By Richard J. Newman
t was an abrupt introduction, but Air Force Tech Sgt. Calvin Markham quickly ingratiated himself with his new Northern Alliance hosts. Within 30 hours of meeting up with rebel troops, the combat controller from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, a specialist in calling in airstrikes, was in businessdirecting his first bombs onto Taliban forces operating across the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul. "There was an immediate rapport," says Markham. "We'd be sitting up on [an observation post], taking very direct fire, and our Northern Alliance counterparts would be serving us tea while we called in close air support."
To bewildered Taliban troops, American smart bombs seemed to strike with supernatural accuracy. But there was a decidedly human component to the precision weapons: U.S. special-operations forces who helped pilots at 15,000 feet find their targets.
At the time, press reports gave credit to Army Green Berets. But it was Air Force combat controllers like Markham who called in 80 to 85 percent of the airstrikes, according to Col. Robert Holmes, who was commander of the Air Force's 720th Special Tactics Group, which included Markham's unit. Markham figures that he helped destroy about 500 targets.
Except for their knowledge of combat jets and aerial weapons, Air Force combat controllers are more like soldiers than pilots. They wear fatigues, not flight suits, and they train alongside Green Berets.
When the U.S. warplanes began bombing Afghanistan on October 7, the strikes were against large fixed targets like airfields, relatively easy to spot from overhead. But commanders wanted to get targeting experts on the battlefield to better direct U.S. bombs and to report back bomb damage assessment (BDA).
So when an Army Special Forces Operational Detachment, Alphaan "A Team"clambered aboard helicopters in Uzbekistan October 19 to infiltrate into Afghanistan, Markham was includedbecoming the first combat controller inside Afghanistan.
As the Green Berets readied Northern Alliance troops for a ground offensive, Markham and a couple of teammates set to work designating more than 20 targets a day for the bombers. They scoped out airfields, gun positions, camouflaged tanks, and key buildings using laser range finders, mapping software, and GPS gear, along with old-fashioned maps and compasses when their batteries ran down, which happened frequently.
At night, Markham transmitted target data to war planners operating in Saudi Arabia. By day, Markham & Co. talked to the pilots overhead, providing target coordinates, recommending the best approaches and weapons to use, and reporting any new ground activity. Following Markham's lead, about a dozen other combat controllers were embedded with A Teams during the first six weeks of the war.
As the bombs rained down, the Taliban inadvertently helped in their own destruction. Taliban gunners figured out that observers on the high ground were calling in targets and opened fire on the observation posts. Bad idea. "Every time somebody fired a heavy gun, we'd be able to spot it," says Markham, 34, a veteran of missions in Bosnia and Africa. "They learned, 'If I'm going to shoot my weapon, I'm going to die.' "
After airstrikes, Taliban commanders filled the airwaves with chatter about what was destroyed and what wasn'tto Markham's delight. "We couldn't believe they would transmit on open radios. We got on-the-spot BDA and would correct based on that." Nor did the Taliban learn from their mistakes. Convoys moved at night with their headlights on and got wiped out. "An hour later," recalls the incredulous controller, "here would come another."
But the airstrikes did the job, breaking the Taliban's grip. And Markham rode on horseback alongside alliance fighters as they made their victorious entry into the key northern city of Konduz.