COLLAPSE OF THE TALIBAN IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN Few had anticipated the rapid collapse of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Master Sergeant John Bolduc, leader of Operational Detachment Alpha 585—one of several US Army Special Forces’ elite A-teams—had expected the worst. The day before the team infiltrated Afghanistan near the village of Dasht-e-Qaleh, he informed his men that they might not survive and advised them to fight to the death rather than surrender or be taken prisoner.1 Yet, in just over six weeks, Bolduc and approximately 100 additional special operations Soldiers assisted the Northern Alliance in both decisively defeating Taliban military forces and in liberating all six provinces of northern Afghanistan.
How did this happen? What factors contributed? This chapter will examine the unique set of circumstances that ultimately shaped events in the North, beginning with President Bush’s call-to-arms and General Tommy Franks’ plan to employ multiple lines of operations. The discussion will then describe the mobilization of US forces; the opening days of the OEF bombing campaign; the infiltration of CIA and SOF teams; the overwhelming dominance of US air power; the battles for Mazar-e Sharif, Taloqan, and Konduz; and the insurrection at Qala-i Jangi prison. Additionally, concurrent logistics, civil/military, and humanitarian relief operations will be discussed in detail. Finally, the implications of such a surprising victory over the Taliban in northern Afghanistan will be reviewed and analyzed.
On 12 September 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered the development of realistic military options in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As chapter 3 has already established, nine days later, General Tommy R. Franks, then Commander in Chief, US Central Command (CENTCOM) submitted a plan to President Bush calling for the destruction of al-Qaeda and the illegitimate Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Subsequently, Secretary Rumsfeld approved a mission analysis/military course of action and presented the plan to the President, who then directed that combat operations commence on 7 October.
General Franks proposed the simultaneous application of multiple lines of operation that included obtaining basing, staging, and over-flight rights; setting the conditions for executing and supporting sustained combat; directly attacking al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership; destroying the Taliban military and denying them safe-haven; directing operational fires using SOF; maintaining the capability of using conventional forces if necessary; and keeping the Afghan people informed. Adhering to these lines of operation allowed a small contingent of US combat forces to seize the initiative and defeat the Taliban, while avoiding the appearance of an outright invasion.2 On 22 December, just 78 days after combat operations began, General Franks and his wife, Cathy, attended inauguration ceremonies for President Hamid Karzai and the new Afghan interim government in Kabul.
Composition of the Taliban – Summer 2001
The term Taliban is typically used in reference to all enemy forces operating in Afghanistan. By the summer of 2001, three principal Taliban sub-groups, with approximately 45,000 total combatants, had emerged: indigenous Afghan Taliban, non-Afghan Taliban, and al-Qaeda (those forces trained by and associated with Osama bin Laden). 3 The non-Afghan component was comprised predominantly of Arabs, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Chechens, and Central Asians.
Having formed in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, the Taliban, led since the mid-1990s by ethnic Pashtun Mullah Mohammed Omar, was a militant group intent on establishing an Islamist government in Afghanistan and on driving foreign influence from the country. Affiliation with al-Qaeda in 1996 signaled the Taliban’s expanded intentions of spreading global Islamist extremism beyond Afghanistan.4 By 2001, the Taliban controlled an estimated 80 percent of Afghanistan.5
Funding for Taliban activities in Afghanistan came primarily from Pakistan; however, sympathetic worldwide Muslim organizations also contributed. Logistics support for Taliban operations originated almost entirely in Pakistan as well. Taliban forces were generally armed with Kalashnikov (AK-47) assault rifles, 7.62mm PK general-purpose machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and missiles, rocket and grenade launchers, mortars, makeshift armed vehicles (pickup truck cavalry), and a limited number of Soviet-era tanks and artillery pieces.6 Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, summarized the overall condition of Taliban fighting forces prior to the US intervention by describing them as inexperienced with low morale, poorly trained and unmotivated, lacking Afghan support, susceptible to high levels of defections, vulnerable to surprise attacks, and overly dependent on fragile outside sources of support.7
Insight into the Northern Alliance
The anti-Taliban Northern United Front espoused a less severe form of Islam than did the Taliban, and was led during the summer of 2001 by ousted President Borhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander, Ahmad Shah Masoud. Since its forces eventually gained control of several Northern Afghan provinces, the UF has been referred to as the Northern Alliance (NA) from 2001 onward.8
In 1992, mujahideen fighters loyal to Rabbani seized control of Kabul from the regime that had been previously supported by the Soviets. These forces coalesced into the organization that officially became the Northern United Front/Northern Alliance. The NA was unable to unite the country, and subsequently lost control to the Taliban in 1996.9 As of 2001, the Alliance controlled only the Panjshir Valley, the Shomali plain north of Kabul, and several small enclaves in the mountains of northern Afghanistan.10
Tragically, General Masoud was killed on 9 September 2001 in Takhar province by two al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists. Shortly after his death, dire predictions arose regarding the possible disintegration of the Northern Alliance. Masoud, known as the “Lion of Panjshir,” had distinguished himself resisting the Soviet invasion, and was appointed Afghan Defense Minister after the 1992 recapture of Kabul. He was considered an exceptional military strategist and successfully built key, enduring coalitions among disparate anti-Taliban guerilla groups that effectively strengthened the Northern Alliance.11
After General Masoud’s death, four primary components emerged within the Alliance. The largest contingent was made up of ethnic Tajik forces, commanded by General Mohammed Fahim Khan. Fahim, former head of intelligence for the NA, was promoted to senior military commander immediately following General Masoud’s demise. In Ghor and Herat provinces, General Mohammed Ismael Khan took charge of additional ethnic Tajik NA forces. Known as the “Lion of Herat,” Ismael had been a mujahideen commander during the Soviet invasion and was previously governor of Herat province. Ustad Atta Mohammed was another NA Tajik general allied with Fahim in northern Afghanistan. Ethnic Uzbeks, under General Abdul Rashid Dostum, formed a third element of the Alliance. In the 1980s, General Dostum’s militia controlled six provinces in northern Afghanistan. His stronghold had been the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which he captured from the Taliban, only to lose it in 1999. The final faction of the NA was the Hizb-i-Wahdat (Unity Party), comprised of ethnic Hazara Shi’a fighters and led by Karim Khalili. This group had been driven out of central Afghanistan in 1998 by the Taliban, yet managed to retain several locations throughout the region.12
During the summer of 2001 prior to the US intervention in Afghanistan, the NA was short on manpower, inadequately trained, and poorly equipped. It was capable only of maintaining stalemate conditions with the Taliban. Although troop strength estimates varied at the time, it was likely that the NA could muster only about 18,000 combat forces to support upcoming US operations.13 Northern Alliance armaments included AK-47 rifles; PK machine guns; ZGU-1 heavy machine guns; single and multi-barrel rocket launchers; and a limited number of artillery pieces, tanks, and other armored vehicles. Also, the NA retrofitted light trucks and BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles with 32-shot 57mm rocket pods recovered from Russian Mi-24 and Mi-25 combat helicopters. In addition, the Alliance was thought to have had at the time eight Mi-17 and six Mi-8 helicopters, along with four Soviet-built helicopter gunships. Logistics support for the Northern Alliance was difficult at best. Supply routes to Tajikistan were long, arduous, and susceptible to Taliban interdiction. Food and other perishable supplies were often purchased on the local market.14
The Beginning of OEF: The US Central Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan
In a televised address on 20 September 2001 to a joint session of Congress and the American people, President Bush described the 9/11terrorist attacks as “an act of war against our country.” 15 To thunderous applause, he went on to say that the US response “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated,” and that such a response might include dramatic strikes and “covert operations, secret even in success.”16 Bush then issued a presidential finding authorizing the CIA to kill or capture terrorist leaders including Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members.17
The CIA already had extensive experience in Afghanistan, having provided covert support to the mujahideen rebels during the Soviet occupation. Since 1999, CIA paramilitary units had been operating secretly in Afghanistan and had established important contacts with Northern Alliance leaders prior to 9/11. The agency also had two Afghan war plans prepared, one titled “Going to War” and the other “Worldwide Attack Matrix.” On 13 September, Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet and J. Cofer Black, Director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center (CTC), briefed these plans to President Bush. Two days later, Tenet and Black made the same presentation at a Camp David war cabinet meeting attended by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld; Assistant Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Army General Hugh Shelton; and JCS Chairman Select, Air Force General Richard Myers. After this meeting, the president authorized the CIA to proceed with their plans and gave the agency all the necessary resources, approvals, and legal authority to do so. The CIA would be the first “boots on the ground” and would lead the way for the military.18
Less than a week after the President’s congressional address, a team of ten CIA officers (code named JAWBREAKER and commanded by the CTC) left Dushanbe, Tajikistan in a Russian-built Mi-17 helicopter, entered Afghan airspace, crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains through the 14,500 foot-high Anjuman Pass, and landed deep in the Panjshir Valley near the village of Barak. JAWBREAKER was the first US unit of any kind to enter Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. They brought three million dollars in cash with them, and would eventually receive $10 million more, all to be used in garnering support from the Northern Alliance. Their mission was to link up with the Northern Alliance and convince them to assist the CIA and the US military in hunting down bin Laden and al-Qaeda. They were also tasked with assessing the military readiness of the NA, recommending methods for improving NA capabilities, developing preliminary intelligence data, preparing initial target designation information, and laying the groundwork for the arrival of US SOF. Typically, a Northern Afghanistan Liaison Team from the CIA Special Activities Division would have been assigned a mission such as this; however, Director Tenet selected Cofer Black to assemble the new team and to direct agency activities in Afghanistan.19
US Forces on the Move
On 14 September 2001, Congress authorized the use of military force against the terrorist groups responsible for the 9/11 attacks.20 Also, President Bush authorized the activation of 35,500 military reservists (approximately 10,000 of these were Army Soldiers).21 In addition, the following US active duty military units were ordered to deploy over the next few weeks:22
552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma
22nd Air Refueling Wing, McConnell AFB, Kansas
2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale, Louisiana (B-52)
5th Bomb Wing, Minot AFB, North Dakota (B-52)
28th Bomb Wing, Ellsworth, South Dakota (B-1)
1st Fighter Wing, Langley AFB, Virginia (F-15)
20th Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, South Carolina (F-16)
27th Fighter Wing, Cannon AFB, New Mexico ((F-16)
388th Fighter Wing, Hill AFB, Utah (F-16)
15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Camp Pendleton, California
24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Camp LeJeune, North Carolina
26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Camp LeJeune, North Carolina
10th Mountain Division, US Army, Fort Drum, New York
355th Wing, Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona (A-10)
366th Fighter Wing, Mountain Home, Idaho (F-15, F-16)
US Army Special Operations Units, Fort Campbell, Kentucky
USS Bataan Amphibious Assault Group, Norfolk, Virginia
USS Carl Vinson Carrier Battle Group, Bremerton, Washington (F-14, F-18)
USS Enterprise Carrier Battle Group, Norfolk, Virginia (F-14, F-18)
USS Kearsage Amphibious Assault Group, Norfolk, Virginia
USS Kitty Hawk Carrier Battle Group, Yokosuka, Japan (F-18)
USS Peleliu Amphibious Assault Group, San Diego
USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Battle Group, Norfolk, Virginia (F-14, F-18)
The USS Enterprise and USS Carl Vinson Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups were already on station in the Arabian Sea. Attached to the Enterprise Group were two submarines, two cruisers, and five destroyers with a combined capacity to launch approximately 500 conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Carl Vinson was accompanied by two submarines, two cruisers, two destroyers (400 Tomahawk missiles), an amphibious assault ship and a dock landing ship, along with the USS Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). On the Peleliu was the special operations capable 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), plus AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft, and AH-1W (Super Cobra), CH-46, CH-53, and UH-1N helicopters. On 19 September, the USS Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group (configured similarly to the Vinson Group) and the USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group with the 26th MEU on board left Norfolk for the Arabian Sea. Finally, on 30 September, the USS Kitty Hawk Battle Group departed Yokosuka, Japan for OEF duty. Onboard, however, in addition to F-14 and F-18 Navy aircraft, were Army MH-60 Blackhawk and MH-47 Chinook helicopters and USAF MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, along with nearly 1,000 special operations personnel from the US Army Special Operations Command, the Naval Special Warfare Command, the Air Force Special Operations Command, and the Joint Special Operations Command.23
By the end of September, USAF long-range precision strike aircraft were ready for combat missions and many had been repositioned to forward operating bases such as Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean. These aircraft included the B-2A Spirit stealth bomber based at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. With several in-flight refuelings, the B-2A was capable of flying round trip, non-stop, from Whiteman to Afghanistan and back, and could deliver thousand-pound GBU-31 and GBU-32 joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs), as well as GBU-36 and GBU-37 (deep penetrating) precision guided bombs on each mission. B-1B Lancer supersonic bombers, based at Diego Garcia and in Oman, were also capable of carrying JDAM precision guided munitions, plus CBU 87/89/97 cluster bombs and Mk 82 500-pound iron bombs. Numerous B-52 Stratofortresses, also forward-deployed to Diego Garcia, had been modified to carry AGM-86C air-launched cruise missiles (CALCM), along with JDAMs and cluster bombs. Also, a large number of additional USAF aircraft (e.g. F-15s, F-16s, and KC-135 air-to-air refueling tankers) had been flown to the Middle East, Turkey, and Pakistan in preparation for OEF.24
In late September 2001, the United States secured basing rights from the Republic of Uzbekistan to use the former Soviet airbase at Karshi Kandabad (K2) about 100 miles north of the Afghan border. By early October, nearly 2,000 US military personnel were operating at K2. Among them were lead elements of Joint Special Operation Task Force-North (JSOTF-N / TF Dagger); members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR / “Night Stalkers”); Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) personnel, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division Soldiers to serve as a quick reaction force and provide base security; along with numerous support forces (logistics, signal, civil affairs, PSYOPs, etc.). The 5th Special Forces Group (SFG) from Fort Campbell, Kentucky formed the core of JSOTF-N. This group had previously been assigned to the CENTCOM area of responsibility, and its Soldiers were language qualified, culturally trained, and regionally oriented for the OEF mission.25 On 19-20 October, ODA 555 and ODA 595 from the 5th SFG would become the first US military units to infiltrate Afghanistan.
The 160th SOAR provides aviation support for special operations forces. The Regimental mission statement asserts that the 160th will “organize, equip, train, resource, and employ Army special operations aviation forces worldwide in support of contingency missions and the warfighting commanders.”26 Night Stalker missions are flown under the cover of darkness whenever possible; the pilots are equipped with aviator night vision goggles and forward-looking infrared devices. Nearly 2,000 officers, men, and women serve in the 160th, which is comprised of a Headquarters and Headquarters Company, three Aviation Battalions, and a Special Operations Training Company. The 1st Battalion has a Light Assault Company (MH-6 helicopters), a Light Attack Company (AH-6s), and two Assault Companies (MH-60K Blackhawks and MH-60L integrated direct action penetrator helicopters). Second Battalion, with three Heavy Assault Companies, flies MH-47E Chinooks, while 3rd Battalion has two Assault Companies (MH-60Ls) and one Heavy Assault Company (MH-47Ds).27
The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is the USAF component of the USSOC. AFSOC forces “conduct infiltration, exfiltration, resupply, refueling, and precision firepower missions” in support of SOF operations worldwide.28 Airborne broadcasting; advising foreign governments; and providing combat controllers, weathermen, and para-rescuemen are among AFSOC’s unique capabilities. Additional mission-oriented tasks include shaping the battlefield, information operations, precision engagement, SOF mobility, combat support, and aerospace interface. The most formidable aircraft in the AFSOC arsenal is the AC-130 Gunship. These aircraft are armed with side-firing weapons systems coupled with highly sophisticated sensors and can provide either “surgical firepower” or “area saturation” in support of SOF ground forces. The AC-130H (call sign Spectre) and the AC-130U (call sign Spooky) are armed with L60 40mm Bofors cannons and M102 105mm Howitzer cannons. “U” models also now have 25mm GAU-12 Gatling guns. Other AFSOC aircraft include the EC-130J Commando Solo (airborne broadcasting), HC-130P/N (search and rescue), MC-130E/H Combat Talon (infiltration, exfiltration, resupply, psyops, helicopter air refueling), MC-130P Combat Shadow (clandestine, low visibility, helicopter air refueling), MH-53J/M Pave Low helicopters (low-level, long-range penetration), U-28A (utility aircraft support), and the MQ-1 Predator (armed, remote-piloted aircraft). There are nearly 13,000 active-duty, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and civilian personnel in the Air Force Special Operations Command.29
Additional strategic airborne assets, including the RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle (Brave Axe), U-2 (Dragon Lady) High Altitude Reconnaissance aircraft, E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft, EC-130 Compass Call, E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS), and RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft were also deployed to the war zone. Also, two supplementary task forces were established. Task Force Sword, comprised of Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D/Delta Force), would concentrate on capturing/killing Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, while Task Force Bowie would gather human intelligence data in support of the OEF mission.30 Finally, international participation in OEF was limited initially to Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and Turkey. Britain, for example, deployed units from the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), an Air Mobile Brigade, a Parachute Regiment, and the Royal Marines.31 British aircraft including Nimrods (air-sea rescue), Canberras (reconnaissance), E3-D Sentries (airborne early warning), VC-10s tankers, and Tristar transports; three Tomahawk cruise missile-equipped nuclear powered submarines were also dispatched to the theater.32 Eventually, 27 coalition countries would send more than 14,000 troops to Afghanistan in support of the United States and OEF.33