After nearly 3,000 Americans died on 9/11, the United States wanted blood. When a State Department official suggested to President George W. Bush that his first move might be diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, he scoffed.
“F–k diplomacy. We are going to war.”
But the Pentagon had no plan for US military action in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were based), so the job fell to the CIA. The agency was ready to fight in Afghanistan, and willing.
“I want Osama bin Laden’s head shipped back in a box,” mission director Cofer Black told CIA team leaders.
The previously classified story of Team Alpha, the first group of combatants to go behind enemy lines in Afghanistan, is highlighted in Toby Harnden’s book “First Casualty” (Little, Brown and Company), out now.
The CIA’s plan after 9/11 was quick and dirty. Small teams of operatives would infiltrate Afghanistan to link up with some of the 20,000 soldiers of the Northern Alliance, consisting of rival ethnic factions (mostly Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmens) who battled each other but were unified in their hatred of the Taliban. With the aid of American air support — and US dollars greasing the wheels — the Northern Alliance would help chase the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan.
When Black told Bush about his plan in the Situation Room, the president loved it.
“That’s what I’m talking about. Go get ’em!”
But success in Afghanistan wouldn’t be easy. The country had outlasted invaders from Alexander the Great to Great Britain to the Soviet Union.
Plus, Afghanistan had a long history of battlefield brutality. Prisoners were beheaded or thrown into “boiling fat,” Harnden writes. After Taliban forces in the 1990s defeated one rival on the battlefield (Soviet-backed President Mohammad Najibullah), they beat, castrated, and dragged him behind a jeep before shooting him dead. Then they hung his corpse from a traffic post.
Raping the enemy was also a “long-standing Afghan practice,” Harnden writes. One British intelligence officer told a CIA counterpart that “forcibly sodomizing an infidel invader was part of the ingrained Afghan code of revenge.”
Despite the dangers, the CIA was “inundated with volunteers” to join Team Alpha, Harnden writes. Mike Spann, a former US Marine new to the CIA, was one of them. A Southern boy from Winfield, Ala., Spann was a regular church attendee who dispensed advice to his congregation’s youth group, including “Don’t be a follower” and “Spread the Christian and conservative message through your actions and deeds.”
In September 2001, Spann was newly married to his second wife, Shannon, whom he had met during CIA training. Along with two grade-school daughters from a first marriage, Spann also had an infant son with Shannon named Jake.
But Spann had no doubts about taking the fight to al Qaeda.
“Someone has to go do the things no one else wants to do,” he told his 9-year-old daughter, Alison.
David Tyson also welcomed the chance to go to Afghanistan. He officially worked as a “second secretary in the Department of State” in Uzbekistan, but really he was a CIA spy. The former academic was added to Team Alpha for his ability to speak local languages.
Team Alpha quietly invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 17, 2001. As Harnden (who interviewed all six living members of the team) writes, Alpha “would be the first CIA team to land in Taliban territory.”
To start out, Team Alpha linked up with an Uzbek warlord in the Northern Alliance, Gen. Abdul Dostum. A squat, hairy man the Americans called “Bluto,” it was rumored he’d had a prisoner tied to a tank tread and driven around, spreading the man’s bloody remains everywhere.
But Dostum’s willingness to fight was clear.
“Now we will go and kill the Taliban,” he announced one morning, three days after Team Alpha’s arrival. “We leave in fifteen minutes.”
The CIA’s plan worked to perfection. Massive air strikes were called in to bomb Taliban positions, with Dostum’s soldiers on horseback swooping in to finish off the enemy.
Gen. Dostum was impressed with the Americans’ ability to bomb Taliban strongholds into oblivion, but he exalted when he heard the voice of a female US pilot communicating over Team Alpha’s radio. Immediately, Dostum got his own radio man to switch to a channel that let him call the local Taliban commander, Mahmoud, just across the valley.
Dostum mercilessly mocked Mahmoud, laughing about the pain he would soon suffer at the hands of a warrior the Taliban believed shouldn’t even be allowed a job.
“She is saying ‘I will f–k you up,’ ” Dostum taunted. “I am going to drop my bombs on your men. They are so weak and have such tiny d–ks that even a woman can kill them!”
By early November, less than 30 days since Team Alpha’s arrival in the country, the northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif had fallen. Kandahar would soon follow, and the Taliban was doomed.
On Nov. 25, Alpha stalwarts Spann and Tyson were at Qala-i-Jangi, a historic fort on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif. Nearly 400 foreign fighters were imprisoned there, most likely al Qaeda, guarded by inexperienced Northern Alliance soldiers. Among them was John Walker Lindh, “the American Taliban,” who left California at age 17 to learn Arabic in the Middle East and eventually moved to Afghanistan, where he trained as a Taliban volunteer.
At the time, anthrax attacks were terrorizing the United States and rumors of another 9/11, involving either a dirty bomb or a nuclear one, were starting to circulate. So Spann and Tyson wanted to gather whatever intelligence they could from the prisoners — despite the dangers.
Tyson reveled in the work, Harnden writes, “using all his languages and cultural expertise to begin to answer the riddle of who [the prisoners] were and what their connection might be to foreign plots.” He thought, “This is the smorgasbord — the al Qaeda buffet.”
Spann just wanted to gather intel, but as he interrogated prisoners the captives revolted, swarming him. He shot some in self-defense but was eventually overwhelmed, buried under the bodies of the prisoners who killed him with his own gun.
Tyson fought his way to freedom — killing somewhere between 12 and 40 men along the way — but Spann, 32, became the first American combatant to die in Afghanistan.
“Thousands had died on 9/11, and hundreds of Afghans had been killed in the weeks of fighting since then,” Harnden writes. “But this was the first casualty for America on a new, global battlefield.”
Mike Spann was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 10, 2001. His widow Shannon Spann gave the eulogy.
“Mike is a hero not for the way that he died,” she said, “but rather because of the way he lived. Mike was prepared to give his life in Afghanistan, because he already gave his life every day to us at home.”
Into his casket, Spann’s daughter Alison slipped a note, which read:
Thank you, Daddy, for making the world a better place. Everybody’s so proud of you — especially me.
No other member of Team Alpha was killed on that mission, and with the Taliban’s surrender the group disbanded and returned to their various posts. And yet, on the day of Spann’s death, the US government had already begun negotiations to implement what Harnden calls an “American solution” to Afghanistan’s problems, with a caretaker government and huge American military bases at Bagram and Kandahar. It was a plan that would keep the United States in the country for two more decades until its abrupt and botched pullout this summer.
Today, 20 years after Team Alpha’s triumph, David Tyson, 60, is a retired spy living in Virginia. He finds President Biden’s decision to abandon Afghanistan and the allies he fought alongside “shameful.”
He still visits Spann’s grave at least once a year and tries to “revel” in the beauty of the world, such as a small beetle on an oak leaf in the Virginia woods.
“He feels an emotional pull to such things,” Harnden writes, “because he has seen so much ugliness.”