True Spies - Episode 114, Team Alpha, Part 1: The Tip of the Spear
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies: Team Alpha Part 1: The Tip of the Spear.
TOBY HARNDEN: I was in Iraq, in Baghdad, in the journalists' hotel there, the Hamra Hotel. And somebody, another reporter, said to me: "Did you ever see the footage of that CIA officer running for his life in the fort in Mazar-i Sharif?”
NARRATOR: In 2004, journalist Toby Harnden became fascinated with the story of Team Alpha: a group of eight CIA officers working in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Toby was working in Washington, D.C. when 9/11 happened. He covered the US response as it unfolded. But it wasn’t until three years later that his curiosity about Team Alpha was piqued. It all began with a video of one of the eight men running, desperately, for his life.
TOBY HARNDEN: I hadn't seen it. So I went onto YouTube and watched it. And it was footage of this CIA officer dressed in an amalgam of Afghan and American gear, running across this fort, clutching a Kalashnikov - a Kalashnikov in one hand and a pistol in the other. And then he bursts into a room on the northern end of the fort, and all of a sudden he's on camera. He's basically bumped into a German TV crew and a bunch of Afghans who are hiding from the fighting. And I remember looking at this man's eyes - he's [got] a 1,000-yard stare, these staring, unblinking eyes - and I was just thinking, wondering what, what had he just been through. He's seen his comrade killed, was nearly killed himself and had a miraculous escape. He's killed many, many - probably dozens - of al-Qaeda fighters. And he's still not safe. And he doesn't know whether he's going to live for another few more minutes, another few hours, or what is going to happen. And so I was fascinated by that person and how he got to the fort, what he went through, and also how he dealt with the subsequent years.
NARRATOR: In this week’s True Spies, the story behind that video.
DAVID TYSON: My name is David Tyson. I am a retired CIA officer.
NARRATOR: This is the man Toby Harnden spent years trying to talk to, hoping to hear the full, unclassified details. The man with the 1,000-yard stare.
DAVID TYSON: I spent 25 years in the agency and now I live in Virginia in a rural area. And many years ago, some 20 years ago, I joined Team Alpha and went into Afghanistan soon after 9/11.
NARRATOR: David and Toby have come together for this special two-part True Spies series to tell the story of Team Alpha, the story of America's first casualty of the war in Afghanistan. Let’s go back to the video that first captured Toby’s attention, to the man - David - running across the fort of Mazar-i Sharif, looking for all the world like a grizzled veteran of close-hand conflict. You might be surprised to learn that the man clutching a Kalashnikov in one hand and a pistol in the other was not an experienced fighter. David’s background was in linguistics. But True Spies listeners know, sometimes a hidden skill lands you in a place you never imagined.
DAVID TYSON: Well, I started with Russian as a young man out of the Army in college. And I chose Russian simply because it had strange letters and an odd alphabet. I had not taken a language before that. And I went to graduate school at Indiana University, and there I started learning the Uzbek language and studied Turkmen language, Farsi, and so forth. And this is when the Soviet Union still existed. So although Russian and Uzbek are not related linguistically, they certainly are in terms of the politics of that time when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. And, over time, I understood that the Agency was hiring people, namely linguists, to do foreign language things, translations, interpretation, and so forth. And I submitted an application and was selected to be a linguist.
NARRATOR: An Uzbek speaker like David would be a strong asset for intelligence services operating in Afghanistan - a country with such a diverse population of ethnic groups, some argue it can hardly be called a ‘country’ at all. And well before 9/11, America had already established a covert presence in the region. I’ll let Toby explain.
TOBY HARNDEN: The CIA had been involved in Afghanistan pretty intensively since the 1980s. So during the period of the Soviet occupation, the CIA had been working with the Mujahideen that were fighting the Soviets, supplying them with Stinger missiles. And the agency was working out of the Islamabad station with the Mujahideen. Once the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 and subsequently there was the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US decided that Afghanistan didn't matter anymore. Strategically, it was a backwater but a small number of CIA officers maintained contact with the country and their connections with the Mujahideen.
NARRATOR: One of those officers was David Tyson who was posted to Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor to the north.
DAVID TYSON: Regionally, Afghanistan was still important. So it was important to the Central Asians, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan and these other countries and those people. And so being located in Uzbekistan at the time, it was important regionally, and my chief in Uzbekistan asked me to focus on Afghanistan, which was easy to do in the sense that there were plenty of Afghans around. I had a great interest in the region. And it soon became clear that the ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan were an important factor in regional issues. And they, in fact, were fighting against the Taliban that had come to the fore, and they were also fighting against the forces of al-Qaeda, which had moved into Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
NARRATOR: Before September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda hadn’t managed to stage an attack on American soil but they had already targeted the US elsewhere in the world. In 1998, the group set off simultaneous truck bombs at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Some 224 people died, and more than 4,500 were injured. In 2000, al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer docked in a port in Yemen, killing 17 more.
TOBY HARNDEN: Now, of course, since 1996, when Osama bin Laden was expelled from Sudan, he'd been given refuge inside Afghanistan. And so, with the rise of the Taliban and the Taliban's relationship with al-Qaeda and its hosting of bin Laden, you had a convergence of al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. So within the Counterterrorism Center in the CIA - and I mean, it's almost like ripple effects inside the National Security Council - there was a growing sense that Afghanistan mattered again.
NARRATOR: On September 11, 2001, when four commercial airliners crashed into major landmarks of American power, those ripple effects became crushing waves. American intelligence officials had long been on alert. And yet, though it may come as a surprise, the Pentagon didn’t have a plan for how to respond. General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command, believed that it would take many weeks to orchestrate an invasion and that it would require many, many boots on the ground. Not an appealing prospect. But Cofer Black, the director of the CTC, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, had another idea. His plan would incorporate American intelligence, indigenous resistance groups, and the Northern Alliance, a multiethnic group of Afghan militias united against the Taliban.
TOBY HARNDEN: There had been CIA missions into Afghanistan over the previous two years and they were called ‘Jawbreaker’ missions.
NARRATOR: David himself had been on the first of those missions in 1999.
TOBY HARNDEN: And so there was a relationship between the CIA and the Northern Alliance, and it was this that Cofer Black built on in his plan that he presented to President Bush. Cofer Black's concept of small teams of eight or so Americans, CIA pathfinders, alongside Green Berets, 12-man ODA - Operation Detachment Alphas - would go into Afghanistan and fight alongside the Indigenous resistance.
NARRATOR: The mission: to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda with an aim to prevent another 9/11. Each of the eight-man ‘alphabet’ CIA teams, from Alpha to Juliet, had been assigned to a different region of focus. And the very first one to enter Taliban territory, of course, was Team Alpha.
TOBY HARNDEN: Team Alpha was put together very rapidly. It was very improvised. The nucleus of the team was four paramilitaries from the Special Activities Division. But one of the things I found fascinating about them was they were not all elite warriors. It was an eclectic bunch of men. So it was led by J.R. Seeger who was a case officer who'd worked - a Dari speaker - who'd worked out of Islamabad with the Mujahideen in the 1980s. The deputy chief was Alex Hernandez who was a paramilitary officer. Scott Spellmeyer, who was number three on the team, was a former Ranger, another CIA paramilitary. He'd been wounded in the Black Hawk Down incident in the Battle of Mogadishu. You had Andy, who's still serving in the CIA today, who was a Special Forces reservist, another paramilitary. You had Mark Mark Rosenberger, who died in 2016 on a CIA mission in the Philippines. He was the medic, another former Army-enlisted medic. You had Justin Sapp, who was a Green Beret, 29 years old, so the youngest member of the team, and he was the only one of the eight who was not actually in the CIA, although he came from an Agency background. His father had been a case officer who'd actually worked with Jill Seeger. And Justin was added to be the link man with the Green Berets also because the CIA had a limited number of paramilitaries at that time, and so they needed military personnel to augment the CIA teams. And of course, there was Mike Spann.
DAVID TYSON: Mike had been to Uzbekistan previously, and we had been working to gather intelligence on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
NARRATOR: Mike Spann was a 32-year-old former Marine Corps officer. He’d joined the CIA just two years prior and, by all accounts, he was eager to further his career.
DAVID TYSON: So Mike had been there training local forces, and I had met him several times in that process prior to 9/11. And my early impressions of Mike were the lasting ones, in the sense that Mike made an impression and those impressions didn't really change over time even when you got to know Mike fairly well. He was a very focused professional. He was fairly quiet and observant. Personally, he had a great sense of humor, but his focus and attention to the mission at hand was something that separated him just a little bit from other people. Mike was unambiguous in terms of his opinions, his beliefs, his integrity, and so forth. There was no doubt when you were talking to Mike where he stood on things.
TOBY HARNDEN: I always feel that Mike was, in a way, the personification of America after 9/11. He was very black and white in his outlook. Good and evil. With us or against us. And Mike had this burning desire to get to Afghanistan and get to the people who had perpetrated 9/11.
NARRATOR: Mike was a family man, recently remarried, and the father of a new baby boy. His son was only a few months old when he left for Afghanistan. Mike also had two young daughters from his previous marriage.
TOBY HARNDEN: So Mike was at a pivotal point in his personal life. He had a lot going on. He had every reason and every justification to put his hand up and say: “You know what? It's just too much at the moment. I need to take care of the home front.” But not only did Mike not do that, he did the opposite. He fought to get on the team. He had this burning desire to get out there, to be on ‘the tip of the spear’ as he described it, with the CIA in Afghanistan. And really, there was no question in his mind that he was going to be on one of those CIA teams.
NARRATOR: Mike’s wife, Shannon, was a CIA case officer herself. She understood as well as anyone Mike’s commitment to his career, to the Agency, and to his country.
TOBY HARNDEN: She knew exactly what he was, that he strongly identified as a marine. And, in fact, one of the reasons why he'd left the Marines was because he hadn't experienced enough action. And he thought that the CIA would be more at the forefront of, I guess, fighting for America and what it stood for. And so, I think it briefly went through her mind to say: “Well, maybe this isn't the best time.” But she knew Mike well enough to know that that was at the core of his being. Mike's view - and Shannon shared it - was that if you were in the CIA and you were a paramilitary, this is what you joined for. And the way Mike explained it to his daughter, Alison, was that: "What if every daddy decided they had to stay at home? Then there would be nobody to protect you and all of us." And so, Mike felt that fighting for his country was the same as fighting for his family. It was just an extension of it. And he was not the person to take a back seat on any of this.
NARRATOR: The eighth member of Team Alpha and the last to be added to the team, was, of course, David Tyson.
DAVID TYSON: On September 11th, I was in the air flying from Uzbekistan to London, where there was a CIA gathering on Stinger missile issues. When I landed in London, I learned very quickly that the World Trade Center had been attacked. And the other locations in the United States, the Pentagon and so forth, had been attacked. The conference was canceled and I returned to Uzbekistan.
TOBY HARNDEN: He had much, much more experience of Central Asia than anybody else on the team, with the possible exception of J.R. Seeger who'd spent time in the region. But David had lived for years in Central Asia. And his command of the Uzbek language was almost native. Now he had limited military experience. He'd had two stints in the US Army and he joked that in his first stint he played basketball in Germany. He was an artilleryman. He later got an ROTC commission as an intelligence officer, but he was no elite warrior and this was many, many years before. And so he had less of a military mindset than the other members of the team whose military experience was either a lot more recent or more high level or more extensive.
NARRATOR: Let’s put it this way: David had never killed anyone.
TOBY HARNDEN: Alex Hernandez, who was the deputy chief, was skeptical of David and like, “What have you done?” And after David told him that he'd been an academic Alex would refer to him as ‘The Professor’ or sometimes as ‘The Tourist’. And there was a sense, I think, that David - because he had limited military experience and no combat experience and because he was so comfortable with the Afghans - that he was willing to take more risks.
NARRATOR: But David was the CIA’s sole Uzbek linguist. And his background gave him a significant cultural advantage - he could communicate with America’s indigenous Allies with an ease that no one else on the team could match.
TOBY HARNDEN: They would talk about how American men stand up to urinate and Afghan men crouched down. He would talk about sex, food, wives, and every aspect of life - often with a lot of humor. And so that gave him this rapport with the Afghans that the rest of the team didn't have.
DAVID TYSON: My father worked in a paper mill, and so I grew up in that working-class culture and it is something I deeply respect and really appreciate. But I really knew it wasn't for me, at least as a young man, I understood that I needed to try something else, let's put it that way. I always had a natural curiosity about other people who looked and acted differently, especially those who spoke different languages. I don't know how I ended up where I did but it was certainly a progression based on my interest and curiosity.
NARRATOR: Team Alpha’s work in Afghanistan would put David face-to-face with a key figure in the resistance, someone willing to go to drastic lengths to stamp out the Taliban: the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. And for David, that was an enticing prospect. As a CIA officer in Uzbekistan, he’d long taken an interest in Dostum.
DAVID TYSON: Abdul Rashid Dostum was the leader of the Uzbek minority in Afghanistan, and he was very much against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And, at the time, we were trying to figure out what was going on in Afghanistan from a basic standpoint. And one of the things we were doing, we were trying to collect - or buy back - Stinger missiles that had been passed on to the Afghans during that Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. And it became clear to us, to the Agency, and to the US government, that it was a good idea to get these missiles back, the ones that remained. And that's what we were doing. And in that process, I learned a great deal about the Afghans. And one of the people who was involved was Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was assisting in the acquisition of these missiles and passing them on to the United States indirectly.
NARRATOR: A helpful guy to have around - if you don’t mind mingling with an alleged war criminal.
TOBY HARNDEN: Abdul Rashid Dostum was an ethnic Uzbek warlord, a fearsome military commander with political aspirations for the Uzbek people in northern Afghanistan. His hands were soaked in blood. He had this fearsome reputation as a warrior who gave no quarter on the battlefield. He has this scrubby mustache, and usually unshaven and prickly hair. He's powerfully built. He's like a warlord from central casting. He was notorious for switching sides, so he fought alongside the Soviets against the Mujahideen, who were backed by the CIA and the United States in the 1980s. He switched over to the Mujahideen and back again, and so he was viewed by the State Department and the US government more broadly as somebody not to be trusted, somebody with an atrocious human rights record, and somebody that really the US should have nothing to do with.
NARRATOR: Well, never say never.
TOBY HARNDEN: That was the view before 9/11. But of course, as with so many things, it changed completely on that day. And so after 9/11, Dostum was viewed as the person that America needed. He had the troops. He had horseback, horse-mounted fighters, a cavalry, kind of like a 19th-century, almost, way of fighting where they would conduct cavalry charges and fire RPGs and Kalashnikovs from horseback. He loathed the Taliban. He was already fighting against them. So we had the will and the capacity to take on the Taliban, which was the route for the United States to al-Qaeda. And so, all of a sudden, Dostum was one of the men of the moment and the United States wanted him to be alongside them.
NARRATOR: But as Toby said, Dostum was notorious for switching allegiances. Could a man like that truly be trusted? Even as Team Alpha entered the region, its members were uncertain about what was in store for them. It was October 17, 2001. The eight-man Team Alpha was about to meet its unlikely ally: the ferocious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.
TOBY HARNDEN: There was a lot of trepidation going in. Here's this guy who's a warlord who's notorious for switching sides. We don't know what the situation is going to be on the ground. Is this going to be a double-cross? Is he going to turn his weapons on us? And so there was this real sense as they flew in on the two Blackhawks on October 17, 2001, that they just didn't know what they were going to face.
TOBY HARNDEN: Once they landed, Dostum and his men swarmed around the helicopters and carried the CIA officers' gear. And Dostum turned to J.R. Seeger, the team Alpha chief, and said: “Welcome to Afghanistan. We must have some tea.”
NARRATOR: That’s the funny thing about Dostum: he might have butchered his opponents and tortured his adversaries, but he still managed to maintain a sense of decorum.
TOBY HARNDEN: They went into a decrepit abode that had been chosen for the purpose. Some carpets had been put down on the floor. There was debate about whether the CIA officers should wear shoes, and whether they should take weapons inside the building because there were a lot of suspicions. But they sat down and Dostum had Mohammad Mohaqiq, who was a Hazara warlord alongside him. It later turned out there was an Iranian member of the Quds Force who was in there. I mean, Dostum had had relationships with the Iranians, the Russians, and with the Turks - everybody in the region, at one time or another. But Dostum outlined his plan for recapturing Mazar-i Sharif, fighting through the Darya Su Valley, linking up with the Tajik forces of Atta Mohammad Noor, and defeating the Taliban with US help.
NARRATOR: Of course, the city the Americans most wanted to take was Kabul, the capital. But to get there, they’d have to take a strategic route. Mazar-i Sharif was the fourth-largest city in Afghanistan. If the city could be captured, Dostum believed, the Northern Alliance could gain control of the six provinces surrounding it. That would be the beginning of the end for the Taliban.
TOBY HARNDEN: It was a strategic city that had formerly been on important trade routes. It was on the main ring road that connected it to Kabul. And the strategic importance of the city was that once you controlled Mazar-i Sharif, that was the key to unlocking control of the rest of northern Afghanistan.
NARRATOR: Solid plan. But in order to carry it out, Dostum would need the help of Atta Muhammad Noor, his sometime rival. Atta’s forces would be crucial for the successful capture of Mazar-i Sharif. And Dostum also wanted to have American equipment and weaponry on his side.
TOBY HARNDEN: In particular, Dostum recognized that he needed US air power to bomb the Taliban forces and then have his Uzbek cavalry ride through and kill the remnants. But Dostum immediately struck the Americans as a man who was serious, whose interests aligned exactly with the United States' aims at that time. And so they decided that, yeah, this was a guy that they could work with.
NARRATOR: A powerful combination. Dostum’s cavalry was equipped with American firepower. Of course, Dostum’s men wouldn’t be the only ones on horseback. Much to Team Alpha’s surprise, the rocky terrain left the CIA officers with little choice but to saddle up. How to ride a horse was one thing they hadn’t learned in training. How to ride up and down steep, mountainous terrain while firing your weapon and fending for your life? Well, that’s a horse of a different color.
DAVID TYSON: We had a 14-hour horse ride, I think, on the fourth or fifth day, and it was just terrible. The horses were terrible. The kit was terrible. And to be honest, I was afraid and scared all the time on horseback, my horse. I could never get the horse to do what I wanted it to. The Afghans would laugh at us and we would entertain them with our incompetence on horseback. But riding horses up and down mountainsides and sometimes in combat situations was very unnerving.
TOBY HARNDEN: It was a real shock to their systems to realize that they'd have to be moving and sometimes fighting on horseback.
NARRATOR: Eight days into the mission, David got a taste of something even more unnerving.
DAVID TYSON: What we did periodically or throughout the deployment, basically, was split up into smaller teams in groups and - depending on the mission - we went off and worked with our Afghan partners, meeting Afghan leaders, talking to prisoners, getting supplies, doing the airdrops and so forth. And one of the things we did was move up with certain Afghan cavalry commanders on horseback and go out to see what was going on, to see the front lines, and, on occasion, to call in airstrikes against the enemy. And on one occasion, we noticed Taliban or al-Qaeda forces, and that was the time we engaged in combat with them - or my first combat with them - where I shot my weapon for the first time at someone, shooting at the enemy.
NARRATOR: David was accompanied by one of Dostum’s lieutenants and 30 men on horseback, and the lieutenant had spotted al-Qaeda forces in the distance, through binoculars. Rather than pick a fight, they opted to retreat - but not before the al-Qaeda fighters caught sight of them and began to advance. Suddenly, for the very first time, David found himself taking aim at the enemy, shooting, and killing. Just imagine for a moment what it’s like to be in David’s shoes. You did your time in the military, sure, but, by your own admission, you spent a lot of that time playing basketball. Then you returned home and made a life, for a time, in the world of academia. Your greatest weapon is your intellect. You speak five languages fluently and are conversant in three more - and you’re an asset in conflict zones because of your ability to connect with people. How does it feel to be here, on the battlefield? How does it feel to be the one taking a life?
DAVID TYSON: Interestingly, during my time in Afghanistan, I didn't think about that kind of thing very much. Each day we had a new set of priorities and things to do. And each day you were challenged in terms of not only intellectually trying to figure things out but also physically and then mentally dealing with concerns and fears and so forth. It didn't leave much of an impression on me at the time, but certainly, later on, it did. But it was a very easy thing to do. It was not hard - the things you were trained in the military to do - to get a good sight picture on the target and so forth, and squeezing the trigger was something that was very obvious and easy to do at the time. And then throughout the years I did grapple - or just reminisce, so to speak - about some of the things that I had done, which included shooting people, shooting the enemy, and killing the enemy. So that was something you think about over time. And every once in a while, it hits you, and you deal with it a little bit and then move on. And it's something that follows you around forever.
NARRATOR: Not a single one of the al-Qaeda fighters survived. After the battle was over, David went to get a closer look at the first person he had shot and killed. He wouldn’t process what had happened until later. But he did walk away with the young man’s gun. A week and a half into their mission, Dostum told Team Alpha that his forces had captured 40 Taliban prisoners. On the 26th of October, the CIA officers were to pay them a visit, to stop by the dank sandstone caves where they were held in custody, and have a little chat.
DAVID TYSON: I wouldn't call them interrogations. More or less sitting down with prisoners that were captured on the battlefield and trying to quickly understand and gather information from them.
NARRATOR: Naturally, David was one of the men selected for the job. And his colleague Mike - always eager to develop a new skill - was keen to join in.
DAVID TYSON: When we first received word that we had some prisoners, it was my task to meet with them, based on the fact that I spoke some of the languages they spoke. And when Mike found this out, he immediately came to me and asked to be part of this process. And I said, sure. I would be happy to have his help. But he went back and - instead of catching some sleep before the morning - Mike came to me when it was still dark and he had written in his tiny handwriting, just dozens and dozens of questions that we should ask the prisoners, and questions that he had for me. And we spent the next few hours before we got on the horses to go see the prisoners. He spent that time talking to me and trying to understand what I understood about what we were going to do and who we were going to see.
TOBY HARNDEN: The next morning, they rode off on horseback to see these prisoners. And they were being held in caves, man-made caves that had been dug out of the mountainside, that had been used over the years for prisoners of different types. And the door swung open, and Mike and David were confronted by the sight of these emaciated, stinking, dirty prisoners who were absolutely terrified. They flinched when the door opened. Not just because of the lights, but because David's conclusion was they clearly thought that they were going to be executed. They were just going to be dragged out and shot.
NARRATOR: The CIA wasn’t naive to the inhumane conditions in which Dostum held his captives. These men were regularly beaten, sometimes to the point of disfigurement. When Toby says the men were stinking, he means it - one round of questioning ended early because the stench of a prisoner’s wounds was too overpowering for the men to endure. As he spoke with the prisoners, David began to recognize them for what they were: primarily Turkmen farmers, largely illiterate. Men who’d been forced into fighting under the threat of the Taliban. He believed they could be released and sent back to work on their farms. They offered little in the way of useful intelligence.
TOBY HARNDEN: Mike was extremely dogged, extremely thorough. And he always wanted to get to the truth. He was very suspicious of the prisoners’ stories. And he said to David: “Well, how do you know this? How can you tell this is just a Turkmen and he's just a farmer? He could be lying.”
DAVID TYSON: He wanted and received a crash course on how to deal with these or who these prisoners were. And so, that made a strong impression on me. And it's something that only Mike did. The other fellows on the team had other things to do, but Mike made it his business to work with the prisoners as well. And that reaffirmed Mike's 'credo' of sorts. He wanted to be 'the pointy end of the spear', as we say, in that line of work. He wanted to be on the front line and he wanted to see up close and personal the people we were fighting against.
NARRATOR: Mike, eager to grow in the Agency, was hungry for insight that would improve his ability to serve.
DAVID TYSON: It not only impressed me but it made me like him even that much more.
NARRATOR: By Team Alpha’s fourth week in Afghanistan, there were signs that a tide was beginning to turn. Remember how each CIA team was assigned a different region of focus? For Alpha, that included Mazar-i Sharif.
TOBY HARNDEN: Mazar-i Sharif is a city in northern Afghanistan that had been back and forth between Taliban and Northern Alliance control. There was this sense that it was the first domino and that once that domino was toppled, the other dominoes in northern Afghanistan - and then in the rest of the country - would fall. And that's what happened.
DAVID TYSON: The liberation of Mazar-i Sharif, in the first two weeks of November 2001, was not something we were really planning for, in the sense that we had been in combat and we had some serious resistance to our movement, to Mazar in the days just before its liberation. And some of the more intense combat was the night before or the day before we moved into Mazar. And when that combat ceased, we continued to move into Mazar, not fully understanding or not having a clear picture of what awaited us in the city. We were told that the al-Qaeda and Taliban forces had left the city. But like everything in combat or in Afghanistan or in many other situations, you can't believe, necessarily, or you can't plan for that kind of thing. You have to go into these situations with your eyes wide open and be ready for what you've been doing the whole time prior to that - being under fire and so forth, and fighting your way through. So we did not plan or or or think that necessarily there would be some kind of big liberation of the city. But as we got closer to the city, people started to come out and started to wave at us and smile and ask us questions and so forth. And it was clear that there were no enemies left in these areas around the city.
TOBY HARNDEN: Mazar-i Sharif fell on November 10, 2001, and the CIA and the Green Berets rode in on trucks and horses alongside Dostum's men and Atta's men. The Taliban, a lot of them have been killed, but many more had fled. The city was majority Uzbek and Tajik and Hazara, so the people lining the streets were cheering and smiling. Some of them had shaved off their beards the day before. And for the Americans, several of them compared it to the liberation of Europe in 1945. Of just flowers and being just greeted like liberators and heroes.
NARRATOR: In Washington, President Bush and other White House officials were elated. In a speech at the United Nations, Bush claimed that the Taliban’s days were numbered. But for Team Alpha, on the ground in Afghanistan, that sense of victory was short-lived.
TOBY HARNDEN: The problem was that although the city had been abandoned by the Taliban, many of the Taliban had just melted away, gone to fight elsewhere, and fight another day. And there was a new situation in which Atta Mohaqiq and Dostum were fighting for - or wrestling for - control of the city. So it was a different phase. Rather than it just being the Americans and the Northern Alliance alongside each other with one aim, which was to recapture Mazar-i Sharif, things splintered somewhat.
DAVID TYSON: That day we did arrive in the Mazar, I got word that there was one group of so-called al-Qaeda - well, they called them Chechens - remained in a school complex and that they would not surrender.
NARRATOR: 'Chechens' being a term used to describe foreign fighters from all over the world. As it happened, these fighters weren’t from Chechnya or Eastern Europe but from Pakistan. And they weren’t all terrifying warriors. Some were just 12-year-old boys.
DAVID TYSON: And we had to basically destroy the school and fight, assault our way into the school complex to kill the rest of the enemy that remained. So even that day of liberation in Mazar ended with a fairly serious fight. We had to call in airstrikes and so forth. But I think that, now that you mentioned it, that symbolic or indicative of the whole process, you have certain feelings and emotions and they can be wiped out very quickly by a turn of events.
TOBY HARNDEN: Back in Washington, there was a sense that Mazar-i Sharif had fallen. That was it. There was nothing more to see there. But David Tyson and the other CIA officers could sense, actually, there was ambiguity about the city and the surrounding areas that not only continued but became more heightened in the two weeks or so after Mazar-i-Sharif had fallen. So some villages that had capitulated but were majority Pashtun villages, had been safe to go to initially but were suddenly not safe to go to. There are groups of prisoners being held and bartered around the area. And David had this sense that everything was not quite as it seemed and there was still a lot of danger.
NARRATOR: That danger was headquartered in the west of Mazar-i-Sharif, in a fortress perched high above the city called Qala-i-Jangi. Rough translation: House of War. On the 24th of November, David and Mike drove out to the fort to meet their Afghan allies and interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners. There was no electricity in Qala-i-Jangi and, in the darkness, the security risk was high.
DAVID TYSON: It was not clear what was going on, but it was clear that we had no business there on the evening of 24 November. There were two explosions. I think two suicide bombers blew themselves up.
NARRATOR: They retreated but, within 24 hours, the men would approach the fort again. The prize was too big to pass up.
DAVID TYSON: This was the first time since 9/11 that such a number of al-Qaeda forces were in our hands, so to speak, and that we would have access to them. Up to that point, we had very, very small numbers of al-Qaeda personnel providing us information. And I don't mean us just our team, but I'm talking about the US government writ large.
NARRATOR: And that’s where we’ll pick up next week.
DAVID TYSON: And I'll never forget, Mike was extremely eager to go, extremely eager to get out there.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby.
Toby Harnden (pictured) is a former foreign correspondent for London's Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph and former Royal Navy officer. He is also the author of First Casualty and a winner of the Orwell Prize for Books.
David Tyson is a retired CIA officer who served in Afghanistan after 9/11. He is also an expert in Central Asia who speaks Russian and the Uzbeck languages among his many other skills.