the imagery as a giant rectangular cube with rounded edges.
A worn footpath wound around the rock and ended at the top, where a small mosque was under construction. The doorway was visible on the east side, a design that allowed an entering Muslim to face to the west— toward Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad—to perform his daily prayers.
Outside the square mosque were the mounded, rock-covered graves of al Qaeda fighters killed during the previous battle of Tora Bora. They were at peace in paradise now, exactly what they wanted. There were at least fifty individual graves, complete with individually carved tree trunks and makeshift limbs of various lengths pointing skyward. Six to ten feet high, these staffs were adorned with red, green, white, tan, or blue scarves, flags, or torn pieces of clothing that the fallen warrior had worn in battle. The colored banners and pennants .uttered and waved peacefully in the wind.
It crossed our minds that Usama bin Laden might actually be buried in that graveyard, which was already well known locally as an al Qaeda monument and was becoming a popular stop for Muslims desiring to pay their respects to the martyrs.
It was logical that if Ahmed had provided shelter for bin Laden, and if the ailing al Qaeda leader had succumbed to his wounds and expired, then moving his body several hundred feet to this memorial was not out of the realm of possibility. We pulled out photo imagery from the past year that showed the mosque was constructed several months after the battle.
This thought, however intriguing, quickly moved into the too-goodto-be-true category. It would have been virtually impossible to hide a burial site of bin Laden that was so accessible to tourists and the faithful.
Nevertheless, the place was a stark reminder of the cost of war. We were happy that these Tora Bora fighters had paid the ultimate price.
First blood was spilled on our mission before it really got under way. At midafternoon, we piled into some pickup trucks for the short drive out to the MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft that was waiting for us on the asphalt runway, with her engines already turning. When one of the pickups took a sharp turn, a large piece of equipment shifted in the cargo bed, smacked a young operator named Rip square in the nose and catapulted him out of the bed of the truck. His Kevlar helmet and body armor protected him upon impact with the runway.
Our medic, Durango, went to work to stop the facial bleeding and mend the wounds enough to get him on the plane, although I think Rip did not know where he was for a few minutes. After we loaded and took off, I made my way over to Rip, who was staring straight ahead, stoic as ever, and holding a bandage on his nose. His dark beard was matted with the thick red blood, adding even more menace to the long wavy hair and piercing eyes. I bent over to his ear and yelled to be heard over the engine roar. "You gonna make it?"
Rip nodded vigorously in the affirmative, clearly in no mood for small talk.
"It’s no big deal if you can’t go on. We can leave you on the plane and they’ll bring you back," I yelled.
Rip snapped his head up, locked on to my eyes and yelled, "I’ll be okay, and I’m good to go!"
His manner said more than his mouth. I did not need to hear the words, because his look had delivered the message loud and clear: Do not dare to leave me out of this mission! I’m going all the way to the target. It was exactly what I expected. I slapped him on the shoulder, smiled, and let him be.
It was still daylight when our Combat Talon touched down in Jalalabad, where Ski and Shrek waited at the end of a secluded taxiway. We offloaded our gear and moved it immediately to the cargo trucks, then Shrek and Ski gave the team leaders a final intelligence dump. We arrived at the airfield with the assault plan, but were depending on Ski and Shrek to figure out how to get us there.
They told us that we would have to negotiate three known roadblocks to reach our destination in the mountains. The first two were expected to be relatively benign, just several militiamen and tribal thugs shaking down commuters for whatever tolls they could get. This assumption came from some local Afghan militiamen hired by the CIA, who believed we could move through those two points if we just held our breath. The checkpoint guards would not act as long as there were no indications that our trucks contained anything more than ordinary supplies being hauled to the needy somewhere in that region. Even with these assurances, we remained concerned. In commando-speak, such locations were referred to as "friction points," and caution was required.
Shrek and Ski had come up with some ingenious planning to get through the third roadblock, which was more complex. A small sedan would travel with us but stay far enough from our convoy to keep the signature low. In the car would be four Afghan militiamen who were on the payroll of the CIA and had been trained by the Green Berets. Once the trucks were two thousand meters short of the roadblock, the sedan would speed around us to the checkpoint, the militiamen would jump from the car with their guns raised, and demand the guards drop their weapons or else. If a gunfight broke out, we would reinforce them. If, instead of gun-fire, we saw three .ashes of a red lens flashlight, it was safe to proceed. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Ski and Shrek would be in the truck cabs because they looked more local than the rest of us. We wanted them not only to look local but to also smell like filth because they would need every bit of that indigenous charade for this to work.
With the plan in place, we had no worries.
The ever-thoughtful Ski amazingly had found about twenty thick foam mattresses in a variety of colors, which were welcome additions to our trickedout cargo trucks. We expected a good amount of bouncing and jerking from side to side on the trip as the trucks navigated streambeds studded with boulders the size of basketballs, washed-out pathways, and gigantic potholed sections of war-ravaged roadway.
Another addition came from our new troop sergeant major, Stormin’, who obtained a half-dozen cases of bottled water and several empty five gallon water cans for use as portable urinals during the trip. The guys were always thinking.
By the time we were ready, we reckoned that our trucks were at least as comfortable as the Trojan gift horse.
While we had discussed the final plan, the boys positioned the equipment and inspected the rigging of the tarps. We couldn’t afford any light holes that might compromise us as we drove through busy downtown market streets or crossed through the few expected rural roadblocks and checkpoints that defined tribal lines, for a Trojan horse operation is all or nothing.
If compromised, the gig is up right then and there. One has little choice but to come out swinging and hope for the best. If this happened, we would unass the truck as quickly as possible, eliminate any threat, and hightail it to the nearest building and own it. Once inside, we would turn it into a stronghold by occupying the roof and covering all windows and doors. Then a radio call to our teammates and Rangers back at Bagram would bring us the beautiful, thundering sound of the 160th SOAR birds.
Regardless of what we did after being compromised, if we weren’t within sprinting distance of the target, we were likely facing mission failure, something that we and our commanders did not look upon too favorably.
One thing was certain. We would not come out of those trucks with our hands up in surrender.
We settled in for a long trip as our little convoy made its way south from the airport and left the city limits, packed like sardines in a can, moving only from one ass cheek to the other to ease the discomfort. It was impossible not to think of how many of us would be hit if a burst of AK-47 rounds stitched the side of the truck and ripped through the protective walls that had been cobbled out of thin metal and cloth tarp. Enemy bullets aside, we were at the mercy of our Afghan driver’s total lack of offroad skill. He consistently seemed to aim for the dark spots in the road and drop two tires into every pothole in the broken asphalt or intentionally bounce over every big rock.
After the first of an expected seven hours traveling at the pace of a one-legged snail over the severely rocky roads, we were certain that we were developing lower back pains for life. Some of the guys fiddled with pieces of their weapons, and the bottled water went quick because we all knew to hydrate for the expected climb that night. The urine cans were wrestled back and forth.
The boys, focused on the mission, could spend but a few moments thinking of their wives and kids back home before automatically switching back to mentally review the various mission contingencies briefed and rehearsed during the planning phase. I’m sure some of them took time to secretly curse me for getting them into this, but I ignored that, keeping my attention glued to the map that I held in one hand and the Garmin GPS in the other.
As we approached the .rst checkpoint, our communicator, Gadget, manipulated his satellite antenna to the appropriate azimuth and angle, then whispered into his mike. "Wrangler Zero-One, this is Rascal Zero-One. Checkpoint one, over."
His call was monitored by the Joint Operations Center back at Bagram, where our current location was plotted. Important information should we run into trouble. Help was several hours away, and the Ranger cavalry could only .y to the rescue if they knew where we were.
As expected, the first checkpoint proved fairly simple to pass. The guards stopped us and questioned the Afghan driver as to where the supplies were headed. We glanced at each other as the white beams of several flashlights danced over the tarps and supplies while our driver awaited permission to proceed. Beside him in the front passenger seat, Ski held his breath, as did all of us hiding back in the belly of the horse. In less than a minute, we were on our way.
Several uneventful hours later, we arrived at the second checkpoint, which separated two tribes that had been feuding for centuries in Nangarhar Province. These guards probably would be more aggressive and might decide to help themselves to a small portion of our cargo, which would reveal our perfidy.
As we approached, we reached up with our nonfiring hands, lowered our NVGs, and the world went lime green. With weapons at the ready, we sat as still as bronze statues when the trucks slowed to a halt.
Afghans scuffied around both sides of our truck and several voices barked orders or directions in deep native Pashto. From the front seat, Ski keyed his radio and whispered, "It appears some local commander is here, and they went to ask him if the truck can pass. Stand by."
Long minutes passed as we attempted to regulate our breathing while listening intently for anything out of the ordinary, for there was cause for concern. The flashlights outside had become steady beams on the tarps and the supplies in the back. Suddenly, the truck rocked as a guard leaped up on the tailgate, squatted, and spoke to the others. There was no need for me to alert the boys that we were moments from a major showdown and possibly a gunfight. The situation had everyone’s undivided attention.
Risking being overheard by someone unseen in the darkness outside the truck, Ski keyed his radio again and softly whispered, "Sounds like we are okay. Local commander told them to let us through."
I could feel the collective silent sigh of relief and relaxing of muscles as we eased an inch or two back into our sponge mattresses. We pressed ahead. Hydrated more. Wrestled the cans.
We reached the final checkpoint five hours into the trip, and things picked up. The sedan of militiamen zoomed around us on the shoulder of the dirt road and we stopped and waited inside our trucks tense with anticipation as the empty minutes ticked away. After about ten minutes of waiting, Ski saw red lights blinking the okay signal in the distance and we continued forward.
As we went by the checkpoint, only Ski and Shrek, in the truck cabs with the drivers, had the luxury of seeing the guards wrapped up snugly in blankets the militiamen gave them as gifts. Everyone was sitting around a small warming .re while one of the militiamen brewed up some hot tea to cut the sharp edge of the cold Afghan winter. They looked like one big happy family at a hometown cookout.
* Derek Leebaert, in his book To Dare and to Conquer, discusses when and where Delta planned to use the Trojan horse option during the eventually aborted rescue attempt of American hostages in Iran. The June 2006 edition of Tip of the Spear, a monthly magazine published by USSOCOM, discusses former MACV-SOG Dick Meadows’s participation in Operation Eagle Claw. Already retired from the military, Meadows was pressed back into action, and along with a few others infiltrated Tehran, Iran, to prepare for the arrival of the rescue force and confirm the location of the hostages. See http://www.socom.mil/TOTS/2006/
Excerpted from KILL BIN LADEN by DALTON FURY.
Copyright © 2008 by DALTON FURY.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin's Press.
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