In the weeks immediately following the surprise attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, the United States prepared to strike the Taliban-controlled country of Afghanistan that acted as the support base for the al Qaeda terrorist group. Although the Taliban controlled some 90 percent of the countryside, there were still pockets in the far north where anti-Taliban partisans resisted. The main anti-Taliban group had been led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, the "Lion of Panjshir," of Tajik ethnicity and supported by Tajikistan, until his assassination by al Qaeda on September 9, 2001. Led by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's vision of combining air strikes with a small 'footprint' on the ground consisting mainly of special operators capable of working with anti-Taliban indigenous forces, the U.S. Air Force's 720th Special Tactics Group (720 STG) expected to play a major role. Based at Hurlburt Field, Florida, the 720th group consisted mainly of combat controllers, pararescuemen, and special operations weathermen, highly-trained Airmen that usually operated in denied or hostile areas as part of a joint special mission team or task force. Moreover, the new Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John P. Jumper--whose first day on the job was September 11--compared Afghanistan with the 1999 Kosovo conflict. General Jumper stated that if special operations forces (SOF) forces would have proven valuable in Kosovo, it was "absolutely imperative ... that you start with people on the ground" in Afghanistan. And for the Air Force, that meant Special Tactics. (1)
Within hours of the September 11 attacks, then-Col. (later, Brig. Gen.) Robert H. "Bob" Holmes, the 720 STG commander, began preparing to deploy the group's headquarters and squadrons to the theater of operations. Holmes recognized the importance of "planting the 720th [Special Tactics] flag firmly in the middle of the combat theater." By November, he established his headquarters at Masirah, Oman, with elements of four squadrons deployed. In his joint role, Holmes also served as deputy commander, Joint Special Operations Task Force-South (K-Bar), and in December he moved the 720 STG headquarters to Kandahar, Afghanistan. One element of the 720th led by Capt. Michael J. "Mike" Flatten "was instrumental in the USMC's historic Task Force 58 deployment into Objective Rhino in the Afghan desert" and in its subsequent move to Kandahar. (2)
On the night of October 7/8 (local time), the U.S. military response, Operation Enduring Freedom, began. For the first two months of the operation, although U.S. Navy carrier-based aircraft conducted about 75 percent of all strike sorties, a nearly equal percent of the tonnage dropped came from USAF aircraft, particularly heavy bombers. By October 15th, combat controller William C. "Calvin" Markham arrived at Karshi-Khanabad (K-2) airfield, Uzbekistan, to the north of Afghanistan. The husky 6' 1" Special Tactics member from Waukesha, Wisconsin, augmented a U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) team, Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) 555, whose primary task was to identify ground targets in support of operations against the Taliban regime. Initially encountering resistance to his joining the detachment, Markham was welcomed with open arms when 555's team sergeant recognized his "swim buddy" from a SOF SCUBA course twelve years earlier, thereby establishing the credibility and rapport so critical to joint special operations. On the night of October 19/20, two Army SOF MH-47E helicopters belonging to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment inserted ODA 555 into a site in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley north of Bagram Air Base. Bagram was some thirty miles north of Kabul. Meanwhile, another Special Forces team, ODA 595, was inserted the same night into an area south of Mazar-i-Sharif, in north-central Afghanistan. The two SF teams, detachments 555 and 595, thus began operations inside Afghanistan on the first night that U.S. forces had "boots on the ground' as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. In an interview in 2007, Master Sergeant (later, Chief Master Sergeant) Markham described how the team's specific mission determined which member would be the lead: (3)
You have a twelve-man team and each person ... brings a 'piece of the pie'.... If this [had] been a sniper mission, the sniper on the team would have been the key guy. If this [had] been an engineering project for blowing up a bridge, the engineer would have had it. If this [had] been something medical ... the medic on the team would have had it. But this particular mission was close air support [CAS], so that was my piece of the pie.
In other words, because of the particular nature of ODA 555's assignment, its lone USAF augmentee, Markham, was unquestionably the team's "key guy."
Markham recalled that during his brief stay in Uzbekistan, some wanted to make the U.S. troops "look like locals" in the Central Asian area of operations: (4)
So they went out and bought these Uzbek civilian clothes, but ... it is basically like that Saturday Night Live skit with Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin, and that is how the Uzbeks dress. It was kind...