During the first month of Operation Enduring Freedom, Navy and Marine Corps forces collaborated to initiate a second front in southern Afghanistan. The immediate need was to position forces to destabilize the enemy’s command and control apparatus, and then defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda before they had an opportunity to regroup in Kandahar or escape into neighboring regions of Pakistan. At Vice Admiral Charles W. Moore’s behest, Brigadier General James N. Mattis took charge of all maritime forces in Central Command’s theater of operations on 1 November 2001 and established Naval Expeditionary Task Force 58. The bulk of his forces was comprised of the USS Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group, already on station off the Pakistani coast, and the USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, then operating in the Mediterranean Sea.
While the initial assignment had called for a series of amphibious raids along the border, the mission soon shifted to seizing a desert airfield in southwestern Afghanistan and establishing a forward operating base. Navy SEALs from Captain Robert S. Harwood’s Task Force K-Bar (JSOTF-South) were the first ashore, inserting on 21 November to provide surveillance over Objective Rhino. The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s assault force landed on the evening of 25 November, following a 400-mile flight from the coast, to become the first conventional force deployed into Afghanistan.
Although the rapid build-up of combat power quickly eliminated any real threat from the enemy, the requirement for sustaining a brigade-sized unit ashore strained the Marines’ logistic capabilities. Fortunately, the two Navy amphibious squadrons were able to conduct replenishment operations at sea, enabling the two Marine expeditionary units to push supplies inland through the port facility in Pasni, Pakistan. At the same time, Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133 arrived to maintain the dirt airstrip at Rhino, enabling the Marines to receive a near-continuous flow of sustainment flights from airbases throughout the theater. In anticipation of combat operations, two Navy forward surgical teams also deployed to support the Marines ashore.
Task Force 58 maintained its swift-paced operational tempo for three months, conducting a wide variety of missions in support of the war effort. The Sailors and Marines blocked western escape routs along Highway 1, provided security for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and a special operations facility in Khowst, occupied Kandahar International Airport and established a short-term holding facility for detaining enemy prisoners, and conducted numerous sensitive site exploitation missions. In the latter case, the Marines often supported Task Force K-Bar, providing the SEALs with air transportation and security forces.
In addition to demonstrating America’s willingness to confront those who sponsor terrorism and signaling an end to Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the strategic agility and operational reach showcased by the Navy amphibious squadrons and Marine expeditionary units validated the utility of task organized expeditionary forces and the effectiveness of long-range ship-to-objective maneuver. With the subsequent appearance of expeditionary strike groups in 2003, the naval services are now better able to address emerging crises around the globe, regardless of whether they occur in littoral or land-locked regions of the world.