25 November to 25 December
On 25 November 2001, Marines from TF 58 commenced operations to seize FOB Rhino. General Franks, the CINC, stated “The purpose of the Forward Operating Base is to give us a capability to be an awful lot closer to the core objectives we seek.” Although the operation was originally named Swift Freedom by CENTCOM, within a week General Franks directed that the Marine operation ashore would not be referred to as a separate operation, but as part of Operation Enduring Freedom; the general term for the overall war against terrorism.
Six CH-53E’s (three each from the 15th and 26th MEUs) launched from the USS PELELIU at 1300Z and 1345Z. The first three helicopters conducted night aerial refueling with Marine KC-130’s en route to the objective, 350 nautical miles away. The three helicopters in the second wave would have difficulty conducting aerial refueling. The CH-53E’s flown by HMM 163, the “Evil Eyes”, and AH-1W Cobras were the first aircraft in the LZ. The helicopters carried Company C (-) reinforced, as well as the Commanding Officer Battalion Landing Team 1/1, LtCol Christopher Bourne, and his jump Command Post (CP). SEALS had inserted into Rhino on 21 November, and with the change in D-Day, had been conducting Surveillance and Reconnaissance (S&R) on the objective for four cold days. In keeping with the previously coordinated deconfliction with TF SWORD in time and space, the timing of the operation coincided with a scheduled operational pause for TF SWORD. TF 58 conducted a Battlefield Handover (BHO) with TF SWORD while SEALS maintained continual communications with the PELARG. The SEALS would send back real time photographs of Rhino to the staffs personnel computers on board the PELELIU. P-3 AIP aircraft from TF 57 provided continual Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) on Rhino throughout the night and on all subsequent nights with TF 58 riders on board. Intelligence support for the assault had been superb. The trend for intelligence excellence would continue throughout the operation.
The assault force linked-up with the SEALS at Landing Zone (LZ) Rhino and then proceeded to secure the area and clear the runway for the introduction of follow-on forces. Once the runway was lit by USAF Special Tactics Squadron (STS) personnel and declared KC-130 capable, additional rifle companies from BLT 1/1 flew in on USMC KC-130’s from Jacobabad, Pakistan where they had been pre-positioned. The first KC-130 to land on the dirt airstrip was flown by a VMGR-352 detachment aircrew, landing an hour and a half after the insert of the assault force. Marine KC-130’s and their courageous crews established and maintained the air bridge into Rhino. During the following weeks their efforts provided the bulk of the flights into and out of the FOB. A total of 403 Marines and four Interim Fast Attack Vehicles (IFAV’s) were inserted on the night of D-Day.
Company A, embarked on KC-130’s, soon joined company C in the defense of Rhino. They split the objective, with Company C securing the west half and Company A securing the east half. Continuous fire support was provided by a section of the BLT’s 81mm Mortar platoon. Close Air Support (CAS) was provided by four AH-1W and three UH-1N helicopters, four AV-8B Harriers from each MEU, and additional abundant CFACC fixed wing aircraft. In accordance with the concept of operations, an engineer platoon cleared the buildings at the compound while the reconnaissance platoon and scout snipers established Observation Posts (OP’s) extending the defensive perimeter around Rhino. The TF 58 and the 15th MEU staffs monitored the events on D-Day from the Landing Force Operations Center (LFOC) aboard the USS PELELIU.
The TF 58 staff deployed a forward Observation Post (OP) into Rhino on D+1. Consisting of General Mattis, a communications team lead by Major Scott Stebbins, the TF 58 Communications Officer, and Lieutenant Cliff Smith, the SEABEE liaison officer, the forward OP established communications connectivity to the TF 58 staff aboard the PELELIU. The TF 58 jump Command Post (CP) remained aboard the PELELIU, maintaining connectivity with TF 58 main staff located in Bahrain. The jump CP remained poised aboard the PELELIU to go ashore as needed. Eventually the TF 58 staff would operate from four sites during the operation: Kandahar, Rhino, the USS PELELIU and Bahrain.
Shortly after the American flag was raised at Rhino it was ordered down. The order to take the flag down came from Tampa, the rationale behind it the source of widespread speculation among the Marines. As General Mattis conducted his daily walks around the perimeter, this was the most frequently asked question, and the most difficult to answer.
During the initial 48 hours of the operation, Marine combat power increased rapidly. While aboard the USS PELELIU, Capt Mike Flatten USAF STS had established a reputation as a solid advisor, aggressively carrying out his duties in support of TF 58. Somewhat rugged in his appearance, Capt Flatten endured numerous ribbings by CTF 58 to get a haircut, finally complying with a slight trim above his ears. His actions during the initial assault into Rhino were commendable, ensuring that the runway was lit within minutes for follow on waves of KC-130’s. During the next weeks, Captain Flatten orchestrated operations at the “Rhino International Airport,” coordinating hundreds of fixed and rotary wing flights under terrible flying conditions, at night, in and out of the FOB. Displaying tremendous maturity and leadership, he supervised the buildup of combat power and sustainment facilitating the success of TF 58 in southern Afghanistan. For Marines who served at Rhino, sunset will be remembered by the roar of KC-130’s and C-17’s, at a constant tempo, until dawn brought peace and quiet again.
Also during this period, Captain Flatten, using a penetrometer, assessed the runway at Rhino and determined that is was C-17 capable. This was critical, as the TF 58 staff had identified the need for the aircraft’s lift capability early in the planning process in order to maximize the build-up of combat power on the objective. C-17s are designed to operate on relatively short (minimum length of 3000 feet), unimproved or dirt surface airfields. In addition, they can carry three Light Armored Vehicles (LAV’s) or up to ten High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV’s), compared to the KC-130 aircraft’s ability to carry one LAV or three HMMWV’s.
TF 58 Air Officers maintained close contact with the Marine Liaison Officers (MARLOs) at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). The MARLOs became essential partners in procuring aviation assets to support TF 58 operations ashore. A continual dialog by radio, secure telephone, e-mail and chat between the MARLOs and the TF 58 Air Officers ensured the required aviation support was received when the TF needed it. This vital relationship remained throughout operations in Afghanistan.
Because intra-theater lift was critical to the rapid buildup of combat power and logistics sustainment during the operation, TF 58 requested C-17 support through NAVCENT on November 17th. At that time, Transportation Command (CINCTRANS) had serious reservations about committing C-17’s into southern Afghanistan. This early assessment was based, in part, on the perceived Surface to Air Missile (SAM) threat in southern Afghanistan. NAVCENT requested that CENTCOM intervene on their behalf. After the conduct of a threat assessment, the establishment of patrols and OPs in the landing and take-off cones, and a phone call to General Wooley (the CG of C-17’s in theater), C-17s were approved for nighttime operations at Rhino.
On D+1, JSTARS aircraft detected several enemy BMP’s to the northwest of FOB Rhino. After an airborne FAC confirmed their identification, Navy F-14s from the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT and Marine AH-1Ws from FOB Rhino attacked the vehicles. Rather than slow the high tempo of air operations into FOB Rhino, this engagement emphasized the requirement for C-17 aircraft and their ability to support the rapid buildup of LAV combat power.
The first wave of C-17 aircraft arrived at FOB Rhino on 28 November, transporting SEABEES from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 133. The aircraft were part of a squadron that specialized in operating on dirt LZ’s. As part of the air detachment at Guam, the SEABEES had flown by C-5 to Diego Garcia before transloading to C-17s in theater for the final leg into Rhino. Immediately after landing, the SEABEES began grading the airstrip. The decision to insert SEABEES vice additional combat power had been debated amongst the staff, but Lieutenant Cliff Smith provided his expertise and influence during the discussion. His input was critical to the decision to flow SEABEES in early, ensuring continued build up of combat power and sustainment. During the following days and weeks, the SEABEES’ rapid runway repair capability significantly enhanced TF 58’s ability to not only maintain the airfield, but also improve the overall condition of the FOB.
SEABEES also provided contingency construction capability and assisted in numerous projects in and around Rhino, proving their resourcefulness through their construction of a multitude of projects. Scrounging for materials, they built map tables, surgical tables, and gun racks for the Australian SOF forces when they arrived. They also provided heavy equipment support with their bulldozer “Natasha II”, which was gainfully employed to excavate berms, trash pits, and vehicle obstacles for the Marines. One project, the construction of an expeditionary outhouse, affectionately known as a “4-hole burnout,” was particularly well received by the Marines. The burnout precluded the need to dig or use slit trenches and significantly improved the sanitary conditions at Rhino.
Environmental conditions at Rhino were austere, and Marines manning fighting holes were subjected to difficult living conditions. The sand was similar in consistency to Talcum powder and when disturbed it created billowing clouds of dust that lingered for a quarter of an hour before settling down. The fine dust created by the previous evening’s sustainment flights was pervasive, and Marines had to continually sweep the dust from their weapons, equipment, and workspaces. There was little in the way of vegetation and, intermingled with the rocks and debris, small patches of dried sticks poked up through the sand. For all of the dust that endangered flight operations, grunts digging in on the perimeter had to dig through limestone in most cases. Daytime temperatures rose to 80 degrees, only to drop to 30 degrees at night. “There is ice in our canteens in the morning, and the parkas we have practically save our lives,” stated a squad leader with Alpha, Co., Battalion Landing Team 1/1, 15th MEU (SOC). Rations had to be flown in each day and, during the six weeks that FOB Rhino was operational, the Marines dined on Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) and two liters of bottled water per day.
The need for proper hygiene was imperative. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, 75% of their soldiers were hospitalized due to poor hygiene habits and had to spend time in field hospitals. Within days of arriving, the SEABEES constructed temporary head facilities, and wash stations for the occupants of Rhino. In addition to enhancing morale, the “four hole burn-outs” reinforced the need for strict adherence to proper field hygiene habits. Specific locations at Rhino were designated as hygiene areas and were monitored by medical technicians daily. Most Marines strove to maintain healthy standards and settled into a morning routine that involved brushing their teeth, shaving, and washing with bottled water. Non-Commissioned Officer and Petty Officer leadership was critical.
The Marines quickly adapted to Afghanistan and settled into a way of life captured by a reporter from Newsweek Magazine: “At night the grunts did virtually anything to keep themselves awake and entertained. Shivering in the cold 30-degree cold, they sang lewd songs, talked about how ready they were to kill and pondered the discos and clubs they would head out to when they returned home as heroes.”
On 29 November, as the buildup of personnel and equipment continued at Rhino, CINCCENT and NAVCENT notified the TF 58 staff that a force cap was being placed on the number of Marines and Sailors allowed at FOB Rhino. Initially set at 1,000, then 1078, the cap was later increased back to 1100, and then 1400. This contrasted sharply with TF 58’s original concept for operations at Rhino, which called for the 26th MEU to arrive shortly after the 15th MEU secured the FOB and move quickly against Kandahar’s LOCs. It also created additional force protection issues by hindering the Marines’ ability to quickly reinforce forces currently ashore in southern Afghanistan. With the ships 350 miles away, a shipborne reserve was not capable of intervening in a timely manner. The emplacement of the force cap denied the commander the ability to maintain an operational shock absorber.
When the force cap was imposed, the 15th MEU was completing its insertion of combat power into Rhino and the 26th MEU was staging equipment and personnel at Pasni, Pakistan in preparation for the follow-on flow. The force cap caused a pause in operations, stopping the buildup of combat power in southern Afghanistan. The 15th MEU had to prioritize personnel and equipment, sending 102 of its members back to the USS PELELIU. Although the cap did not apply directly to SOF and Coalition forces that intended to operate from Rhino, it influenced their flow into the FOB indirectly. Because the Coalition forces required Marine logistic support, a decrease in the assets available to TF 58 subsequently reduced the number of Coalition forces that we could sustain. The force cap did not apply to Naval forces in Pakistan. The cap did, however, force TF 58 to develop an impromptu retrograde plan for returning staged personnel and equipment to the ARG. The majority the 26th MEU’s personnel and equipment were retained aboard the USS BATAAN. Many subordinate commanders spent inordinate amounts of time focused on swapping out men who were needed at Rhino, flying them out of dusty, dangerous Rhino to replace them with other Marines whose skills were more urgently required.
On 30 November, TF 58 units ashore in the Joint Operations Area (JOA) shifted Tactical Control (TACON) to the Combined Force Land Component Commander (CFLCC). TF 58 remained under Operational Control (OPCON) to the Combined Force Maritime Component Commander (CFMCC; Vice Admiral Moore was dual hatted as NAVCENT and CFMCC). CFLCC’s headquarters was based in Kuwait and staffed primarily by elements from the U.S. Third Army. CFLCC had been designated previously by CENTCOM as the sole commander for land forces in Afghanistan. The TACON relationship required the small TF 58 staff to provide information to two higher headquarters, CFMCC and CFLCC. The CFLCC staff was quite large and levied increased reporting requirements on the TF 58 staff, eventually requiring CONOPS briefs in advance of small-scale operations. Working with the CFLCC staff through two Marine liaison officers, the TF 58 staff was able to adapt to the new information requirements while continuing to develop a solid working relationship with the CFLCC staff. The positive relationship would last throughout the operation as CFLCC buttressed and represented CTF 58’s interests.
After seizing the FOB, TF 58’s mission planning included Lines Of Communication (LOC) interdiction operations along Route 1, a key road situated to the north of Rhino connecting Lashkar Gah with Kandahar. TF 58 directed the interdiction of Route 1, and included mobile assets from the 26th MEU. Requests were sent to CENTCOM through NAVCENT for relief from the force cap. TF 58 required additional forces to be able to continue FOB security and to send a significant combat force north to conduct the LOC interdiction. The request for relief from the force cap was eventually approved and a new ceiling was established at 1400 Marines and Sailors ashore in southern Afghanistan. This happened only after Major General Edwards, Deputy CFLCC, a constant voice and fighter for the Marines, forcefully intervened. CENTCOM then issued confusing guidance contrary to the OpOrder, stating that TF 58’s only role was to seize a FOB (not interdict LOCs), further complicating the situation. The same day CTF-58 was told by CENTCOM that the Marines sole job was to seize Rhino, he received a FRAGO to interdict Route 1 in order to isolate Kandahar.
Supplies, equipment, and personnel continued to be airlifted into Rhino each night. The high volume of air traffic caused extraordinary degradation to the dirt airstrip and the SEABEES were required to conduct intensive 24-hour runway maintenance to keep the airfield operational. As conditions worsened, the SEABEES had to fly in additional equipment, road graders and compactors, and personnel, further complicating the force cap issue.
To facilitate the operational control and tactical direction of TF 58’s afloat units, General Mattis designated Commodore William Jezierski, Commander, Amphibious Squadron One, as the Deputy Commander TF 58. The Commodore was a superb leader with the force of personality and experience to relieve General Mattis of all concerns for the combined ARG’s operations. The Commodore was instrumental in organizing what many believed to be the “most difficult amphibious landing in 20 years.” His actions orchestrating sensitive nighttime beach and airfield operations at Pasni were executed flawlessly. Where many would have found obstacles, the Commodore found opportunities. Never caught flat-footed, Commodore Jezierski would prove invaluable throughout the operation.
CTF 50 provided escorts to the ARGs. They were under the Tactical Control of the Deputy, CTF 58 and normally consisted of three ships to include one AEGIS Cruiser (CG) or Destroyer (DDG). While the ships were primarily US, Canada and Italy provided escorts in December and January.
TF 58 received the order to execute the LOC interdiction operation along Route 1 on December 3rd. Although the intent was to block Taliban and Al Qaida forces traveling along Route 1, the CFLCC refined his guidance during the upcoming days to “prevent/deny the escape” of Taliban and Al Qaida forces from Afghanistan. This priority mission would consume 15th MEU operations for the next ten days. Additionally, the first elements of TF 64, Australian SOF forces, arrived at FOB Rhino on 3 December. LtCol Gus Gilmore commanded the Australians, and his men were well prepared for the fight. He had met with General Mattis during planning in Bahrain, and the men had agreed that the Australians would be incorporated as quickly as possible in operations ashore. The Australians were used to operating independently over large tracts of open space with mission type orders. Their confidence, maturity, and proficiency quickly resulted in a mutual respect that engendered a close bond between TF 58 and TF 64. These forces assigned TACON to TF 58, would integrate and develop a close working relationship with the Marines over the next several weeks. Their arrival was timely, allowing the Marines to bolster their fighting power in southern Afghanistan while remaining within the constraints of the force cap.
Reconnaissance elements led the way to Route 1, followed by 15th MEU LAV’s on 4 December. The 120-kilometer 19-hour motor march across the uncharted desert proved to be difficult and time consuming. Some vehicles had 80,000 tactical miles on them before beginning the journey and had to be “coaxed” throughout the trip. Four vehicles simply broke down, requiring towing. Additional fuel beyond the original estimates was also required. The interdiction force overcame these obstacles and moved toward the site chosen for establishing a tactical patrol base west of Kandahar.
TF 58 forces at FOB Rhino received additional mission tasking on 5 December. An Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) team and SOF, operating with OG Karzai to the northeast of Rhino, requested TF 58 helicopter support in evacuating combat casualties. Although the casualties were initially reported as having been received during an ongoing enemy mortar attack, it eventually became clear that they occurred during a fratricide incident involving CAS. Because the incident occurred during daylight hours, TF 58 had reservations about sending helicopters into what it was initially told was an ongoing firefight. As details became clear, several CH-53E and AH-1W helicopters were launched in support of the ODA team. The 15th MEU Shock Trauma Platoon (STP), which had arrived at Rhino the evening before and had conducted a mass casualty drill, readied themselves for the receipt of casualties. When the helicopters arrived, Marines helped transport the wounded to the aid station. Numerous media representatives were kept away from the airstrip and route to the aid station, engendering their anger.
Thirty-nine casualties were brought to FOB Rhino for triage. 19 U.S. personnel were transferred to an Air Force C-130 Joint Medevac Aviation Unit (JMAU) and flown to theater Level III medical facilities. Twenty Afghan casualties (one KIA) were taken by CH-53E helicopter to PELELIU and BATAAN. One of the helicopters had to return to FOB Rhino due to a fodded engine. As the aircraft hovered over the airstrip losing power, it jettisoned it drop tanks full of fuel adding to the confusion and requiring clean up to reopen the runway that night. The patients were transferred to another CH-53E that departed immediately for the ships. Over one hundred hours were logged in the USS PELELIU’s four operating rooms, where thirty-six life and limb saving procedures were performed. Aboard the USS BATAAN, two surgeons conducted twenty-nine surgical procedures over a twenty nine-hour period and all surgeries were completed within 60 hours of arrival. Commodore Jezierski, aboard the USS PELELIU, remarked that this was the “the best medical evolution I have ever seen.”
Linguists recently attached to TF 58 aboard the USS PELELIU assisted the medical staffs with translation. Not knowing that he was on board a ship, one of the Afghani patients asked if he was in the United States and why the building kept moving. The medical staff showed the patient a picture of the USS PELELIU and explained that he was aboard a U.S. Naval vessel. The patient was awestruck. Another patient conducted prayers on a prayer rug provided by one of the U.S. Navy personnel. Religious services were offered to the Afghanis and all exhibited their appreciation. As the patients recovered, they expressed their desire to return to Afghanistan to continue to fight for the Southern Alliance, and all were eventually repatriated at Kandahar airport once it was in Marine hands. The deceased Afghani was returned to FOB Rhino and buried with military honors. His grave was marked with a headstone and SOF personnel passed the location onto the OG forces. Eventually, the body would be exhumed and returned to his family in Kandahar.
The extreme operating conditions at Rhino created challenges for aviators and their machines. During the morning of 4 December an AH-1W aircraft experienced a hard landing while conducting a dawn patrol. The aircraft remained in the field with a security force approximately ten kilometers from Rhino for several days until repair parts could be flown. On the evening of the 5th an Air Force C-130 crew became disoriented while departing the apron at Rhino and the wing of their aircraft impacted the rotor blade of a parked CH-53E. The C-130 was inspected and continued on its mission. The CH-53E sustained damage that required repair, downing the aircraft for several days.
December 6th was a busy night for the Marines of TF 58. At approximately 1645Z, security forces at Rhino observed light flashes to the north and northwest of FOB Rhino. After P-3 aircraft orbiting overhead confirmed individuals loading vehicles, BLT 1/1 engaged suspected enemy positions with 81mm mortars. An LAV patrol was sent out to investigate, but no equipment or personnel were found. The Marines in Rhino remained at a heightened state of alert throughout the evening and remaining flights into Rhino were cancelled.
Shortly after the enemy sighting, a UH-1N helicopter burst into flames near the airfield. The pilots became disoriented in brownout conditions while launching in support of LAV’s interdiction mission along Route 1, and crashed. All crewmembers survived, due to the quick thinking and rescue efforts of fellow Marines. As flames engulfed the aircraft and ammunition began to cook off, ordnance personnel from the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) and Marines from MEU Service Support Group (MSSG) 15 struggled and succeeded in moving a fuel truck that had been parked only 15-feet away. Throughout this incident, the BLT employed mortars and MK-19s in defense of the perimeter.
Later that evening, at 2350Z, Marines along Route 1 engaged in a firefight. P-3 aircraft reported the movement of up to six vehicles towards the interdiction site where the ambush was set. After the column stopped momentarily, one vehicle sped towards the Marines’ concertina wire roadblock. The truck stopped when it became tangled in the wire and the Marines immediately opened fire, causing the vehicle to burst into flames. Marines confirmed seven enemy dead. One of the individuals, on fire, had attempted to flee and was quickly dispatched by a Marine sniper. After the explosion, the other enemy vehicles attempted to move into a position north of the road, perhaps trying to move past the ambush site. Major Oliver, the TF 58 P-3 observer, saw up to thirty individuals dismount from the vehicles and begin to form a skirmish line. CAS aircraft, quickly directed onto the target by the P-3 and a Marine Forward Air Controller (FAC) call sign “Neck”, destroyed all of the vehicles, one of them immediately after the skirmish line remounted. The following day villagers reported that it was an enemy convoy and they estimated 120 casualties. The P-3 detected no movement along Route 1, between Lashkar Gah with Kandahar on succeeding nights.
While the interdiction of Route 1 mission continued, the TF 58 staff received additional missions directing the occupation of Kandahar Airport and the requirement to provide security to Department of State (DOS) personnel preparing to open the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
During the preceding weeks, CFLCC and CFMCC told the Marines to be prepared to receive detainees and provide temporary holding facilities, until arrangements could be made to transfer them elsewhere. TF 58 staff afloat was tasked with preparing a CONOP for the handling of detainees afloat and the prioritization of C5F assets (LHA, LHD and CVN) to receive high value detainees. The first of many detainees arrived at Rhino on 7 December. He was an American citizen named Johnny Walker, who had been captured while fighting for the Taliban. The decision was made to secure Johnny Walker at FOB Rhino until he could be transferred to the PELELIU ARG. Upon arriving at Rhino, Walker immediately received medical attention. Under a 24-hour guard, his sanitation needs were met and medical personnel evaluated his condition twice a day. He was given two MRE’s per day, later raised to three, and all the water he wanted. While at Rhino, Walker was not interviewed by Marines. He was interviewed by the FBI and then fingerprinted and photographed by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). Walker was transferred to the USS PELELIU on 14 December.
As OG forces continued to make progress against Taliban and Al Qaida forces throughout Afghanistan, US government officials began preparing to reopen the US Embassy in Kabul, which had been closed since 1997. On 7 December, CFLCC directed TF 58 to provide a security force to assist the Department of State (DOS) in this endeavor. CTF 58 assigned the mission to the 26th MEU who rapidly planned a superb operation. Two days later, Captain J.P. McDonough and elements of Kilo Battery 3/l0 departed the ARG for Bagram Airfield, located approximately 25 miles north of Kabul. British forces and a small contingent of soldiers from the U.S. 10th Mountain Division were also operating in the area. The airfield was heavily mined and just days prior to the arrival of the security force a British soldier had been injured by a mine.
Marines from the 26th MEU flew into Bagram Airfield on 9 December for subsequent link-up with DOS personnel and elements of TF Bagram, 10th Mountain Division, for further transport to the embassy in Kabul. The Marines arrived at night and after coordinating with TF Bagram, moved via buses to the embassy compound in Kabul. The Marines quickly established security at the embassy compound, and over the following days, continued to increase security and prepare the embassy for the introduction of DOS personnel. Captain McDonough captured the significance of the occasion, “As soon as we raise the flag, this will become the most valuable piece of property here. We’re on U.S. sovereign territory, and we’ll protect it as such.” The Marines of TF 58 continued to provide security at the embassy until relieved by members of 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (4th MEB) led by Captain Sullivan on 27 December.
At this time, the OG’s enjoyed continued success throughout much of Afghanistan and the overall situation began to shift rapidly. As the enemy’s hold over the Kandahar region began to deteriorate, TF 58 was tasked to occupy the city’s airport in conjunction with OG forces operating in the area. TF 58 had been considering such an operation since November, and had assessed the feasibility of both seizure and secure missions. Although the original concept was to employ 26th MEU as the main effort, it was now evident that assets from both MEUs were required. 15th MEU would lead the operation by using its LAV force, then conducting the interdiction mission along Route 1 west of Kandahar, while 26th MEU contributed a heliborne infantry company, additional LAV’s, and helicopter support. In addition to the military operation, the TF 58 staff had to consider coordination with the OG forces in the area. OG forces maintained positions around Kandahar, and their assistance in moving to and occupying Kandahar was essential.
To establish coordination between TF 58 and the OG forces, a meeting was arranged with the two military commanders operating in the vicinity of Kandahar. Shirzai, who would become Governor of Kandahar Province, maintained forces to the south of Kandahar; Karzai, who would later become interim president of Afghanistan, (Afghan Interim Authority or AIA) controlled forces to the north of Kandahar. At 1830Z on 12 December, a meeting was planned with both of OG leaders. General Mattis and select commanders and planners from the 15th MEU, adjacent units and supporting SOF forces attended the meeting which took place in the outskirts of Kandahar, in Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s old compound.
Three Air Force Special Operations MH-53Js, transported the planners and security personnel from Rhino to an LZ near the compound, where they boarded waiting vehicles for the three-kilometer trip to the compound. Unfortunately, as one of the helicopters was landing in the LZ, it landed on a Land Rover, injuring a young British soldier. The Soldier was immediately lifted out of the zone to receive emergency care. For an hour before the meeting began, TF 58 personnel met with SOF personnel who had worked with Karzai and Shirzai. When the two OG leaders arrived, a discussion was conducted by lantern light with General Mattis and key SOF personnel.
The central topic was the Marines’ safe passage through Kandahar to the airport. The leaders discussed routes, time lines, link-up points, recognition signals, and convoy procedures. Karzai felt confident that the Marine forces could go through the city during daylight hours. Coordination with SOF elements during the road march and while securing the airport was deemed critical. Initially there was some concern over whether or not the OG forces would restrict the number of Marines operating at the airport, but the local leaders were unconcerned about overall numbers and, in fact, encouraged a large presence at the airport.
Even with an OG escort the mission would encounter unknown threats. Not only was Kandahar the “spiritual” capital of the Taliban forces, the plan called for the LAV force to conduct a motor march east along Route 1, where Mujahadeen fighters had frequently ambushed convoys during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Kandahar Airport had been the scene of recent fighting, and was reported to be heavily mined. OG leaders informed the Marines about identification, locations of minefields, what buildings were known to be booby-trapped, and the infrastructure available at the airport. It was agreed that OG forces would team with the Marines. Following the meeting, the Marines departed the site on MH-53J aircraft for their return trip to Rhino.
Until this time, 15th MEU had been conducting the LOC interdiction mission north of Rhino along Route 1, while the 26th MEU had been conducting screening operations west of the FOB. Now, LAVs from the 15th MEU held in place, waiting for those from the 26th MEU (TF Sledgehammer) to join them. TF Sledgehammer consisted of LAVs, and Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT) HMMWVs from 26th MEU. The plan called for TF Sledgehammer to proceed north along the Helmand River through the town of Lashkar Gah, then east to Route 1 to their linkup with the LAV Company under Major Tom Impellateri. This movement involved a lengthy journey across desert and potential hostile territory. Those moving forward were refueled and resupplied in the field, while 15th MEU personnel and equipment not involved in the Kandahar movement returned to Rhino.
CTF 58 forward OP joined the combined LAV force on 13 December, shortly after the link-up 800 meters south of Route 1, 40 miles west of Kandahar. As evening drew close, the LAV led convoy linked up with Army Special Forces/OG fighters and then proceeded east to the city completing a cold, four-hour passage through the battle-scarred city of Kandahar. The trip to the airport occurred without incident and after the assault force secured the east end of the runway, Company I, BLT 3/6, 26th MEU flew in on CH-53E helicopters to bolster security. AH-1Ws, AV-8Bs from the USS BATAAN and other Coalition CAS aircraft provided on call CAS throughout the mission. CFLCC Commander and his staff observed the movement via a real time feed from Predator.
By morning of 14 December, TF 58 had established their second FOB in Afghanistan. Marines from the 26th MEU then began the onerous task of cleaning and repairing the runway for Marine KC-130 aircraft. On 15 December, following a short pause due to what appeared to be ground fire in the vicinity of Kandahar (which turned out to be the small arms fire in celebration of the end of Ramadan), the first of many Marine KC-130s landed at Kandahar Airport. After multiple airfield opening and assessment teams declared the runway safe, the first C-17 arrived on 18 December (a total of five USAF airfield assessment teams would eventually pass through Kandahar).
As some Marines were in the process of retrograding across the desert from Route 1 to Rhino, and others were moving into the airport at Kandahar, TF 58 began to plan for Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) missions west of Rhino. Intelligence sources believed that eight village compounds in the area might yield valuable intelligence information if inspected. CFLCC directed the Marines to prepare to conduct and support the collection effort. Because some of the sites were reportedly linked to chemical and biological warfare research, a Chemical Biological Inspection Site Team (CBIST) was flown into Rhino to assist during the inspections. On the night they arrived, however, they learned of potential SSE sites four kilometers southeast of Kandahar Airport. Elements of their team immediately left for Kandahar and spent the next several days exploring sites in the area, uncovering valuable intelligence information.
As planning for a SSE mission in the vicinity of FOB Rhino neared completion, TF 58 was tasked with planning a mission to attack enemy forces in the Tora Bora region, over two hundred miles north and to the east of Kandahar in the mountainous border region adjoining Pakistan. The region had been the site of numerous engagements between the Soviet and Afghani forces. The area had extremely mountainous terrain (14,000 foot mountains) and numerous caves that required inspection. As TF 58 planners began to develop and assess the requirements for the mission they realized that Marines in desert utilities and boots at Rhino would require cold weather equipment for the mission.
Although tentatively assigned another Tampa force cap limiting the number of Marines that could be sent north, a steady flow of 26th MEU forces from the BATAAN ARG to Kandahar began in earnest. Most traveled from Pasni, Pakistan to FOB Rhino to the Kandahar airport. Although the number of Marines in Afghanistan swelled significantly, it was clear that TF 58 required all of its combat power to accomplish the myriad missions it had been assigned and higher headquarters refrained from mentioning the force cap again. While never formally rescinded, thankfully, it ceased to be addressed as a higher headquarters consideration.
It was during this time on the 14th of December that Marines from the 15th MEU conducted the SSE mission to the west of Rhino. Meanwhile, the Tora Bora mission was anticipated to be a major undertaking and preparations continued in anticipation of an execute order from higher.
TF 58 and 15th MEU planners were kept quite busy by the pace of operations set in southern Afghanistan. They had just recovered Marines from an interdiction mission along Route 1, sent Marines forward to secure the airport at Kandahar, and were now planning for near simultaneous SSE operations in both southern and north eastern Afghanistan. 26th MEU was gainfully employed securing and opening Kandahar Airport. As the CBIST team concluded operations in the vicinity of Kandahar Airfield, plans for the sites in the vicinity of Rhino along the Helmund river were finalized and the focus switched to execution. TF 64, collaborated closely with the 15th MEU along with available CBIST personnel. TF 58 inserted TF 64 vehicles and equipment by helicopter, and the Australians conducted strategic reconnaissance enabling the scheme to be modified up to the point of departure.
In concert with the CBIST, TF 58 was to search the region’s eight villages for intelligence information and any evidence of radiological or chemical weapons. 15th MEU planners had planned for the daylight helicopter insertion of a small platoon-sized element of Marines in the vicinity of one of the eight villages. LtCol Khan, an Urdu speaker from the CENTCOM Pakistan Liaison Cell in Islamabad, accompanied the CBIST. The 15th MEU plan relied upon LtCol Khan’s ability to communicate with the local villagers.
Under the cover of ground security forces, which included IFAVs, and helicopter gunships, Marines and OG forces approached the village compound in a non-threatening manner and requested to speak to the village elder. While conversing with the elder and handing out cigarettes and candy, the Marines requested permission to conduct an escorted walk-through of the village compound. Following the first search, the Marines moved out on foot and repeated the process at the other seven compounds. Throughout the mission crowds of curious on-lookers, primarily children, met the Marines. The Marines had prepared for this and were able to hand out candy, fruit, pens, pencils, and paper. The children were keenly interested in the writing instruments and paper. Nothing unusual was discovered during the searches and the mission was completed without incident. After being extracted by helicopter, the Marines returned to Rhino and continued to prepare for Tora Bora. Although well planned, TF 58 would never execute the Tora Bora mission, which was officially cancelled on 9 January 2002. The use of Marines had been proposed by the CINC to “encourage” the OG forces to re-energize their operations and clean out Tora Bora completely. His plan worked, but the Marines were disappointed to miss the chance for a fight.
Considering the austere conditions, morale for the Marines and Sailors at Rhino and Kandahar was exceptionally high and it reinforced their cocky, macho attitude. Numerous personalities visited both FOBs during the Christmas holiday. The Commandant of the Marine Corps and General Hagee, CG I MEF, arrived at Rhino and Kandahar on 19 December, followed two days later by CINCCENT. General Jones and General Hagee toured the perimeter positions and spoke to assembled Marines throughout the night.
Following a visit with KC-130 detachment Marines and airmen at Jacobabad, CINCCENT flew into Rhino on a C-17 and brought members of a USO show with him. Marines gathered in a huge warehouse that served as the billeting area, leaving space for the CINC and his guests. Wayne Newton, Drew Carey, Neil McCoy and two Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders spent approximately an hour at Rhino. The Marines and Sailors were thrilled to see all the celebrities, although the cheerleaders were most popular. One SEABEE gave his camouflage blouse with the nametape “McCoy” on it to Neil McCoy. Mr. McCoy put the blouse on and wore it throughout the evening. The CINC and the celebrities then traveled to Kandahar Airport, Pasni and the ARG, repeating their performance and raising spirits before leaving the area.
Although on high alert, Christmas proved relatively uneventful for TF 58. Special food boxes were prepared by Navy Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) in Bahrain, thanks to Admiral Moore’s initiative, and were very well received by the Marines, Sailors and Coalition forces all over southern Afghanistan (hot holiday meals could not be provided due to the distances from the ships). The ARG ships also prepared non-perishable food and treats, which they sent to the forces ashore. Major Bob “Brutus” Charette, the TF 58 Air Officer, coordinated a Christmas day air show for the Marines. Two F/A-18 Hornets and two F-14 Tomcats from the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT spent 20 minutes in the sky over Rhino performing complex and impressive maneuvers. When the show was over, the aircraft proceeded to their refueling rendezvous point and then continued on to their assigned target in northern Afghanistan. Additionally, the President of the United States called Marines and Sailors serving in Afghanistan, and Sergeant Arturo Blanco Romero, from the 15th MEU, was one of the lucky Marines to receive a call from President Bush.
TF 58 Sailors and Marines patriotically participated in two ceremonial flag raisings in Kandahar. Marines from both 15th and 26th MEU’s raised a flag that New York City firefighters had previously flown over the ruins of the World Trade Center, to honor the country and pay tribute to those who perished in the tragic events of September 11th. Then on 1 January 2002, Marines again ceremoniously raised the American flag in Kandahar, but this time alongside the Afghanistan national flag. General Mattis stated, “This symbolic gesture solidifies the close, working relationship we have established with the Afghans here,” and Governor Shirzai proclaimed, “Peace, unity and friendship” while referring to the colors flying high. This joint effort was indicative of the Task Force’s efforts to disassociate ourselves from the Soviet Army’s recent occupation. We were not doing things to Afghanistan, but with Afghanistan. The TF 58 staff started planning for the reembarkation and reconstitution of 15th MEU forces aboard the ARG well prior to Christmas. As the New Year arrived the 15th MEU had nearly completed their reembarkation aboard the ARG and the focus would become Kandahar Airport and the 26th MEU.