10 Years of War: Missiles and Horses
Members of U.S. Special Forces ride horseback into Afghanistan in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom. Horses were often the only way to travel over long distances in the remote parts of Northern Afghanistan. (DoD photos)
October 3rd, 2011
01:55 PM ET

10 Years of War: Missiles and Horses

This is the first of a five-part series examining key events in the ten-year history of America's war in Afghanistan

By CNN Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy

If you read the military's official history of the start of the war in Afghanistan, it says it all began on October 7, 2001, less than four weeks after the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks.

That day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced details of a massive air bombardment of Taliban strongholds: 50 cruise missiles fired, bombs dropped by B-52s, B-1s and B-2 stealth bombers. The goal, Rumsfeld said, was "to make clear to the Taliban leaders and their supporters that harboring terrorists is unacceptable and carries a price."

But the high-tech air campaign was preceded by a very low-tech start to America's involvement in Afghanistan: the so-called horse soldiers.

U.S. intelligence officers, and later U.S. special operations troops, rode on horseback into Afghanistan before the bombing to link up with the Taliban's worst enemies: the Northern Alliance, a loose-knit group of warlords who clashed with the Taliban ever since it took control of Afghanistan.

CNN photojournalist Mark Biello followed in their hoof steps in those early days of the so-called war on terror. "We came down through the mountains, we picked up the Northern Alliance from Uzbekistan, because they (the Americans) massed and came in through the north from Uzbekistan," Biello said recently. "No sleep, no power, the infrastructure is shot, you're on horseback, you're coming in with the troops. It's tough to charge batteries. It was tough to keep things going."

Biello said it wasn't long before he started seeing people dressed in traditional local garb who were clearly not Afghans. "When we first got on the ground there, we saw a lot of these guys, and they were actually American military, special ops, dressed like Afghanis; they had the headdress, the hats and everything, but they were white," Biello said. "Up close and personal, you knew they were Americans or Brits, especially the red-haired ones. But they had a lot of - the U.S. and British - had a lot of people on the ground before any of the operations began. And they were probably gathering intelligence, troop strength."

At the time, CNN was asked not to report about those undercover warriors. "They were kind of embarrassed that we came across them, they started talking to us: 'Don't take any shots of us, don't report this,' " Biello said.

Biello, whose nickname is Mad Dog, remembers when the official war began.

"I remember that first day on October 7th, looking way up in the sky and seeing all these vapor trails, so I locked down the camera and put on the doubler (zoom lens), and you could see the bombs, you could see the planes flying overhead."

On that first day, the bombs landed far away from Biello and his CNN colleagues. But later, he was much closer to the target.

"You could feel them, and it was very reminiscent of when I was in Baghdad during the first Gulf War, and you could hear it. It was basically rolling thunder, and you could feel the concussions of the B-52 bombs as they walked them in," Biello said. "It's just this massive air carpet bombing. There's nothing accurate about it. They just let go of their loads from that height and decimate anything underneath them."

So what's it like to be under a squadron of massive American bombers as they unload their deadly cargo? "I'm thinking 30% of taxes from my salary are going to weapons that are trying to kill me," Biello said.

Soon after the bombing began, Kabul was liberated. Biello, correspondent Harris Whitbeck and other CNN journalists headed to the capital. "We teamed up with Ben Wedeman and Mary Rogers out of Cairo, and then we met up (with) Christiane Amanpour and the rest of them all in Kabul. All the CNN teams met in a house that was initially the first CNN bureau in Kabul. And the house was the house of the Belgian ambassador to Afghanistan."

One of his early assignments was to check out the U.S. Embassy that had been abandoned when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan two decades before. "I walked around the compound trying to get in and everything is locked up, and I ran into one of the groundskeepers and I talked to him with one of our translators, and I talked him into letting us into the compound," Biello remembers. "So we got into the compound and then the Marines show up, and they come in with helicopters and a caravan and these guys are coming down, and I'm standing there in the courtyard in front of the U.S. Embassy shooting it, and these guys are locked and loaded and they are pointing their guns at me. And one of the Marines recognized me."

The Marine had met Biello during the 1993 U.S. mission in Mogadishu, Somalia.
"He said, 'Mad Dog, what the hell are you doing here?' and I said, 'What took you so long?' He said 'How the hell does CNN get to these places before we do?' That was his comment. It was kinda funny. They were a little pissed off."

Biello said covering the war in Afghanistan was more than another assignment. "I felt from a personal point of view and a professional point of view, I wanted to follow the story all the way through since 9/11 and what was happening in Afghanistan."

soundoff (37 Responses)
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  9. Loren

    More on this story.

    October 4, 2011 at 10:45 am | Reply
  10. ranger 830

    Talk all you like but fact is ,a few A-teams and CIA. ops,With the help of the northern alliance ran the Taliban out of there own country and into Pakistan.Where the majority of these chicken shits are still being hidden by the ISI.The Taliban ran like dogs tails between their legs.Should they ever grow a pair and stand and fight like men instead of Bacha Bazi boys!
    We would wipe them from the earth and they know it.Thats why there hole up across the boarder buggling little Paki boys.Soon there will be nowhere to run,then we shall see who prevails.See you soon in waziristan,where the death blow will be dealt swiftly.Pakistan cant protect you forever.Remember to keep looking up the drones are watching,always watching!!!!!! Must really suck to be run from your own country by a very small cadre of highly trained Americans! LMFAO RLTW BITCHES!!!

    October 4, 2011 at 8:33 am | Reply
    • ssg47

      My friend, Calm down and learn from history. That arrogance is exactly what got the Soviets stuck in Afghanistan for over a decade, or Brits for 8 decades. Off course they will not stand and fight as they don't have a proper army. They are bunch of groups fighting against occupying force. If history has taught us anything then it is that no occupying force can ever win my share brute force! These so called chicken shit Paki backed boys with no balls, which incidentally are no more then 50 k, have given the super power of the world with foot presence of over 150K a run around for over ten years. And it is at a point where the most advanced military of the world is down on its knees!

      October 4, 2011 at 9:43 am | Reply
      • William Tell

        We are not fighting a war but a police action. We have to kill selectively because the progressives and pacifists care more about the enemy combatant's children than our own. You must make war hell to win. You kill off the civilian population because that is where there soldiers are made. 10 years ago a five year old Afghan was wondering what was going on but now he is carrying an automatic rifle shooting at our kids. Those aforementioned and politicians are just as much the cause for the death of our kids as the enemy. You must make them fear for survival or make them extinct.

        October 4, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Popsi

      So how come all that vict'ry turned into such an effin' mess?

      For all the John Wayne BS, the skylarks should have realised the Talies know the old adage about 'running away and fighting another day, on your own terms' .... the Russians taught them that.

      But hang in sunshine, there is a light somewhere in the tunnel. And it's shining out the same bum its been shining all along.

      October 5, 2011 at 9:25 am | Reply
  11. muslim khan

    I Love the horses and landscape, not the trash sitting on them

    October 4, 2011 at 3:24 am | Reply
    • S.B.


      October 4, 2011 at 7:02 am | Reply
    • josh

      Those people are much more valuable to our society than you are.

      October 4, 2011 at 8:08 am | Reply
    • Jack

      You are most likely a Muslim residing in the US that is as two faced as they come just like many Pakistani's though you will not admit it for you do not have the b@lls.

      October 4, 2011 at 8:16 am | Reply
    • Jay

      They are garbage, yet all you do is take up space and breath air you fat f**k.

      October 7, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  12. Mark

    The US will always have unnecessary wars so arms dealers and the military generals can make big paychecks! Think about it – do you think the new general in the Afghan fiasco will say no war is needed if his big salary gets halved?
    Why we are shooting at bushes makes no sense. Who cares what government takes oiver – as soon as we leave a government that we don't like will always take over...Obama is fooled by the military too.

    October 3, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Reply
    • josh

      Are you serious. The military doesn't get paid based on how many wars they fight. Every year Congress passes the budget which already includes financing for the military and besides the pay is set by congress

      October 4, 2011 at 8:09 am | Reply
      • Popsi

        Wars do make the military more fun don't they? They raise the premiums for enlistment and reenlistment and there is some combat pay involved.

        Not to mention the economic opportunites of all the freelance work for Xe et al. A valhalla on earth you might say.

        October 5, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  13. Andy


    October 3, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  14. Heather

    I remember picking up the book and quickly looking it over. For some reason it had completely captured my attention so I purchased it and read the book in less than 3 days. Trust me when I say this is not my usual genre of book. I found it a completely fascinating look at how the special forces work up close and personal with the warlords who already hated the Taliban. I cringe when I think about Cheney's lack of foresight and his persistent inability to listen to advice. The work that had been done on the ground took both intelligence, dedication, and the ability to follow through. Too bad the politician's in power are too worried about staying in power to make the right decisions for our nation.

    October 3, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  15. Craig

    If you are interested in a well-written account of the early days of the Afgan war, read the book "Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan". Great read and really tells how they tried to make an impact at the start of the war and assisting the Northern Alliance. I love reading these types of books and this was well written and told a story I was only lightly aware of. http://www.amazon.com/Horse-Soldiers-Extraordinary-Victory-Afghanistan/dp/1416580514 .


    October 3, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Reply
    • mark o. david

      Victory? Please do your jokes on a humor site

      October 3, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
    • Cole

      This is a great book and an even better story about the resiliency and adaptability of the US Special Forces. I highly recommend the book aswell. By the way, Battles can have victors, while wars do not. These guys won their battle.

      October 3, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  16. Arman Yousafzai in Mingora, Swat , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

    You Yanks are stupid thinking you will win by invading and occupying as you are creating more enemies every day which will come back to haunt you 10, 20 years from now.






    So what do you think?

    October 3, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Reply
    • Biggerdawg

      Next stop; Pakistan. Get ready to see how "stupid thinking" we are when you wake up to a CIA Paramilitary Agent standing on your throat.

      October 3, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Reply
      • sheela

        you must have a very small peepee.

        October 6, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  17. amust

    the war may have been won , but the peace has been lost.

    October 3, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  18. The16thSeal

    Righton – like your mother in the back seat of my black cadillac truck?

    October 3, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  19. Righton

    First, first, first. You suck.

    October 3, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply

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