By CNN Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy
Editor's note: This is the second of a five-part series on the tenth anniversary of U.S. combat in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has been a war zone for decades, and often, the events of one war overlap with those of another.
Such was the case in late November 2001 near the city of Mazar-e Sharif just south of Afghanistan's border with Uzbekistan. A fortress called Qala-i-Jangi on the outskirts of the city had been, at one time, headquarters of Gen. Rashid Dostum, a warlord who controlled much of the northern Afghanistan during the early 1990s. He honed his military skills fighting the Soviets on the side on the Afghans who would become the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
But the Taliban had pushed him out of Afghanistan and into exile in Turkey.
Now, with the U.S. military launching a war against the Taliban, he saw a chance to connect with a new, far more powerful ally. And CNN was there from the beginning.
"We were given the opportunity to hook up with Gen. Rashid Dostum and stay with him," said Phil Littleton, a videographer who has traveled the world covering conflicts.
While Littleton and crew were making their way to Uzbekistan to meet up with Dostum's people, the general had rounded up hundreds of Taliban fighters who surrendered, thinking they would be disarmed and sent home, which Littleton learned was Dostum's standard operating procedure.
But now, Dostum had a team of U.S. intelligence agents and special operations forces working with him, and they wanted to talk to the prisoners about al Qaeda.
So the prisoners "were moved quickly, without even being thoroughly searched," to join other prisoners at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress, according to a U.S. Army history of the war in Afghanistan. "The large number of enemy prisoners and their inexpert handling led to difficulties almost immediately. Most of the prisoners were concentrated in a portion of the ... fortress when U.S. intelligence officers started to interrogate them. During this process, some 600 of the 'detainees' disarmed the guards and took over the prison compound," the Army history reads.
"We go to Qala-i-Jangi, the fight was happening," Littleton said of his first day on the scene. "There were British, American, Aussie, all sorts of special forces running around. Mike Spann had just been killed that morning."
Johnny Micheal Spann was the CIA officer who was killed by the detainees at the beginning of the uprising.
He was the first American to die in combat in Operation Enduring Freedom. "I later found out that he'd been running around on his own," Littleton said. Spann was "interrogating them (Taliban prisoners) when they attacked him."
It's important to realize Qala-i-Jangi was always a fortress, not a prison. "Being an old fort, there were weapons all over the place, they just grabbed weapons. They got into a compound, and the firefight continued to happen."
The Taliban outnumbered Dostum's forces outside the fortress, but the special operations forces called in the kind of support an Afghan warlord could only hope for: the U.S. Air Force. "That evening, they called in an air strike which went on most of the evening. Fifteen-hundred pounders," Littleton said. "Kind of went on for a week."
Turns out it wasn't the Air Force's technological and high-explosive might that ended the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi. It was a couple of shovels and some cold water.
"One of the commanders had the mujahedeen dig an irrigation ditch to divert the water into the bunker. And it was kinda winter, there was snow around, and I remember him saying to me, 'they'll be out in the morning,' " Littleton recalls. "These guys had come walking out, freezing their asses. They surrendered, every one of them."
Not long after the surrender, Littleton got a scoop that to this day has never been matched.
Dostum's personal videographer tipped him off to the American Taliban. "He came running in, he had his little video camera there," Littleton said." I remember him showing me the picture going 'look, (expletive) American, (expletive) American' pointing to this guy sitting there. So we went down with the special forces guys to the hospital, and there was John Walker Lindh sitting there. He wasn't wounded; he was just very dirty, shell-shocked and bearded."
Littleton and his crew interviewed Lindh for about 15 minutes. "The first thing he asked us is if we had access to Internet. And then he asked some questions about Yemen."
A short time later, Lindh began a long journey through the U.S. judicial system. He's now serving 20 years at the Terre Haute Federal Corrections Institute in Indiana. "The last I saw, he was taken out on a stretcher by the special forces guys."
Not only did the battle of Qala-i-Jangi produce the first of what are now more the 1,400 American combat deaths, it was also the first time regular ground troops were sent to Afghanistan. Before this battle, the only American "boots on the ground" were special operations forces and CIA paramilitary fighters. But according to the U.S. Army history, "a small Quick Reaction Force (QRF) of infantry from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry, of the 10th Mountain Division operating out of Uzbekistan" was sent in. "The 1st Platoon helped secure the perimeter around the fortress to prevent enemy escapes and was available to provide any additional firepower that might be needed."
From that group of a hundred or so members of the 10th Mountain Division, the U.S. presence has grown to nearly 100,000 troops on the ground this year.
President Barack Obama wants most of them out of Afghanistan by 2014.