After the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, America quickly toppled the Taliban regime that had sheltered the terrorist organization in Afghanistan. But, believing the war to be all but over, the Pengtagon and U.S. Central Command refused to commit the forces required to achieve total victory in Afghanistan. Instead, they delegated responsibility for fighting the war's biggest battle-one that could have broken Al Qaeda and captured Osama bin Laden-to a hodge-podge of units thrown together at the last moment.
At dawn on March 2, 2002, America's first major battle of the 21st century began. Over 200 soldiers of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions flew into Afghanistan's Shahikot valley-and into the mouth of a buzz saw. They were about to pay a bloody price for strategic, higher-level miscalculations that underestimated the enemy's strength and willingness to fight.
Now, award-winning journalist Sean Naylor, an eyewitness to the battle, details the failures of military intelligence and planning, and vividly portrays the astonishing heroism of these young, untested U.S. soldiers. Denied the extra infantry, artillery, and attack helicopters with which they trained to go to war, these troops nevertheless proved their worth in brutal combat and-along with the exceptional daring of a small team of U.S. commandos-prevented an American military disaster.
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February 28, 2005
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Excerpt from Not a Good Day to Die by Sean Naylor
It was a raw, biting wind that swept down from the Hindu Kush in the first weeks of 2002, and the militiamen guarding the Ariana Hotel in downtown Kabul stamped their feet and blew on their hands to fight off the chill.
Behind them the hotel sat squat, yellow, and ugly. The Ariana was owned by the Afghan government, which in reality meant whichever guerrilla army happened to be in charge of Kabul at the time. It also meant the hotel had played several cameo roles in the decade of civil war that had wracked Afghanistan since the pro-Soviet government fell to the mujahideen in 1992. When the Taliban army of fundamentalist Muslim students routed the weak central government in 1996, their first order of business had been to drag Najibullah, the last pro-Soviet Afghan dictator, from the United Nations compound in which he and his brother had sheltered since their government fell in 1992. After torturing them, the Taliban death squad murdered the brothers and then hung their bodies from a makeshift scaffold in the traffic circle in front of the Ariana. Thereafter, the Taliban used the hotel as an R & R spot for troops rotating back from the front line in the war against the Northern Alliance forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud, and as a way station for Pakistani volunteers en route to the front. By way of payback, a Northern Alliance jet dropped a bomb on the hotel in 1997.
Now the tables had turned again. Al Qaida, the Islamist terrorist organization that had found a welcoming home in Afghanistan under the Taliban, had hijacked four planes in the United States and flown two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, killing thousands and stirring the world's only superpower to action. The Americans had come to Afghanistan, embraced the Northern Alliance, and driven the Taliban from power. And so it was that the guards lounging by the large concrete steps that led up to the Ariana's main entrance were tough-looking Northern Alliance fighters, hard men down from the Panjshir Valley whose fingers never wandered far from the triggers of their Kalashnikov assault rifles. Some of these men had been fighting--against the Soviets, Najibullah's regime, other mujahideen militias, and the Taliban--for more than twenty years, and it showed on their dark, worn faces and dirty, calloused hands.
But the balance of power had not shifted completely in the Northern Alliance's favor. Not yet. The big dog on the block was the United States, and so while the Panjshiri guards shivered outside in their motley camouflage uniforms provided by the Central Intelligence Agency, inside the Ariana's bullet-scarred walls the Americans held court. The CIA had rented the entire hotel, retained the staff, and set up its Kabul station there. It made sense for the spooks to use the Ariana. It was centrally located, just a couple of blocks from the Presidential Palace, and the safe house being used by the Special Forces, but it was protected from the busy street by a ten-foot wall. The only other defenses the Americans had added were a string of concertina wire atop the wall and a sandbagged guard post on the flat roof, manned twenty-four hours a day by a couple of Northern Alliance fighters.
Easy living it wasn't. The plumbing was atrocious, even by Afghan standards, and the hotel was in a general state of disrepair. But it was warm, and the dining room still offered simple but delicious dishes of beans and rice and other staples of Afghan cuisine.
On this frigid mid-January afternoon a handful of men were gathered in one of the hotel's upstairs rooms for a meeting. The CIA personnel conducted most of their meetings in this room during those first turbulent months after the fall of Kabul, but on this occasion only one agency officer was present--a thin, bearded man with long sandy hair called John, who was the deputy chief of station.