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How Green Berets Waged an Unconventional War Against the Taliban to Win in Afghanistan's Deadly Pech Valley
By Ronald Fry
With Tad Tuleja
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In 2003, the Special Forces soldiers entered an area later called “the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.” Here, where the line between civilians and armed zealots was indistinct, they illustrated the Afghan proverb: “I destroy my enemy by making him my friend.” Fry recounts how they were seen as welcome guests rather than invaders. Soon after their deployment ended, the Pech Valley reverted to turmoil. Their success was never replicated. Hammerhead Six finally reveals how cultural respect, hard work (and the occasional machine-gun burst) were more than a match for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Table of Contents
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Green Berets don't generally chronicle their adventures, as that goes against our "quiet professional" ethos. For more than a decade, despite urging by journalists, friends, and veterans, I refused to put the story of the Camp Blessing experiment to paper, as the events we lived through seemed too personal. Eventually, though, out of a responsibility to share the valuable lessons we learned with the next generation of unconventional warriors, and also in deference to that part of my soul that has never left an obscure village in the Pech Valley, I decided to write this memoir about what our time in Afghanistan had taught me.
Some of the chapters were written with ease, recounting memories of a modern-day warrior-king and commander in a foreign land. Several chapters were written painfully, reluctantly, and with trembling hands. For the reader who has never been to the Pech Valley, it may be hard to believe that such a place, with such people, really exists. The veteran reader who has had the privilege of placing his boots on that bloody soil will know that it can sometimes feel all too real.
In a country whose past has earned it the sobriquet "Graveyard of Empires," the Pech Valley, in Afghanistan's northeastern Kunar Province, stands out as a particularly brutal killing ground. Here, huddled in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountains, fiercely independent Pashtun tribesmen have for centuries resisted intrusion in their turbulent affairs. Twice in the nineteenth century they humbled British troops attempting to introduce them to the blessings of Empire. In the 1980s, as the freedom-loving mujahideen, they did the same to an invading Red Army. The Taliban itself was unable to conquer this region. The valley's tribes and clans, engaged endlessly in internecine fighting, unite only to expel foreign invaders. Once that is accomplished, they quickly return to their ancient internal struggles.
The American experience with the Pashtuns of the Pech has not been much different. In 2001, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in the campaign known as Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Even though it drove the Taliban government from power, it left the Pech Valley a sanctuary for Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other fighters who united to resist the American invaders and the new Afghan government. For the following decade it remained a hotbed of tribal animosities and insurgent brutality, as well as a death trap for U.S. troops. If you drew a circle on a map around the places in northeastern Afghanistan that have been particularly deadly for Americans—places like Wanat, Korengal, Ganjgal, and Kamdesh—the Pech River would run through the center of that circle. Ten of the twelve Congressional Medals of Honor that have been earned in Afghanistan were awarded for actions conducted on this violent terrain.
A rare exception to this pattern of bloodshed occurred as OEF was entering its third year. In the fall of 2003, a team of U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets) entered the Pech Valley, established the first "A" Camp to be set up since Vietnam, and undertook a struggle against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces for the hearts and minds of the people. These soldiers brought firepower into play when necessary. But as specialists in unconventional warfare (UW), they also repaired schools and clinics, cooperated with village councils in settling disputes, trained local security forces, and created an atmosphere of trust that made them more successful in bringing security to the valley than any outside force had been before. Before this team left the Pech in 2004, hundreds of locals who had fled to Pakistan during the previous decades of conflict were coming home, having heard that the valley was at peace—and that the Americans who had made this possible should be viewed as friends.
This was a dramatic break in a pattern that had lasted for centuries, and at the time this was duly noted by the press and military leaders. Time, U.S. News and World Report, and 60 Minutes II all profiled the Green Berets' success, and senior officers visited their camp hoping to take home replicable lessons from their achievement.
Sadly, once this team of Green Berets left the valley and were replaced, the lessons their unit had learned about cultural sensitivity and mutual respect were forgotten; a more conventional search-and-destroy strategy took over; and very shortly, things reverted to form.
By 2005, the same region that had welcomed the Special Forces troops as peacemakers was the site of the Lone Survivor disaster; two years after that, the Korengal Valley, which runs into the Pech, became known as the deadliest place in Afghanistan. Eventually, more than one hundred Americans lost their lives in the greater Pech Valley. In 2011, after years of effort, it was abandoned by U.S. forces to an uncertain future. As pundits draw lessons from all that went wrong in the Pech and Afghanistan, it may be helpful to remember what, briefly, went right.
The official name of the uniquely successful Special Forces unit was Operational Detachment Alpha 936 (ODA 936). Its code name was Hammerhead Six. It was my privilege to have been their field commander. This is our story, and the story of the Afghan people whom we did our best to serve.
In this account of our time in the Pech Valley, I have tried to be as honest as security concerns would allow, highlighting our mistakes as well as our successes, as mistakes were often the most instructive events. This is not a hero story but a human story of camaraderie, loyalty, sacrifice, risk, and hope. I hope that it will aid both the military student and the civilian interested in understanding the nuances of UW to appreciate the depth and difficulty of this type of warfare.
A U.S. Army field manual defines unconventional warfare as "operations conducted by, with, or through irregular forces in support of a resistance movement, an insurgency, or conventional military operations." In order to be successful at UW, Green Berets work shoulder to shoulder with local soldiers, mercenaries, militiamen, and other indigenous forces. We serve our own country's interests, but to do so effectively our focus, as suggested by our motto De Oppresso Liber ("To Free the Oppressed"), is to improve the lives of locals by freeing them from tyranny. We build tight bonds with our indigenous ("indig") allies—bonds that cannot be feigned or developed with an intent to manipulate. This makes UW an emotional as well as a military investment. In this book, I try to convey what that investment meant to one team operating in the gray zone of northeastern Afghanistan.
The book does not have a political agenda. I do not claim to be an expert in international affairs, U.S. foreign policy, or Afghan demographics. I confine myself to what I witnessed, over several months, in one troubled corner of the War on Terror. I do not describe every operation that ODA 936 conducted in the Pech Valley but rather some key events and topics that I feel best illustrate the story I want to tell.
Because of the sensitive nature of some of our operations, the manuscript was reviewed and edited where appropriate to protect operational security. Narrative details and conversations have been reconstructed from my own memories, those of my team members, and a journal that I kept while in-country. The names of local Afghans have been changed to protect our allies and friends who are still living there.
I dedicate this book to the many patriots—Americans, coalition allies, and Afghans—who have given their lives to end oppression in Afghanistan. We owe it to them to pursue knowledge and improvement so that we can focus on winning the unconventional wars that we fight. I hope this work will honor the sacrifices both of the fallen and of those who struggled against terror in that fabled land and came home carrying the ghosts of Afghanistan with them.
Kunar Province, November 2003
Along the ridge the column of men moved eastward. Walking single file, they dodged branches and skipped from boulder to boulder with the hardy grace of people at home in the mountains. From a distance, they might have been mistaken for carefree hikers, braving the half-light chill of the Afghan morning. Up close it was clear that their mission was not recreational.
The leader, tall and nimble, wore the black turban that signified his loyalty to the Taliban, the brutal fundamentalist government that a Western coalition had recently driven from power. A few others were similarly dressed, although most wore floppy pakols—the traditional woolen caps of Afghan males. All sported trim beards, and all but one carried firearms.
Someone with an eye for weapons would have seen in these arms the traces of Afghanistan's troubled history. Most of the band carried the Kalashnikov rifles—the jihadi-favored AK-47s—that the Soviets had used in vain against Afghanistan's celebrated "fighters for God," the mujahideen. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these rifles had been taken from slain Russian soldiers in the 1980s, and several of the young men walking along the ridge this morning had inherited their arms from their mujahideen fathers or uncles.
One of the band carried a British-made Lee-Enfield, a bolt-action relic that the CIA had provided the mujahideen for their fight against the Russians. On another's shoulder, resting as casually as a fishing pole, was the thick, deadly tube of a rocket launcher. Two men carried between them a DShK machine gun, while their comrades shared the burden of its ammunition, wearing belts of linked 12.7mm rounds across their chests like lost Mexican revolutionaries.
The one unarmed figure was a youngster—his faint beard betraying his youth—who was last in the line. The knife at his belt suggested that his elders would not outdo him in fierceness, but that was his only weapon. His right hand held a video camera. Every few minutes he would flick it on to film his comrades and then, panning to the right, the scrubby incline that led to the valley below.
Two or three hundred yards down the slope a dirt road ran alongside the Pech River, linking the village of Shamir Kowt, where the men's day had begun, to the American military base at Asadabad, seven miles away. It was on that road, the boy knew, that if Allah willed they would soon shed infidel blood. He was proud of his nation's fighting heritage and he was eager—they were all eager—to be counted among the faithful in this latest war against the West.
That war had been going on for two years, and for these guerrillas it had just taken an ominous turn. Ever since the Americans had driven the Taliban underground, the people of the Pech had resisted the new invaders and sided with the insurgency, just as a generation earlier they had resisted the Russians and sided with the mujahideen. The lifeblood of the insurgency was popular support. But now new players on the scene were disrupting that support.
They were Americans, these new players, but they did not behave like the typical "helmeted ones." They wore full beards, even as the Prophet had demanded, and their dress was like that of any Afghan villager. They were well-trained fighters, but it was not only their fighting skills that made them dangerous. It was that, in their daily patrols up and down the mountain valleys, they were spreading lies among the villagers and the shuras, claiming that they were friends of the Afghan people and only wished to help them build a "new Afghanistan."
Many of the valley's people believed these lies. From the Waygal district in the north to the Korengal in the west, people were welcoming and befriending the bearded infidels. Young villagers were even working with the American soldiers and turning against the insurgency. To the young men on that ridge this morning, this could not be allowed to stand. The bearded Americans must be driven out. A statement must be made: a statement in fire.
The band's leader had cause to be pleased with how the morning had gone so far. His guerrillas, combat ready before dawn, had started the day with prayer, then converged on the Shamir Kowt district house at first light. Peppering it with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and AK-47s, they had dragged the district governor and his staff out of bed, chastised them for befriending the bearded ones, and reminded them of the perils that awaited those who insulted the Prophet or his teachings. Taliban founder Mullah Omar would be pleased, the leader thought, at how fervently he had defended the faith.
But there was more on his agenda than berating weak believers. He knew that the Asadabad base would have learned of the attack within minutes after they had left Shamir Kowt. The Americans would even now be donning their battle armor and rushing recklessly to the aid of their lackeys. They would be driving their vehicles breakneck along the valley road, anticipating a firefight seven miles to the west.
Insh'Allah, they would never get there. Here, two miles east of Shamir Kowt, he would spring his trap, and his men would mete out the Prophet's justice.
Coming to a level patch of ground, the leader stopped. He looked down the rocky slope to the road and smiled. His view of the route the Americans would take began at a bend in the road to the east, toward Asadabad. It ended at a mud hut to the west, toward Shamir Kowt. Between the bend and the hut lay half a mile of open ground. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had already been placed in the road to immobilize the American vehicles directly in front of their fighting positions. When they arrived, not a tree, not a house, nothing would block his marksmen's view of the would-be rescuers. They would be like rabbits before the pitiless eye of a falcon.
This is the place, he said. Move quickly now.
At his command rifles were unslung, grenade launchers loaded, and the DShK settled in a cleft between two boulders. The ammo belts came off and hundreds of rounds of 12.7mm shells—shells that could pierce all but the heaviest armor—were laid out in readiness for the gunner and his assistant. As the men checked their weapons and loaded fresh magazines, the youngster with the videocam recorded their activity, as if framing instructional shots for a training film.
For a long time since the arrival of the Americans, this band had been hunted. Now, flush from the morning's success, they were feeling lighthearted, hopeful. For the first time in months, they were the hunters. And their quarry, this latest incarnation of unbeliever interference, was about to come into view.
With the trap set, the men waited. Five minutes, ten, fifteen. After twenty minutes, the Taliban leader had a flash of uncertainty: Had he miscalculated the driving time from the base? Or the eagerness of the Americans to demonstrate their prowess? No matter, he told himself. He remembered the saying.
You have the clocks. We have the time.
And then it was time. Dust rising just beyond the bend in the road told him that the rescue party was coming to his guns. He raised his arm, cocking the signal to fire.
Five seconds, six, seven. The front grille of a U.S. Army Humvee rounded the bend, then another, and a third. They were moving fast. In seconds they covered a third of the distance to the hut. They were rattling blindly to the heart of the baited kill zone.
Two dozen Kalashnikovs, a DshK, RPGs, one old Enfield, and a videocam pointed in deadly silence at the open stretch of road. A man with an RPG launcher adjusted his aim. The machine gunner tightened his trigger finger. No one looked at the leader.
They sensed rather than saw it when he dropped his arm.
Into the Gray
To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.
—Attributed to Confucius
In the half-light of the C-17 cargo plane's cavernous hold, I could make out the nodding figures of my recently assigned Special Forces A-Team. Dressed in fatigues but unencumbered by battle gear, they were trying to catch some Ambien-induced shut-eye while strapped into the cotton webbing harnesses that served paratroops as bunks. They were tough, well-disciplined soldiers, used to privation. After the tortures that Special Forces training and numerous overseas deployments had put them (and me) through, a twelve-hour plane ride was no big deal. I didn't expect complaints, and I didn't hear any.
We had taken off from North Carolina's Pope Air Force Base adjacent to Fort Bragg at 1700 and been in the air for six or seven hours. Where did that put us? Over the Azores, maybe. Or approaching the African coast. At that moment it didn't matter. Soon there would be ample opportunity—maybe ample need—for dead-on calculations of our position. For now I was willing to leave that up to the flight deck.
But if that particular item of uncertainty wasn't on my mind, others were. In warfare, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had famously observed the previous year, you had known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. He had gotten flak for that comment. Some thought he was dodging responsibility for sending us to war in Iraq based on flawed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Maybe. But whatever his motivation, the observation was accurate, and that September night I was giving it some thought.
When it came to known knowns, I could start with myself: Whatever this deployment brought us, I was up for the challenge. In a sense I had been preparing for it most of my life.
The son of a Vietnam vet and the grandson of a World War II vet, I had grown up in California in a patriotic family, with my older brother Rich named for President Richard Nixon and me named for Governor Ronald Reagan. Scouting taught me an appreciation both for Teddy Roosevelt's "strenuous life" and for our country's flag, and I earned the Eagle Scout badge at the age of fifteen. About that same time our family took an educational vacation to the East Coast, touring historical sites in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and DC. One of my most vivid memories of that trip was walking with my father along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, watching him pause and touch reverently the names of his friends, and then breaking down in sobs before the name of a buddy who was killed next to him in a Vietnam rice paddy. I felt at that moment not just pride but almost a kind of jealousy—a desire to experience that deep sense of connection, of military brotherhood, that meant so much to him.
At eighteen, I entered Brigham Young University on an ROTC scholarship and a year later, like many other Latter-Day Saints nineteen-year olds, took two years off to do missionary service—an experience that opened my eyes both to cultural differences and to our common humanity. At the end of my mission, I toured France and Switzerland with my parents and sister, and was lucky enough to find myself in Normandy during the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landings. Visiting Sainte-Mère-Église, a French town liberated by the 82nd Airborne Division; seeing the cliffs that Army Rangers scaled at Pointe du Hoc; touring the American cemetery and the Omaha Beach memorial—these were emotional experiences that reinforced my commitment to serve in uniform.
At BYU I became my ROTC class's battalion commander, and when I completed my business degree in 1996, I was commissioned into the Army as an infantry lieutenant. After nine months of intensive training, including Ranger School, I reported to the 82nd Airborne Division as a platoon leader and later as a company executive officer to a peace-keeping deployment in war-torn Kosovo. Kosovo was my first taste of the gray zone of war.
In 2001 I began Special Forces training. It was in a windowless room at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School—the place we call "the schoolhouse"—that I learned of the 9/11 attacks: We thought it was an instructor's trick to have us take the day's lesson about terrorist cells seriously—until we saw the Twin Towers burning on TV. That had been two years ago. I hadn't yet been tested as a combat commander. But there was a job to be done, and I knew I was ready.
My other known knowns were also easy to identify. I knew that, in the wake of the attacks, my country was at war with a formidable adversary—a jihadi network that had mounted a devastating attack on the American homeland. As I watched the towers fall from that Fort Bragg classroom, I knew that the world had changed forever. President George W. Bush soon committed the nation to a Global War on Terror. I knew that one theater of this new war was the ungoverned terrain of Afghanistan's northeast, which had become a haven for Al Qaeda operatives and where the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, was believed to be hiding.
I knew that, in boarding that C-17, I was leaving behind my wife, Becky, our two young sons, Tanner and Owen, our new daughter, Bailey (born just two days before my deployment), and the small, everyday joys of a husband and father. There was a sad irony in this. Shortly after my Kosovo tour, Becky and I had decided that I would transition from the regular Army to the National Guard, because we wanted to have more children and I wanted to be around for them. As I sat on the plane, realizing that the transfer had had exactly the opposite effect, I thought maybe it was my destiny to fight in this war, no matter what uniform I might be wearing.
Becky took the about-face with good grace. She felt cheated at first, as I left her in Washington State with three young children. But she understood and accepted the call of duty, including her own. In the English poet John Milton's words, "They also serve who only stand and wait." In some ways spouses like Becky, who sacrifice so much, deserve the title of "patriot" just as much as the loved ones they see off to war. I began missing her even before the C-17 was airborne. But I knew what I had to do, and so did she.
What else did I know?
I knew I was flying into a hot zone with seven good men who, like me, had survived a rigorous selection to become Green Berets. We were the nucleus of a Special Forces unit with the official title Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 936. The code name for our deployment was Hammerhead Six; as team leader, I was Hammerhead Six Alpha. Our assignment, in rough terms, was to enter wild Kunar Province, on the Pakistan border, and attempt to "eliminate, neutralize, and reduce" terrorist forces.
I knew that the legendary Pech Valley was in Kunar and was not under government control; much of it was in the hands of Taliban insurgents—the zealots who had ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, who had offered Al Qaeda safe haven after 9/11, who had been driven from power by U.S. forces, and who were fiercely committed to overthrowing Afghanistan's new American-backed government. Although on the plane that night I had not yet received our specific area of operation, something told me that the Pech Valley would be in our future.
As far as known knowns went, that was it. When it came to particulars, things got fuzzy. And the fuzziness began with the men themselves. As members of the 19th Special Forces Group, a National Guard unit out of Utah, they were more mature and varied in their skill sets than most regular Army troops. Like me, most were married with children. Most had been previously deployed on SF missions. Beyond that, though, how much did I really know about them? About their personalities, quirks, special skills, weaknesses? Not a lot.
With one exception, I had known these guys for only about six weeks. We had met in July at Utah's Camp Williams, where they had reported for combat training and where, for a year, they had been waiting for their newly appointed commander. The team leader slot had been open for a while, awaiting a candidate who, like the rest of the ODA, had passed the Army's Combat Diver course. Only the Army knew why our dive team had been assigned to arid Afghanistan. While the men waited, I had been finishing up at the Army's language school in Monterey, California, studying Mandarin. (My team was focused on the Asian theater but, like many others, was deployed to the Middle East after 9/11.) When I finally arrived I was met with good-natured expressions of amazement and jokes about being a real person, not just a figment of the Army's imagination.
At Camp Williams, we trained together for another month, focusing on marksmanship and room clearing in a Close Quarters Battle (CQB) training course. We had another few weeks at Bragg for briefings and additional mission prep. When we learned that we would be deploying to Afghanistan, every one of these guys had reacted professionally: they were serious, committed, and ready for the mission. Still, six weeks isn't much time. As I scanned their faces that night in the cargo hold, I realized that they formed part of my known unknowns.
The one guy I knew reasonably well was Jason Mackay, an engineer whom everyone called Junior and whom I had met in Key West, at the Combat Diver course. He was a funny, knowledgeable guy, easy to like. Jason did demolition work for construction companies, and he tended to assess all large, immovable objects as potential explodables. If you wanted something blown up, Junior was your man.
Our second engineer was Jimi Rymut. I knew he was twenty years my senior, that he had been fighting insurgents when I was in middle school, and that by reputation he was a walking encyclopedia of Special Forces lore. But in the C-17 that night I hadn't yet heard that lore, or any of his personal stories. I didn't yet know, for example, that in the 1980s, he had trained and been given the on-call order to carry a backpack nuke into Siberia, to destroy the Siberian Railroad tunnel should the Cold War turn hot. That night, what Jimi was capable of doing was still an unknown.
- "The story told by Captain Ron Fry is not one you hear often when people talk about the war in Afghanistan--and that is precisely why everyone should read it. Through him, his men get to tell their history, in their own words, and anyone who cares about the truth should care about this. Hammerhead Six took a lot from them because it goes against their ethos as "quiet professionals," but as you will discover when you read this, integrity can be one of the most powerful weapons of war-and nothing but that can prepare you for the unintended consequences or the moments you wish had never happened . . . "—Lara Logan, 60 Minutes
- "Amidst torrents of hot brass and the smell of burnt gunpowder in Ron Fry's Hammerhead Six are nuggets of wisdom that can only come from a warrior leader who has lived outside the wire, among those he fought and those he sought to help. Riveting, compelling, transparently honest and emotional, HammerheadSix is a must read for anyone wondering what could have worked in the 'graveyard of empires.'"—Tony Schwalm , author of The Guerrilla Factory
- "Hammerhead Six is a raw, hard-hitting and authentic war story that will become one of the most important books to emerge from the war in Afghanistan. Captain Fry tells a deeply human story that captures the remarkable courage of America's elite Special Forces soldiers. Reading it plunged me back into the exhilarating, heartbreaking experience of combat. Mr. President and Members of Congress, read this book immediately. If we do what Fry and his men did, we win the war in Afghanistan. Honestly it is that simple."—Sean Parnell, New York Times-bestselling author of Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan
- "Hammerhead Six is the compelling story about a small team of brave men who were sent into the most hostile area of Afghanistan. They did what Green Berets have always done: They stood up for human rights, made friends and trained people to protect themselves. Taliban activity dropped dramatically and the surrounding area thrived. The unconventional victory of Captain Ronald Fry's unit provides inspiration and a way forward into the troubled and uncertain future. It is a textbook on how to get it right the next time."—Lt. Col. Marcus Custer, USA (Ret.)
- "In the Special Forces tradition of combining exhilarating edge-of-your-seat suspense and challenging intellect, Hammerhead Six takes you down the treacherous road of what it is like to be a Green Beret in an ancient land, tasked to work by, with, and through the Afghan people to fight an elusive and brutal enemy."—Rusty Bradley, author of Lions of Kandahar
- "In this thrilling tale, the reader gets to learn about a more positive war battle that was fought by relying on understanding instead of ammunition."—Deseret News
- On Sale
- Jan 19, 2016
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Hachette Books