From Sam Cox, Director of Naval History
“There will emerge from Khorasan black banners which nothing will repel until they are set up in Jerusalem.” – a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Khorasan is an archaic term for what is now most of Afghanistan, northeastern Iran and part of Central Asia. Khorasan is important in Islamic eschatology (“end times” theology) as well as in contemporary Islamist extremist ideology, now taken to an extreme by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and ISIS-K, but was also an important component of Usama bin Ladin and al Qaida’s worldview. Within the Islamic Hadith (the sayings and visions of the Prophet Muhammad, and those attributed to him) are a number of passages interpreted by some Muslims to mean that from Khorasan will emanate the final Jihad (under the black banners) that will bring about the ultimate victory of Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Peace) over Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War,) i.e., the triumph of Islam over the infidel world.
Bin Ladin sought to overthrow the Muslim regimes of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia that had strayed from his extreme fundamentalist interpretation of the true path of Islam (an interpretation not held by the vast majority of Muslims.) Bin Ladin believed these decadent and impious regimes would fall were it not for the support provided by the United States. His strategy was thus to first bankrupt and exhaust the “far enemy” (i.e., the United States) and then the “near enemy” (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, etc.) would fall.
Bin Ladin’s intent in the attacks on 11 September 2001 (9/11) was to so provoke and enrage the United States that the U.S. military would come storming into “Khorasan” (Afghanistan) like a mad bull elephant with large numbers of ground troops. The U.S. would then get trapped in a quagmire (as the Soviets had in the 1980’s) and be bankrupted and exhausted by the superior will-to-fight and theological purity of al Qaida and allied groups. In addition, bin Ladin anticipated that massive collateral damage resulting from a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, especially high civilian casualties, would galvanize the people of the Islamic world to turn against the U.S. and the “corrupt” Middle Eastern regimes. This would then spark the final Jihad, emanating from Khorasan under the black banner of al Qaida, thus fulfilling the end-times prophesies. It didn’t work out the way bin Ladin intended because the U.S. refused to fight as he expected.
(Al Qaida, ISIS, ISIS-K (Khorasan) and similar groups fly the black flag, which was flown by the army of Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (i.e., the Taliban,) believing themselves to be the most pure in hewing to the original tenets of Islam, flies the white flag of the leader of Muhammad’s army. The heavily stylized Arabic script on these flags is the Profession of Faith (the “Shahada,”) which states, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger,” with some variations in translation. “Allah” is Arabic for God, and is the same God of Abraham as in Christian and Jewish faith.)
U.S. Terrorism “Czar” Richard Clarke sent a memo on 4 September 2001 to National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, “The fact that USS COLE was attacked during the last Administration does not absolve us of responding to the attack. Many in AQ and Taliban may have drawn the wrong lesson from the COLE; that they can kill Americans without there being a price…Why do we continue to allow the existence of large scale AQ bases where we know people are being trained to kill Americans?” Al Qaida (“AQ”) and the Taliban had indeed taken the wrong lesson from the attack on the COLE, and it was already far too late.
The attack on the COLE (DDG-67) should have provided the U.S. with eleven months of unambiguous warning that we were at war with al Qaida. It should have at least confirmed that when bin Ladin declared war on America in his “fatwas” of 1996 and 1998 he meant it. The 1996 fatwa was even titled, “A Declaration of War…,” and the 1998 fatwa called on Muslims to wage a worldwide holy war to kill Christians and Jews.
Bin Ladin’s attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 did not have bin Ladin’s desired effect of sucking the United States into a war in Afghanistan. The resulting U.S. retaliatory Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) strike from U.S. Navy ships against al Qaida training camps in Afghanistan had more psychological than physical impact on al Qaida, since the camps had enough warning for key personnel to clear out (barely,) but not enough to dissuade bin Ladin from pursuing his objectives. It also hardened his resolve to attack U.S. ships in his ancestral home of Yemen. (The reliability of the intelligence that led to the simultaneous TLAM strike on a plant in Sudan suspected of producing chemical weapons precursor chemicals is debated to this day. The effectiveness of the TLAMs in destroying the plant was not debatable.)
The first attempt by al Qaida to destroy a U.S. warship in Aden, Yemen occurred on 3 January 2000 against the destroyer USS SULLIVANS (DDG-68.) The attack failed because the suicide boat was overloaded with explosives and stuck in the mud and later had to be craned out (in full view of any Yemeni security personnel who might have been paying attention, but weren’t.) This failed attack was not known by anyone (except the attackers) until it came to light during the investigation of the 12 October 2000 attack on the COLE in Aden.
The attack on the USS COLE was a success in that it blew a large hole in the ship and killed 17 American Sailors. It was a failure in that when the smoke cleared, the ship was still there, she left with her large battle-flag flying, was repaired and returned to service - and the U.S. Navy continued to operate throughout the region. It was a failure from bin Ladin’s perspective as well, in that it failed to generate the expected response. Bin Ladin was probably perplexed that an attack on a warship flying the flag of the United States generated no response at all from two U.S. Presidential administrations. So, learning the wrong lesson from the attack (as Richard Clarke stated in his note) bin Ladin continued with his plans for “the Big One,” an attack that one al Qaida blabbermouth (OPSEC violation) said would be so big it would “rock the world.”
At the time of the attack on the COLE, Yemen was technically the only democracy in the region, deemed safe by the U.S. Ambassador, with a security service that could respond quickly and ruthlessly when it chose to. However, Yemen was also well known as a key logistics hub for al Qaida. It was the primary location for the recruitment, vetting and onward transportation of new al Qaida recruits, with associated passport forgery and money laundering activities. It was also well known that the Government of Yemen and al Qaida had a tacit agreement that, so long as al Qaida refrained from conducting any attacks inside Yemen, the Yemeni security services would turn a blind eye to al Qaida’s logistics activity.
When al Qaida attacked the COLE, bin Ladin essentially “cashed in” the key logistics node in Yemen, because under the scrutiny of the post-attack investigations the Yemenis had no choice but to shut down the al Qaida operations in Yemen. To the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. FIFTH Fleet (NAVCENT/C5F,) Vice Admiral Charles W. “Willy” Moore, Jr., (and his Intelligence Officer) this was a clear indication that al Qaida had something much bigger in the works, and soon. This assessment, articulated frequently by VADM Moore to various COLE investigators, any visiting VIPs, and up the chain to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) never generated any observable action, and often generated legalistic pushback.
As CIA Director George Tenet would later testify, throughout the summer of 2001 the terrorist threat board was “blinking red.” NAVCENT/C5F sortied all ships from port twice during the summer in response to terrorist threat messages, and the NAVCENT/C5F force protection condition (FPCON) was at Charlie (imminent threat of terrorism) for most of the summer, with national-level Intelligence reports stating the al Qaida operational plans were complete and attack could occur anywhere with little or no warning. Intelligence reports of “chatter” amongst terrorists and associates that something big was coming soon reached a crescendo in June-July, and then went ominously silent by the end of July.
On 9 September 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by an exploding camera during an interview by two al Qaida operatives posing as journalists. The charismatic Massoud was known as the “Lion of Panjshir” due to his role as a mujahideen guerilla commander in preventing the Soviets from capturing the Panjshir Valley during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of most of Afghanistan.
Following the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government in 1992, Massoud became Defense Minister in the Islamic State of Afghanistan, recognized internationally (by most nations) as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, even after the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996 with their extreme fundamentalist version of Islam. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 they hung former President Najibullah from a lamp post in a traffic circle, after they disemboweled him (which helps explain why President Ghani wasted no time in fleeing the county in August 2021.) As a result of their brutality, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE.)
After 1996, Massoud (ethnic Tajik) became the leader of the United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the “Northern Alliance.” The Northern Alliance was a heterogeneous organization consisting of various ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan, of which the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Hazara were the most prominent, fighting in opposition to the Taliban (almost entirely ethnic Pashtun) during the civil war that raged between 1996 and 2001. During each summer fighting season after 1996, the Taliban gained ground against the Northern Alliance, with occasional setbacks, until by 2001 the only significant area remaining in Northern Alliance hands was the Tajik stronghold in the Panjshir Valley in far northeastern Afghanistan, led by Massoud. Other Northern Alliance leaders had either been driven from the country or were in hiding in the mountains.
Massoud was assassinated at the instigation of al Qaida in preparation for the 9/11 attacks in order to throw the Northern Alliance into complete disarray prior to expected U.S. retaliation against the Taliban for the impending 9/11 attacks. The full details of the assassination were not known at NAVCENT for several days, but on the morning of 11 September 2001, it was recognized by VADM Moore as a major negative development in the region, and yet another indicator that additional al Qaida attacks were coming.
Massoud was replaced by Tajik General Fahim Khan as leader of what was left of the Northern Alliance. Other key Northern Alliance leaders included Uzbek General Rashid Dostum, known as the “Butcher of the North,” and for switching sides when it suited him, and who had fled to Turkey. Ismail Khan was a key pro-Iranian Tajik leader in western Afghanistan who had also been driven out of the country. General Karim Khalili led the remains of ethnic Hazara fighters in the mountains of central Afghanistan (unlike the rest of the Afghan ethnic groups, which are Sunni Islam, the Hazara are Shiite Islam.) These Northern Alliance factions had essentially been “on the ropes” for several years prior to 2001.
The first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 1546 Bahrain time, 11 September 2001. Within two minutes of the second tower being hit (1603) the NAVCENT/C5F Battle Staff had formed up, in VADM Moore’s office rather than the usual War Room (at the time, the Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. FIFTH Fleet staffs were one and the same; all senior staff members were dual-hatted in that regard.) Amongst VADM Moore and senior staff members there was no doubt that this was an al Qaida attack on the United States, and the staff began formulating courses of action accordingly, even before the Pentagon was hit and the two towers came down. With cool deliberateness, VADM issued (from the top of his head) a lengthy series of staff actions to bring NAVCENT to peak readiness for war against al Qaida in Afghanistan.
Senior staff at NAVCENT/C5F included the Chief of Staff, Captain Jim Hannah, and Operations Officer (N3,) Captain Gordan van Hook (who as the Engineer on USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS (FFG-58) came up with the innovative way to finally extinguish the raging fire when the ship hit an Iranian mine in 1988.) The Intelligence Officer (N2) was Captain Sam Cox; the Force Protection Officer was Colonel Gary Supnick, USMC, and Plans and Policy Officer (N5) was Captain Rich Kikla.)
VADM Moore had been in command of NAVCENT/C5F since 28 July 1998 and had led the command through the response to the East Africa Embassy bombings, the TLAM strikes into Afghanistan and Sudan, Operation Desert Fox, Operation Southern Watch, maritime interdiction operations enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq, numerous close-encounters with Iran, the attack on USS COLE and response, a constant stream of terrorist threat warnings, and numerous lesser crises. The author is biased, so I will use former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ words, “Willy Moore was a warrior unintimidated by distance or number of enemies, and one who didn’t wait for directions; rather, he could see opportunities where others saw only obstacles.”
VADM Moore and senior NAVCENT/C5F staff were already well-versed in the military-political situation in Afghanistan stemming from planning conducted for the 1998 TLAM strikes into Afghanistan, and additional NAVCENT-level planning in the aftermath of the attack on the COLE. Current Intelligence on Afghanistan was routinely briefed at staff meetings. In addition, a closely-held plan, Infinite Resolve, existed since 1998 that required a certain number of TLAM’s to be in-range and ready-to-fire on extremely short notice in the event National Intelligence-level sources were able to pin-point the location of bin Ladin and National Command Authority gave the order to fire. These TLAM targets were reviewed and updated regularly.
There were other aspects of Infinite Resolve involving Special Operations forces and initial provisions for incorporating possible airstrikes, however the targets were limited to al Qaida or other terrorist training camps, and did not represent a comprehensive target set to take down the Taliban government or military. U.S. Navy ships could have fired on these targets within minutes of being given an order after 9/11; there were 80 TLAMs in range within 24 hours, 200 within 48 hours. However, there were already indications that al Qaida had been emptying out the training camps (another clear indicator that something big was about to happen) and the option to shoot immediately later became known as the “pound sand” option.
A glaring deficiency was that there was no U.S. Central Command Operations Plan (OPLAN) for conducting any other type of operation in Afghanistan whether an air campaign or a ground campaign. CENTCOM planning had been focused almost entirely on updating the Iraq plan. Although NAVCENT consistently lobbied for more effort on the Iran war plan, little progress had been made in that regard. Nobody had been lobbying for a plan to invade Afghanistan (the lessons of the British experience in the 1840’s/1870’s and Soviets in the 1980’s were well known.) In addition to no OPLAN, there were no provisions for over-flight, staging or basing in any of the countries bordering Afghanistan (Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the PRC, and Pakistan.) As of 9/11, the only realistic way into Afghanistan was from the North Arabian Sea over western Pakistan, without Pakistan’s permission.
The geography of the situation was daunting. Although the CIA had an operating site in Uzbekistan to fly UAV’s* on surveillance/strike missions, the closest bases that operated U.S. military aircraft were in Bahrain and Oman. Aircraft carriers could get hundreds of miles closer than any land base, but the distances were still great. From the Arabian Sea coast of Pakistan to the Afghanistan border across Pakistan was about 260 NM. It was about 390 NM from the coast to the first major city in southern Afghanistan, Kandahar. From the sea to Kandahar was mostly desolate wasteland inhabited by some Baluchi nomads (who had no love for the Pakistani government, but not much for the Taliban either.) The capital, Kabul, was another 260 NM beyond Kandahar. To reach the northern tier of cities (Sherberghan, Mazar-e Sharif, Kunduz and Taloqan) was over 700 NM. To these distances should be added another 50+ NM to operating areas for aircraft carriers in the North Arabian Sea. (* these account for periodic sightings of “A-10’s” by USN aircraft; actually CIA Predator UAVs.)
Because Iran was “no go” airspace, aircraft flying from Bahrain or other Gulf nations would have to fly about 950 NM just to reach the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. For USAF bombers to reach Kabul from Diego Garcia was a 2,500 NM flight. There were no bases for U.S. military aircraft in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, plus cooperation from the Russian Federation was required to operate there. A U.S. base was eventually set up at Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Airfield in Uzbekistan, however unlike Bahrain, the Uzbeks haggled over compensation and it was not ready for U.S. use until right at the start of the air campaign. (Of note, the Shiite Iranians and Sunni Taliban had no love for each other; the Iranians were perfectly content to see the Taliban get pummeled, but they weren’t inclined to be of much help either – although, their decision not to interfere or cause trouble elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf actually was a big help.)
Besides geography, several other factors had major impact on planning for strike operations. The availability of aerial tanking was the most critical factor, and that would have a limiting effect on operations throughout the campaign. The British made a major contribution in this regard by providing ten Tristar and VC-10 tankers (which would provide over 20% of aerial tanking) to augment USAF KC-10 and KC-135, USMC KC-130, and USN S-3B tankers.
Another critical factor was the initial lack of any Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) in the area (helicopters from carriers could not meet the requirement in Afghanistan.) The Air Force would not fly B-2’s into Afghanistan until a CSAR capability was established. In addition, there was no divert field in the event carrier aircraft had trouble recovering aboard. Fortunately, because President Musharraf agreed to cooperate, the Pakistanis permitted the use of an airfield (Shahbaz) at Jacobabad for use as a divert field and CSAR operating site, which became available on 7 October. Because of the proximity of Jacobabad to unfriendly Pashtun areas of Pakistan, Marines from the 15th MEU off the PELELIU ARG would be put ashore to guard the base. A CSAR base was also finally established at K2 Airfield, Uzbekistan just as the air campaign started.
Most of Afghanistan was inhospitable desert or high mountain terrain, so any aircrew going down in Afghanistan would immediately be in a survival situation just from the elements. Were the aircrew to encounter any people in the sparsely settled areas, they would almost certainly be more inhospitable than the terrain. The Taliban, and their Pashtun ancestors, had a well-established reputation for brutality to prisoners, if they took any at all. During the British retreat from Kabul in 1842, under a guarantee of safe passage, almost 4,500 troops and 12,000 civilians were massacred (virtually the entire column.) Hence the Rudyard Kipling poem, “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, and the women come out to cut up what remains, jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains, and go to your gawd like a soldier.” Hard to argue with the USAF position on CSAR, but Navy pilots were willing to fly.
On 9/11, the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) Carrier Battle Group (CVBG) was concluding their six-month deployment to the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf. The ENTERPRISE CVBG was in the southern Arabian Sea heading for the first carrier port visit to South Africa in decades and the first nuclear carrier visit to that country ever. Rear Admiral John G. Morgan (Commander Cruiser Destroyer Group TWELVE) had relieved Rear Admiral Harry Ulrich as ENTERPRISE transited the Strait of Hormuz outbound on 9-10 September 2001.
ENTERPRISE was commanded by Captain James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld, Jr. Embarked on ENTERPRISE was Carrier Air Wing EIGHT (CVW-8.) Ships in the ENTERPRISE CVBG included PHILLIPINE SEA (CG-58,) MCFAUL (DDG-74,) NICHOLSON (DD-982,) PROVIDENCE (SSN-719,) JACKSONVILLE (SSN-699,) JOHN ERICSSON (T-AO-194,) and NIAGARA FALLS (T-AFS-3.) However, not all these ships and were transiting together as arrival and departure of CVBG escorts and submarines into the NAVCENT AOR was usually staggered (some arrived ahead and some stayed behind) to maintain the required number of TLAM shooters in range of al Qaida targets in Afghanistan in accordance with the Infinite Resolve plan. Other ships in the ENTERPRISE CVBG, GETTYSBURG (CG-64,) GONZALES (DDG-66), STOUT (DDG-55,) NICHOLAS (FFG-55) and THORN (DD-988,) had either remained in the Mediterranean or had already departed C5F AOR or returned to U.S. East Coast ports.
Upon learning of the attacks in New York City, RADM Morgan on his own initiative ordered ENTERPRISE CVBG to reverse course and head back to the North Arabian Sea at high speed (some accounts state Captain Winnefeld had already ordered the ship to come about.) This was shortly followed by orders from VADM Moore to do exactly that. (ENTERPRISE had not crossed the AOR boundary and was still under C5F Operational Control.)
The USS CARL VINSON (CVN-70) CVBG was still in the Pacific Command/Pacific Fleet (PACFLT) AOR having just rounded the southern tip of India heading for the Arabian Gulf. VINSON CVBG was under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas E. “Chain” Zelibor (Commander Carrier Group THREE.) RADM Zelibor would be directed by VADM Moore to assume command of Task Force 50 (TF 50,) which would combine the two CVBG’s into one task force.
VINSON was commanded by Captain Bruce W. Clingan (until 6 October 2001 when Captain Richard B. Wren assumed command,) with Air Wing ELEVEN (CVW-11) embarked. Ships in the VINSON CVBG were ANTIETAM (CG-54,) PRINCETON (CG-59,) O’KANE (DDG-77,) JOHN PAUL JONES (DDG-53,) O’BRIEN (DD-975,) INGRAHAM (FFG-61,) KEY WEST (SSN-772,) OLYMPIA (SSN-717,) and SACRAMENTO (AOE-1.) As with ENTERPRISE CVBG, not all these ships were together, for example JOHN PAUL JONES arrived in C5F AOR on 28 July, operating in the Arabian Gulf until transiting the Strait of Hormuz outbound on 15 September to join the VINSON CVBG.
Upon learning of the attacks in New York, the VINSON CVBG increased their speed of advance (SOA) on their own initiative. NAVCENT’s request to PACFLT for VINSON to accelerate her arrival was initially denied due to the requirement to maintain the number of carrier-days in the PACOM AOR. Given that both ENTERPRISE and VINSON were in range of southern Afghanistan by the night of 12-13 October suggests VINSON ignored any direction to slow down (technically, ENTERPRISE was in striking range first.)
On 9/11, the closest carrier to Afghanistan besides ENTERPRISE and VINSON was the USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63) in port Yokosuka, Japan as part of the Forward Deployed Naval Force (FDNF.) USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (CVN-73) and USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV-67) were engaged in pre-deployment workups off the U.S. East Coast (both of which were diverted to provided air defense in the vicinity of New York City and the mid-Atlantic coast in immediate response to the 9/11 attacks – Operation Noble Eagle.) USS JOHN C. STENNIS (CVN-74,) and USS CONSTELLATION (CV-64) were engaged in pre-deployment work-ups off the U.S. West Coast. USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71) was inport Norfolk preparing to deploy to the Mediterranean. USS NIMITZ (CVN-68) had completed work-ups after Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) and was preparing to depart Hampton Roads on 23 September 2001 to transit around South America to her new homeport of San Diego.
On 9/11, the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) presence in the NAVCENT AOR had been gapped. The closest ARG was the USS PELELIU (LHA-5) ARG, commanded by CAPT William E. Jezierski, with 2,100 Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable (15th MEU(SOC)) embarked, in port Darwin, Australia. The other ARG ships were COMSTOCK (LSD-45) and DUBUQUE (LPD-8.)
The KEARSARGE ARG, with 24th MEU embarked, had just departed Marmaris, Turkey en route return to the U.S. East Coast and her orders were not changed (arriving in CONUS on 15 October.) The BATAAN (LHD-5) ARG, commanded by CAPT Kenneth Rome, was on the U.S. East Coast preparing to embark the 26th MEU (SOC) and depart on deployment to include participation in the major U.S.,Egyptian and multi-national exercise Bright Star. ESSEX (LHD-3) was in Japan as part of the FDNF. BOXER (LHD-4,) with 11th MEU embarked, was underway in the Pacific returning to the West Coast on 14 September following a Western Pacific/NAVCENT deployment.
In emergency session, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed UNSC Resolution 1368 on 12 September strongly condemning the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The next day, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invoked Article V of the NATO Charter for the first time. (Article V is the collective defense cornerstone of the NATO Alliance, stipulating that an armed attack against one NATO nation is an attack against all, and all are bound to come to the assistance of the nation attacked.) In addition, Australia and New Zealand invoked the ANZUS Treaty to come to the aid of the U.S. (even though the U.S. had suspended its obligations to New Zealand in 1985 due to New Zealand’s declaration of a nuclear-free zone and refusal to permit port visits by U.S. Navy ships as the U.S. would neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons aboard ships.) Eventually, 197 countries and jurisdictions expressed support to the U.S., with 136 offering military assistance, 89 granting over-flight permission, 76 granting landing rights, and 23 granted bed-down and basing permission.
Bahrain was the first nation to offer and grant basing support. Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, King Hamid al-Khalifa of Bahrain asked VADM Moore to immediately ask for something so that Bahrain could be the first to say “yes.” VADM requested use of Sheikh Isa Airfield, which was immediately granted. (For non-Arabic speakers, “Isa” is Arabic for Jesus, considered a prophet of Islam.)
On 12 September, the PELELIU ARG departed Darwin, Australia, early, but then conducted pre-planned humanitarian relief operations in East Timor in response to a crisis that had been going on for many months. On 17 September, PELELIU ARG ceased operation off East Timor, and on 19 September received orders to commence transit to the NAVCENT AOR in response to the requirement to prepare for possible non-combatant evacuation (NEO) of Americans from Pakistan. Extensive planning went into preparing for a Pakistan NEO, but it did not have to be executed.
On 13 September, Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff responded affirmatively to the U.S. request for assistance (it was more of a demand) including blanket over-flight and landing rights for all necessary military and intelligence operations. At the behest of the former CENTCOM Commander, General Tony Zinni, USMC, VADM Moore had made two visits to Pakistan and met with Musharaff. As NAVCENT was the only CENTCOM Component Commander permanently based in the region, VADM Moore was in a unique position to establish personal relationships with key leaders in the region, which pay dividends in crises, and were certainly helpful in this one.
However, Musharaff was in a very delicate situation, as Pakistan’s powerful (almost autonomous) Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) had to that point been a strong backer of the Taliban as a means to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan had as many Pashtuns living on the Pakistani side of the border as lived in Afghanistan and they had a long history of animosity toward the Pakistani central government. These ethnic Pashtuns were closely aligned in religion and ideology with the Taliban, and represented a very significant potential threat to Pakistan’s stability. Pakistan even had para-military and Intelligence elements embedded with the Taliban, providing advice and training (and as many as five ISID officers were killed in the 1998 cruise missile strikes on al Qaida camps in Afghanistan.) Numerous Pakistani (mostly Pashtun) volunteers had joined or were trained by al Qaida.
Although NAVCENT had developed collegial relations with the Pakistani Navy, other branches of the Pakistani military were less enthusiastic about cooperation with the U.S., stemming from U.S. sanctions and suspension of military aid (and refusal to deliver bought-and-paid-for F-16 fighters) imposed on Pakistan in the 1990’s due to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program (and 1998 atomic bomb test.) The Pakistani Navy had two P-3C Orion aircraft (a third had crashed and killed all aboard in October 1999) which had been delivered in 1996 as an exception to the embargo. NAVCENT’s helpful response in search and rescue for the crash was a factor in the U.S. Navy’s better relations with the Pakistani Navy. The Pakistani Navy and Marine Corps would prove to be the most cooperative amongst branches of the Pakistani military.
Nevertheless, until Musharraff made the decision to support the U.S., the Pakistani P-3’s represented a potential early warning capability that could aid the Taliban. In addition, the Pakistani submarine force represented a potential threat with one French-built Agosta 90B and two Agosta-class diesel-electric submarines (capable of submerged Exocet missile launch) and four Daphne-class submarines. (In 1971, Pakistani Daphne-class submarine HANGOR torpedoed and sank Indian Navy frigate KHUKRI, the first warship sunk by a submarine since WWII.) As a result, NAVCENT Intelligence routinely tracked Pakistani naval and air activity well before 9/11.
Also, beginning on 13 September, President George W. Bush was briefed on CENTCOM’s initial concept of operations, expressing dissatisfaction with the speed and scope. Some senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were pushing for action to be taken against Iraq as part of the operation. In fact the first Planning Order that came to NAVCENT from CENTCOM called for initiating planning for an operation that basically involved shooting a few TLAMs into Afghanistan and then quickly executing the offensive phase of OPLAN 1003 (the Iraq war plan, which called for about 380,000 troops.) This provoked considerable consternation amongst senior NAVCENT staff and a call from VADM Moore to CENTCOM Commander General Tommy Franks strongly arguing against attacking Iraq, as doing so would be a diversion away from the primary enemy. The idea of attacking Iraq (at least so soon) also met opposition from the Chairman and some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was shelved, at least temporarily. Nevertheless, NAVCENT would be directed to conserve TLAMs in the Afghanistan campaign in expectation of follow-on operations against Iraq.
President Bush declared a national emergency on 14 September, authorizing mobilization of up to 50,000 reservists and National Guardsmen, including 3,000 U.S. Naval Reserve personnel. In the U.S. Congress, Joint Resolution (S.J. Res. 23) was introduced in both Houses in a single day without objection, authorizing the President to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” The vote in the Senate was 98-0 and in the House 420-1. President Bush signed the bill on 18 September.
Approximately 16 September, NAVCENT received direction from CENTCOM to prepare to fly-off VINSON’s air wing to Qatar so that VINSON could be used as an afloat forward staging base (“lily pad”) for Special Operations Forces (SOF) helicopters, similar to how USS AMERICA (CV-66) and USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN-69) had been used during the U.S. intervention in Haiti in 1994 (Operation Uphold Democracy.) Due to the shortage of tankers, this would have resulted in VINSON’s air wing out of action for the duration. This provoked an intense round of discussions between NAVCENT, CENTCOM, CNO and other Fleet Commanders regarding whether to commit additional carriers to the region, and if so, which ones. Any of the options would disrupt the tightly scheduled carrier deployment, engagement and maintenance plans.
As it turned out SOF forces were not ready to go afloat, and the decision was made to deploy KITTY HAWK from Japan, minus most of her air wing, to serve as a SOF lily pad. VINSON kept her air wing. After additional intense discussion, the THEODORE ROOSEVELT CVBG was directed to deploy early from Norfolk and proceed direct to augment the carriers in the North Arabian Sea for a time, and then to relieve ENTERPRISE.
On 17 September, F-14 Tomcats from VINSON/CVW-11 and ENTERPRISE/CVW-8 began flying tactical aerial reconnaissance pod (TARPS) missions over southern Afghanistan, imaging airfields, surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery sites, military barracks and al Qaida training camps (confirming they were empty.) Fighters from both carriers alternated protecting the E-3A Sentry (AWACS) orbit established over Pakistan. Flying from Bahrain, EP-3E AIRES II Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Collection aircraft and P-3C AIP Orion maritime patrol aircraft with imaging capability began flying missions along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. USAF RC-135 Rivet Joint and U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft commenced missions along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.
Also on 17 September, the USS BATAAN (LHD-5) Amphibious Ready Group departed Norfolk for Morehead City, North Carolina to embark the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Special Operations Capable (26th MEU(SOC),) before heading for the Mediterranean with the intent of conducting the major multi-national Exercise Bright Star in Egypt. In company with BATAAN were SHREVEPORT (LPD-12,) and WHIDBEY ISLAND (LSD-41.)
On 18 September, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry H. Shelton issued the initial deployment order for Operation Infinite Justice. This immediately offended Arab allies as Islamic scholars stated only Allah can dispense infinite justice. The name would subsequently be changed to Operation Enduring Freedom on 25 September.
The USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71) CVBG departed Norfolk early en route the North Arabian Sea, under the command of Rear Admiral Mark “Lobster” Fitzgerald (Commander Carrier Group EIGHT.) Before assuming command of CARGRU 8, RADM Fitzgerald had been the Deputy NAVCENT Commander, and Commander of NAVCENT Rear in Tampa, collocated with CENTCOM Headquarters. He had commanded Operation Determined Response, the operation to protect and bring the COLE safely out of Aden after the attack in October 2000. RADM Fitzgerald had been relieved at NAVCENT by Rear Admiral Mark Milliken, who came forward from Tampa to Bahrain after 9/11.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT was commanded by Captain Richard J. O’Hanlon and embarked Air Wing ONE (CVW-1.) The CVBG included LEYTE GULF (CG-55,) PETERSON (DD-969,) CARR (FFG-55,) HARTFORD (SSN-761,) SPRINGFIELD (SSN-768,) DETROIT (AOE-4,) and SATURN (T-AFS-10.) VELLA GULF (CG-72) departed Norfolk on 21 September, with orders to catch up.
During an address to a Joint Session of Congress on 20 September, President Bush specifically called out Usama bin Ladin and al Qaida. The President demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Ladin and al Qaida leaders “or share their fate.” Unimpressed, the Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan (one of three nations with diplomatic relations with the Taliban) stated the Taliban would not yield to U.S. demands and that giving up bin Ladin (their “guest.”) would be an “insult to Islam. ” Secretary Rumsfeld indicated to reporters that this would be a “long war,” a “marathon, not a sprint.”
On 26 September, a small CIA team (the Northern Afghanistan Liaison Team (NALT,) code-named “Jawbreaker”) flew into northern Afghanistan from Pakistan in an old former Soviet Mi-17 helicopter to link up with Fahim Khan, a Tajik who had assumed the mantle of leader of the Northern Alliance after the assassination of Massoud. The CIA had worked with some Northern Alliance leaders against the Soviets (although mostly through the Pakistani ISID.) There was no guarantee of an enthusiastic reception, since the U.S. had provided virtually no help to the Northern Alliance as the Taliban forced them into ever-smaller parts of the country. The CIA team came in with $3 million in 100-dollar bills, to encourage the various ethic factions of the Northern Alliance to cooperate with the U.S., and each other, and to encourage Taliban defections. The cash worked reasonably well on all counts.
At senior levels of the U.S. Government, there was significant wariness as to whether the Northern Alliance could be a reliable or trusted partner. Some Northern Alliance leaders, most notably General Dostum, were notorious for switching sides, as well having a long track record of human rights violations on par with the Taliban. In addition, the CIA had virtually no inroads with any Pashtuns who might be induced to turn against the Taliban, nor did the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance would be of little help in “Pashtunistan,” i.e., southern Afghanistan.
There quickly developed a consensus amongst senior U.S. officials to avoid committing a large U.S. ground force to combat in Afghanistan, which was seen by Intelligence Agencies as playing right into bin Ladin’s hands. It was seen by senior Defense officials as tying down U.S. forces that would be needed to go after other perpetrators of terror (what would become known later as “The Axis of Evil,” namely Iraq, Iran and North Korea. In fact, after 9/11 Iraq and Iran dispersed their forces fearing they would get the blame and be attacked by the U.S.) There was a strong desire to let Afghans do the fighting in Afghanistan, with support from U.S. Special Operations and air power. It would turn out it was the Northern Alliance or nothing.
On 27 September USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63) received orders to deploy to the North Arabian Sea to serve as an afloat forward staging base (AFSB) for Special Forces Operations. The KITTY HAWK CVBG was under the command of Rear Admiral Steven Kunkle (Commander Carrier Group FIVE,) having just relieved Rear Admiral Robert Willard. This was KITTY HAWK’s second minimal-notice deployment to the NAVCENT AOR since 1999. In the Spring of 1999, KITTY HAWK covered the gap after ENTERPRISE’s relief, the THEODORE ROOSEVELT, was diverted on minimal notice into the Kosovo/Serbian campaign (Operation Allied Force.) All of which is a testament to the flexibility of carrier air power and the wisdom of having the FDNF in Japan.
KITTY HAWK was commanded by Captain Thomas A. Hejl, and embarked part of Carrier Air Wing FIVE (CVW-5) - 15 aircraft; eight F/A-18C Hornets, three S-3B Vikings, two C-2A Greyhounds, and two SH-60B Seahawks. KITTY HAWK departed Yokosuka, Japan on 1 October in company with CHANCELLORSVILLE (CG-63,) CURTIS WILBER (DDG-54,) GARY (FFG-51,) and RAPPAHANOCK (T-AO-124.) VINCENNES (CG-49) departed Yokosuka on 17 September for three months of Operation Enduring Freedom-related operations in the Pacific, but did not operate in the NAVCENT AOR (and hadn’t operated in NAVCENT since shooting down an Iranian airliner in July 1988.)
On 30 September, while crossing the Atlantic, THEODORE ROOSEVELT first broke the flag flown by the Fire Department of New York over “Ground Zero” after the 9/11 attacks and given to “TR” for her deployment. This flag would be rotated amongst the ships serving in Operation Enduring Freedom before being returned to New York City in March 2002.
On 2 October, NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson announced that there was “clear and compelling” evidence that bin Ladin was behind the 9/11 attacks. With the “attacker” now identified, the next day NATO “fully invoked” the Article V collective defense clause committing all members of NATO to support the U.S. To the consternation of the many nations that quickly volunteered to help, the U.S. was actually slow to accept assistance except from the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, preferring to be unconstrained by the need to gain consensus amongst allies regarding courses of action (something that had been a challenge during the NATO campaign in Serbia/Kosovo during Operation Allied Force.)
On 4 October, U.S. Navy P-3C Orion aircraft commenced surveillance and reconnaissance over southern Afghanistan. Prior to that, USN P-3C and EP-3E aircraft had been limited to flights along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border afters Pakistan allowed used of their airspace. The Commander of Task Force 57/72, Captain Harry Harris, presented a plan to VADM Moore for the P-3C’s to operate inside Afghanistan. NAVCENT N2 assessed the aircraft were safer flying inside Afghanistan than along the border due to the altitude separation between the ground and the aircraft. The mountains along the border reached as high as 11,000 feet, the Pashtun population on the Pakistan side of the border was no less unfriendly than the Taliban, and portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPADs) were proliferated widely in the region, so there was a slim but not zero chance a P-3 flying along the border could get hit by a MANPAD. Over the lower elevation of the flat southern Afghanistan plain, the MANPAD threat was mitigated.
Also on 4 October Helicopter Squadron HS-3 (on ENTERPRISE) and HS-6 (on VINSON) were designated as CSAR alert package for the Navy with initial responsibility for all search and rescue overwater and in Pakistan to 28 degrees North (about 2/3 of the way from the sea to Afghanistan.) With the concurrence of Pakistan, forward arming and refueling points (FARP) were ultimately established at Pasni, Pakistan (on the Arabian Sea coast,) Shamsi (90 miles inland) and Dalbandin (about 23 miles short of the Afghan border.) Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-15 (of ENTERPRISE) began augmenting F-14 combat air patrol (CAP) over Pakistan.
On 5 October, the first of four Marine KC-130 tankers arrived at Sheikh Isa Airfield in Bahrain. On 6 October, ships and aircraft of the NATO Standing Naval Force Mediterranean (STANAVFORMED) commenced operations in the eastern Mediterranean in support of the “War on Terrorism.”
Around this period a U.S. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) crashed inside Afghanistan. There was no evidence that it was shot down. Most accounts suggest it was a Predator, but are unclear whether is was a CIA or USAF UAV. The CIA did lose an I-Gnat (forerunner of the Predator) over Afghanistan.
On 7 October, four HMM-163 CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters lifted off from PELELIU with a security team from 15th MEU(SOC) to Shahbaz Airfield near Jacobabod, Pakistan. The security team, including a SEAL detachment, would protect the arrival of three MH-53J Pave Low III helicopters of the USAF 20th Special Operations Squadron to provide combat search and rescue and other special mission support in southern Afghanistan. Additional Marine support personnel were flown from PELELIU via CH-46 helicopters to an airfield at Pasni on the coast of Pakistan. The Marines would also provide a tactical aircraft recovery capability. From Pasni, personnel and gear were loaded on VMGR-352 KC-130s that flew in from Bahrain and then on to Jacobabad. Shahbaz Airfield had a 10,000-foot runway, and was about equidistant between the coast and Kandahar (300 miles in each direction) and would serve as an emergency divert field (although aircraft were not supposed to divert there unless they would definitely flame out if they didn’t – this would lead to a number of “tank or splash” situations.)
In the late morning East Coast time on 7 October, Commander U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM,) General Tommy Franks held a final Component Commander video-teleconference. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the new (as of 1 October) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, were on the VTC but did not talk. In addition to the Central Command components, the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) also participated. The Combined Forces Air Component Commander, Lieutenant General Charles Wald, USAF, participated from the new Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, which after considerable negotiation the Saudis had only just given permission for the U.S. to use for Operation Enduring Freedom.
General Franks led the VTC with a brief overview of the U.S. and Coalition forces arrayed to attack on order (40,000 men and women, 393 aircraft, 32 ships and 31 countries in support.) General Franks then stated he was in receipt of the Execute Order for Operation Enduring Freedom from the Secretary of Defense. General Franks then polled each of the CENTCOM Component Commanders and other participants requesting readiness status. All components reported they were ready. It was very matter-of-fact, along the lines of, “NAVCENT, are you ready to execute?”
VADM Moore responded that NAVCENT had the execute order, command and control was in place, and NAVCENT had no issues. “We are a go.” There were no rousing patriotic pep talks. After all the components responded that they were ready, GEN Franks then simply just said he was satisfied and that kinetics would begin at 1230 East Coast time, 1630 Zulu and 2100 hours Afghanistan. His final guidance was to use adult common sense, accomplish the mission and protect the force.
The objective of the operation was to bring down the Taliban Regime, destroy al Qaida’s base of operations, hunt down Usama bin Ladin, and eliminate as many al Qaida personnel as possible, using the absolute minimum number of conventional ground forces. Given the lack of available airfields in the region, the capability of U.S. Navy carrier aviation would be absolutely critical to the execution of the plan.
As of 7 October, the Taliban was assessed to have about 45,000 fighters (this number varied greatly by season,) including about 12,000 foreign volunteers from Pakistan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and other places around the world. Most of these “troops” were in the far north of Afghanistan engaged in periodic offensives against the Northern Alliance. The Taliban had about 100 obsolete former Soviet T-55 and T-62 tanks and about 450 armored personnel carriers; very few of the armored vehicles were assessed as operational and many were actually derelict. The Taliban had numerous (but inaccurate) Katyusha rockets and some artillery. They also had several SCUD surface-to-surface ballistic missile launchers, which were most likely non-operational. The primary form of mobility for the Taliban were pick-up trucks and land cruiser/SUV’s (with Toyota being a favorite.)
Supporting the Taliban, and under their operational control, was the 55th Arab Brigade, also known as the 055 Brigade. This brigade was essentially a foreign legion first formed by bin Ladin in the mid 1990’s consisting of Arabs, Pakistani Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Chechens, Bosnians and others. By Taliban standards, the 1,000 personnel in the brigade were much better trained and more highly motivated than the Taliban. Because the 055 Brigade was implicated in a number of atrocities perpetrated against Northern Alliance civilians, they expected no quarter. At the start of the war, the bulk of the brigade was in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan.
The Taliban “air force” had about 100 obsolete MiG-21 Fishbed fighters and Su-22 Fitter fighter-bombers, most based at the former Soviet airfield at Shindand in northwestern Afghanistan. Like the armor, many of these aircraft were derelict; fewer than 50 were even marginally operational with only about 40 pilots capable of flying them, and almost none at night. The Taliban had about 80 armed helicopters; those that were operational were mostly used for logistics rather than close air support to ground troops.
As for air defenses, Taliban early warning radar sites were usually non-operational. The Taliban had inherited a number of SA-2 Guideline and SA-3 Goa missiles from the former Soviet-supported Najibullah government, but there were only three SAM sites (with SA-3 launchers) ostensibly protecting Kabul and Kandahar. There were about a dozen SA-13 Gopher launchers, a tracked vehicle with short-range optical/infrared guided missiles. There were about 300-500 anti-aircraft artillery weapons, including a few 100mm guns and a few ZSU-23/4 (tracked vehicle with radar-guided quad 23mm guns,) but the vast majority were optically sighted 37mm and smaller caliber. The Taliban’s air defenses and armor had been left behind by the Soviets when they withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 for the Soviet-backed Najibullah government and they had not been supported or maintained since at least 1996, hence their poor state of readiness.
The most significant Taliban threat to aircraft was posed by numerous man-portable shoulder-fired infrared-seeking short-range missiles. These “MANPADs” were mostly of Soviet SA-7/14 type. However, the U.S. had supplied about 1,000 Stinger missiles to the anti-Soviet mujahideen, which had been used to great effect, downing over 60 Soviet aircraft. (The significant increase in Soviet aircraft losses commencing in 1986 was a result of these U.S.-supplied Stingers and was a significant factor in the ultimate Soviet decision to cut their losses and withdraw from Afghanistan.) As many as 100 Stingers were assessed to still be in Taliban possession (and had been seen in photographs of Taliban surrounding a hijacked Indian airliner in 1999.) However, battery life for the Stingers had long been exceeded, so whether any were still operational was questionable.
Operation Enduring Freedom attacks commenced on the night of 7-8 October with Tomahawk land-attack missile (TLAM) strikes, quickly followed by 25 Navy carrier aircraft and 17 U.S. Air Force heavy bombers (B-2, B-1B, and B-52.) No USAF tactical jets were yet in position to participate. The primary purpose of the first nights’ strikes was to achieve air supremacy so that U.S. aircraft would have complete freedom of action over Afghanistan for the duration of the campaign. Given the dismal state of Taliban air defense readiness, “air supremacy” was arguably achieved when the first jet catapulted off VINSON. Nevertheless, the Taliban national headquarters, command and control sites, early warning radar sites, SAM/AAA sites, airfields and aircraft on the ground were the primary target set for USN aircraft.
On the evening of 7 October, cruisers PHILIPPINE SEA (CG-58,) and PRINCETON (CG-59,) destroyers MCFAUL (DDG-74,) JOHN PAUL JONES (DDG-53,) and O’ BRIEN (DD-975,) submarine PROVIDENCE (SSN-719) and British submarines HMS TRIUMPH and HMS TRAFALGAR commenced launching about 50 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land-Attack Missiles (TLAMs) timed to hit targets in Afghanistan at 2100 H-hour. Almost all these missile hit their assigned targets, although one errant missile hit a United Nations facility in Kabul, killing four UN employees. The Taliban would subsequently hyper-inflate claims of collateral damage in an attempt to discredit the accuracy of the U.S. strikes and to generate opposition to U.S. action, particularly in the Islamic world.
Carrier aircraft commenced launching around 1830 local, with a wave of 25 F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18C fighters from VINSON/CVW-11 and ENTERPRISE/CVW-8, timed to strike targets right on the heels of the TLAM impacts. Navy aircraft used exclusively precision strike munitions (PGMs) on the first night for effectiveness and to minimize collateral damage. (Minimizing collateral damage would be an overriding imperative throughout the campaign.) Navy aircraft used laser-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM,) the AGM-84 Stand-Off Land Attack Missile – Extended Range (SLAM ER) and the AGM-154 Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW). Navy aircraft struck targets around Kandahar, Kabul, Herat and Shindand, with TLAMs striking as far north as Mazar-e-Sharif and Sheberghan.
The Navy strike aircraft were supported by accompanying F-14 and F/A-18C fighter sweeps and electronic jamming of Taliban radar and communications transmissions by EA-6B Prowlers. Airborne tanking remained the critical limiting factor. The strikes were supported by S-3B tankers orbiting off the coast of Pakistan to top off inbound Navy strike aircraft, which would then tank again from USAF and British tankers orbiting over Pakistan just outside Afghanistan. Strike missions from ENTERPRISE and CARL VINSON flew 600 NM or more, with an average sortie length of over four and a half hours and a minimum of two inflight refuelings each way.
In the first night’s strikes, 17 USAF heavy bombers participated. Two B-2 bombers flew all the way from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, each with 16 GBU-31 JDAM munitions. Five B-1B bombers and 10 B-52 bombers forward staged to Diego Garcia also bombed targets in Afghanistan. The bombers hit multiple targets in northern Afghanistan including a tank concentration near Mazar-e-Sharif and the headquarters of two Taliban divisions in the north. The B-52’s dropped hundreds of Mk. 82 500-pound bombs on the al Qaida training camps in eastern Afghanistan. The camps were empty and these attacks would be criticized as a waste of bombs, but there was little left of infrastructure after the B-52’s were done. (Later in the campaign, B-52’s with JDAMs and laser-guided bombs would be exceptionally effective against Taliban in the field.) The USAF KC-10 and KC-135 and British Tristar and VC-10 tankers were critical, and a dozen would be airborne at any one time; Navy aircraft could not have reached much beyond Kandahar in any number without the land-based tankers.
At the onset of the airstrikes, Northern Alliance artillery opened up on Bagram airfield, northeast of Kabul, which had not been operational since the Soviets left. Northern Alliance troops would subsequently capture most of the airfield, engaging Taliban who held part of it, and requesting U.S. air support that initially was not forthcoming.
During the first night’s attacks, aircrew reported seeing a few possible MANPAD launches and sporadic AAA, none of which were effective. No SA-2/3 SAM launches were noted. As expected, no Taliban fighters got airborne. The 42 USN and USAF strike aircraft and 50 TLAMS hit 275 individual aimpoints at 31 military targets on the first night, destroying 85% of them. Although the electrical power grid in Kabul was not targeted, it went out anyway (there was no national power grid.) Although neither bin Ladin nor Taliban leader Mullah Omar were specifically targeted, in keeping with U.S. policy against assassination, Mullah Omar barely made it to the safety of an irrigation ditch before his quarters were blown away. (The CIA, which did have authority to kill bin Ladin, operated armed Predator UAV’s outside the Air Tasking Order (ATO) process, to the consternation of the CAOC.)
Bomb Damage Assessment would become somewhat controversial in Enduring Freedom (although not nearly as much as in Desert Storm.) CENTCOM policy was to only accept National-level overhead imagery as a source of confirmed bomb damage. Due to cloud cover and other factors, this slowed the damage assessment process, and resulted in some targets being tasked to be struck multiple times despite aircraft weapons systems video (greatly improved since Desert Storm) clearly showing the target had already been hit. This resulted in an excessively protracted period before CENTCOM would declare that enough air defense targets had been destroyed so that missions could be tasked against different target sets. CENTCOM also exercised extremely tight control of the targeting process, also to the consternation of the CAOC (which had been given free rein in Desert Storm and Allied Force,) primarily out of CENTCOM concern to minimize collateral damage.
Within 45 minutes of the strikes, two USAF C-17 transports flying from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany dropped 34,000 packets of food and medical supplies, along with leaflets and transistor radios. The intended message was that the attacks were not directed against the Afghan people, only against the Taliban and al Qaida. The Afghan population was probably more reassured by the accuracy of the bombing than by the leaflets, and life in the major cities quickly returned to what passed as “normal” in Afghanistan as the people realized that only military targets were being hit, subject to a rare miss or targeting error. Additional humanitarian air drops would follow.
One initial problem with the food drops was that the packages were wrapped in yellow plastic (to make them easy to see,) but this meant they were the same color as plastic wrapped around unexploded cluster bomb munitions, which were potentially deadly to anyone who disturbed them. The food packaging was quickly changed to blue. Even the food drops could inflict collateral damage; in one case a parachute failed to open and a pallet crashed through the roof of a house near Jalalabad, killing a civilian woman inside. (Reportedly Afghans didn’t much like what was in the “Meals, Ready to Eat, (MRE)” although that may have been more black humor than reality. Technically these were “Humanitarian Rations” not MRE’s.)
After the strikes commenced, President Bush made a televised address to the nation, stating, “On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Talban Regime.” Of note, the British submarines had also launched TLAMs into Afghanistan; the British code name was Operation Veritas.
Within only a few hours of the first strike, bin Ladin appeared in a pre-recorded videotape on al Jazeera, praising the September 11 attacks (although not specifically taking credit.) Bin Ladin stated that the United States had been “struck by Almighty God in one of its vital organs.”
On 8 October, MCFAUL and JOHN PAUL JONES launched 15 more TLAMs against high-priority fixed targets. Ten F/A-18C and F-14A Tomcats from ENTERPRISE and VINSON conducted air strikes against roughly 13 targets around Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and in the northern provinces around Mazar-e-Sharif. USAF bombers continued attacks as well. Most of the second night strikes occurred during darkness, but some continued after daylight.
The third wave of strikes on 9 October were mostly in daylight, as it was increasingly apparent that the Taliban could not mount a serious air defense threat. On 9 October, approximately 15 USN carrier strike aircraft struck multiple targets in Afghanistan including air defense sites at Herat and Kandahar, as well as a re-strike on a garrison near Mazar-e-Sharif. VF-14 of CVW-8 on ENTERPRISE led the first long-range tactical strike, flying more than 1,700 NM round trip to Mazar-e-Sharif, where two F-14B Tomcats destroyed aircraft and troop transports on the ground. Royal Air Force tankers aircraft provided aerial refueling support to USN carrier jets, while RAF Nimrod R1 and Canberra PR9 aircraft flew reconnaissance and surveillance sorties.
Also on the third day, one of the B-2’s (there were six in the first three days) dropped a GBU-37 5,000-pound earth penetrating weapon against a deeply buried leadership target. This B-2 required six aerial refuelings en route and recovered at Diego Garcia, where it swapped crews with a crew flown into Diego Garcia for the return to Whiteman. Of note, Australia provided a squadron of F/A-18’s and a tanker to provide air defense of Diego Garcia.
Nuclear submarine PROVIDENCE launched three more TLAMs on 10 October at “emerging” targets, including a SAM storage facility near Kandahar and a terrorist training camp near Jalalabad. Carrier strike operations continued daily for the next three months, so I will only list some of the most significant ones after this.
On 10 October, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GEN Myers announced that the Coalition had achieved Air Supremacy over Afghanistan. Even so, CENTCOM continued to direct the CAOC (which in turn directed USN aircraft via the Air Tasking Order (ATO)) to attack air defense targets. This included direction for all SA-13 launchers to be destroyed before moving on to the next phase. NAVCENT N2 argued that the SA-13’s were essentially nothing more than a MANPAD on a tracked vehicle (with a slightly bigger warhead) and that trying to hunt all of them down was a waste of time and bombs. After a couple days CENTCOM relented.
On 11 October, the BATAAN (LHD-5) ARG with 26th MEU(SOC) arrived off the Mediterranean coast of Egypt to commence exercise Bright Star. Bright Star was a massive multi-national exercise that took place every two years. Over 65,000 personnel from 25 countries were involved, including 2,200 Marines of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade commanded by Brigadier General James Mattis, USMC. There was considerable discussion prior to the exercise about whether to cancel it, especially since in the days after 9/11 there was an explosion of terrorist threat reports in Egypt and across the region (most of them false.) There was also discussion about bringing the BATAAN ARG (which was slated for follow-on European Command operations) immediately into the Middle East.
Ultimately Washington and CENTCOM made the decision to continue the exercise as planned, as a signal to terrorists that the United States and Allies would not be deterred. GEN Franks had also expressed his opinion that the Marines would not be of much use against Afghanistan due to the distance from the sea. To be fair, the doctrine at the time was that Marines could operate from the sea to a distance of 200 miles, which wouldn’t reach Afghanistan.
Having transited the Strait of Malacca on 7 October, KITTY HAWK arrived off Masirah, Oman on 12 October, where Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had just established forward headquarters. KITTY HAWK embarked Special Operations Task Force 11, also known as Task Force Sword, which included over 600 personnel including Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta and 2nd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. A team of US Navy SEALs also embarked.
KITTY HAWK embarked about 20 SOF helicopters, including Boeing MH-47D/E Chinooks, Sikorski MH-60K/L Black Hawks, and Hughes Little Birds, either AH-6J, MH-6J, or M500s or combination thereof. In addition, in order to preserve the operational security of the Special Operations forces aboard, KITTY HAWK would maintain a five-mile separation from any other ships for the duration of the operation, as well as a black-out of personal e-mails off the ship, and no press coverage allowed. Four days later, KITTY HAWK’s Air Wing FIVE (CVW-5) Detachment of eight F/A-18C Hornet’s commenced strike operations. During the campaign, CVW-5 would fly 600 missions including 100 combat sorties.
As of 12 October, USN aircraft had dropped 240 JDAM and 1,000/2,000-pound laser-guided bombs and one BLU-109 hard-target munition on Taliban and al Qaida targets. In the first weeks, all U.S. Navy strikes used precision-guided munitions (PGM’s.)
On 13 October, one of the two British submarines launched at least two TLAMs at targets in Afghanistan. The first significant collateral damage incident occurred when a 2,000-pound JDAM released by a USN F/A-18 Hornet impacted a mile from the target (a military helicopter at an airfield) in a residential area of Kabul, killing four civilians and injuring eight. JDAMs use pre-programmed coordinates, so either the original coordinates provided via the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) were incorrect, or the coordinates were incorrectly entered into the weapon before launch (i.e., not pilot error.) Also on 13 October, THEODORE ROOSEVELT and escorts transited southbound through the Suez Canal.
On 14 October, about 15 USN strike aircraft, 8-10 USAF bombers and about 15 TLAMs launched from USN ships (5 TLAMs) and a British submarine hit seven target areas; two near Kandahar, two around Kabul, and one in the far north near Mazar-e-Sharif. The targets included training facilities, SAM storage sites, garrisons, troop and staging areas. The Taliban acknowledged damage at Kabul to the military academy and an artillery garrison. The U.S. also hit a terrorist training camp near Jalalabad. This was the last use of TLAMS, as a result of desire from CNO-level to conserve TLAMs for follow-on (Iraq) operations. As most fixed targets had been destroyed or badly damaged by this point, this was not a significant impediment to further USN operations.
With Taliban air defenses destroyed or effectively mitigated, USAF Special Operations AC-130U gunships also began flying in Afghanistan on 14 October, frequently operating in concert with USN fighters, with initial operations focused on Taliban strongholds near Kandahar. Initially, six AC-130’s operated out of Oman. The Airborne Forward Air Control (FAC-A) capability of the USN F-14’s equipped with LANTIRN pods became particularly valuable in directing strikes from other USN tactical aircraft, USAF bombers and the AC-130 gunships (which also had FAC-A capability and could direct USN fighters to targets, so it worked both ways.) Targets began to shift away from fixed installations to targets of opportunity identified initially by airborne forward air controllers (FAC-A) and later by U.S. Special Operations Teams with USAF ground forward air controllers (G-FAC) working with Afghan Northern Alliance elements.
Several capabilities of the F-14 Tomcat would proved to be very valuable in the shift away from fixed targets. The F-14 Fast Tactical Imagery (FTI) could send and receive images from the SOF teams on the ground. The F-14 LANTIRN (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) would later be used to transmit target coordinates identified by the F-14 to B-52 bombers, which would them program the coordinates in real time into JDAMs on the bomber. The F-14 Tomcat Tactical Targeting (T3) capability would later be used to pass coordinates to USAF F-16’s that lacked GPS receivers. As the focus of targeting changed, USN fighter load-outs shifted from GPS-guided weapons to mostly laser-guided bombs. In the case of F-14’s, typical loads became either four GBU-12 500-pound or two GBU-16 1,000-pound laser-guided bombs.
On 15 October, 90 USN strike fighters from ENTERPRISE, VINSON and KITTY HAWK attacked targets around Kabul and Kandahar, the largest USN strikes to that date as additional tanking assets became available. The THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71) CVBG with Air Wing ONE (CVW-1) embarked, arrived in the North Arabian Sea. “TR” aircraft would take the “night shift” while the other three carriers concentrated on daylight targets.
On 16 October, 85 USN strike fighters in concert with USAF heavy bombers and AC-130 Specter gunships attack targets around Kabul and Kandahar. F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets used AGM-65 laser-guided Maverick missiles and BL-109 earth-penetrator versions of the 2,000-pound JDAM against 12 enemy-occupied mountain cave complexes. The same day a USN F/A-18 accidentally hit the Red Cross food warehouse in Kabul, which was one warehouse amongst other warehouses used by the Taliban. The JDAM went right through the center of the red cross on the roof, i.e., the pre-programmed weapon went exactly where it was pre-programmed to go, indicating an initial target identification error. Fortunately only one Afghan security guard was injured, but a large store of wheat and other humanitarian supplies were destroyed.
Also on 16 October, the Joint Staff in Washington DC announced that targeting was shifting to “engagement zone doctrine” in Afghanistan because of reduction of enemy air defenses. This allowed for “flex targeting” as aircraft bombed a target, refueled in the air, and then hit another target. In the case of USN carrier aircraft, this would result in missions lasting ten or more hours, as the fighters would loiter, periodically refueling, awaiting a target of opportunity identified by a FAC. In addition, the requirement for strikes to be accompanied by EA-6B jamming was rescinded and strike aircraft were permitted to go below 15,000 feet if necessary.
Shortly after midnight on 16-17 October, THEODORE ROOSEVELT/CVW-1 commenced their first strikes into Afghanistan. The next night, the Marine F/A-18C squadron embarked on TR (VMFA-251) made the first Marine airstrikes into Afghanistan, initially targeting Taliban infrastructure, but soon also quickly shifting to targets of opportunity.
On 17 October, USAF tactical jets conducted their first air strikes into Afghanistan, with two F-15’s operating from al Jabber, Airfield in Kuwait. These strikes were extremely long, having to fly all the way around Iran, and were aerial tanking intensive. The F-15’s could carry a heavier bomb-load than USN aircraft and could cover a four-hour gap in carrier air coverage, which was the stated justification for using so much gas. There were several noteworthy strikes by the F-15’s. One strike destroyed the Taliban Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, perhaps the most hated government institution in Afghanistan, at least by much of the populace. Another F-15 strike killed Mohammad Atef, al Qaida’s No. 3 man, who had a major hand in planning and executing previous al Qaida terrorist attacks. The strike on Mohammad Atef also had the distinction of the longest duration fighter strike flight, at over 15.8 hours. Later, USAF F-16’s would participate in strikes, but the number of USAF tactical aircraft engaged each day was very small due to the extreme distance and substantial fuel required.
During the first week of the air campaign, the CIA “Jawbreaker” team, that had gone into Afghanistan on 26 September, was having decent success using cash to get Taliban to defect, including 30-40 Taliban commanders and 1,200 Taliban fighters. Less successful were the multiple attempts to bring in U.S. SOF teams to work with the Northern Alliance. At first the problem was gaining approval from Uzbekistan to use K2 airfield and other sites for SOF missions into Afghanistan. Once that hurdle was cleared, multiple attempts to insert SOF teams were thwarted by foul weather or heavy ground fire at landing zones marked by the CIA team (or both weather and ground fire.) On 16 October, a second CIA liaison team made it into Afghanistan. Finally, on the night of 19-20 October, the first SOF team was successfully inserted into the Shamali plain area between Mazar e-Sharif and Kunduz.
The first SOF team into Afghanistan was Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 555 (also known as A-team 555.) An ODA team had twelve members, including a USAF air controller with the ability to call in airstrikes while other ODA members would designate targets with lasers, which would then be struck by laser-guided bombs. Although the F-14’s ability to laser-designate targets for other aircraft continued to be very valuable, the combination of ground laser-designation by the ODA teams, which could better confirm target identity than aircraft, and planes dropping laser-guided bombs would proved exceptionally effective throughout the rest of the campaign. However, for the first week after 19 October only one other team besides ODA 555 made it into country.
Once in Afghanistan, the ODA teams were moved about by a dilapidated Northern Alliance Mi-8 Hip helicopter, and then proceeded on horseback with Northern Alliance units while wearing Afghan garb. This would result in a requirement to air drop western saddles, as Afghan saddles apparently resulted in a painful ride for Westerners.
By 23 October, the first ODA team was within 500 yards of the Taliban front line outside the strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif. By the end of October, three more ODA teams would be inserted into northern Afghanistan (eventually there would be ten total.) The initial focus was Mazar-e-Sharif, as the capture of that city would give the Coalition a major airfield inside Afghanistan as well as opening a land route into Uzbekistan across the Amu Darya River. Another factor was that General Dostum was the first Northern Alliance leader showing a willingness to go on the offensive. Others complained about not getting U.S. air support, but were actually holding back to see what happened to Dostum and his force of Uzbek fighters, since they were still heavily outnumbered by the Taliban defenders of Mazar-e-Sharif.
On three consecutive days between 19-21 October, the heaviest bombing to date in Operation Enduring Freedom occurred as Coalition aircraft attacked a dozen target sets including Taliban airfields, AAA positions, armored vehicles, ammunition dumps, and AQ training camps. These attacks involved some 90 Navy and Marine Corp strike aircraft operating from the four air wings aboard ENTERPRISE, VINSON, THEODORE ROOSEVELT, and KITTY HAWK. Some targets in northern Afghanistan were 750 miles from the carriers with sorties lasting as long as ten hours with multiple tankings. These missions made aviation history as the longest-range combat sorties ever flown by carrier based aircraft.
Some Northern Alliance leaders began to complain that the U.S. was hitting the same fixed targets over and over again instead of hitting Taliban forces in the field. However, until the G-FACs could be brought into action, it was very difficult for aircraft to sort out friend (Northern Alliance) from foe (Taliban) hindering the effective use of airpower in order to avoid “friendly fire” incidents.
On the night of 19-20 October, Task Force Sword (TF 11) launched its first major raid into southern Afghanistan from KITTY HAWK. The primary target was Mullah Omar’s residential compound near Kandahar. The first objective was a 6,400-foot dirt airstrip about 80 miles southwest of Kandahar to establish a forward refueling point. Known as objective “Rhino,” this airstrip had been used by wealthy sheiks from the United Arab Emirates to fly in by private aircraft to go bustard hunting with falcons. Overwatch for the raid was provided by USN TF 57 P-3C AIP aircraft with long range optical and IR sensors. Four MH-47 Chinook Helicopters launched from KITTY HAWK in complete radio silence (Navy personnel marveled at the force’s ability to launch from the flight deck in exact sequence based solely on timing.)
A small U.S. Army “pathfinder” team had been inserted some time before the operation to determine if the objective was clear of Taliban. Two B-2 bombers bombed the site and AC-130 gunships engaged nearby vehicles, killing about 11 Taliban. At 2315, about 200 Army Rangers of the 75th Ranger Regiment parachuted from 800-feet on to the objective from four MC-130H Combat Talon II aircraft of the U.S. Air Force 16th Special Operations Wing flying from Masirah, Oman. One more Taliban was killed on the objective. One Ranger company set up a perimeter and blocking positions while another cleared buildings. The first MC-130 support aircraft arrived 14 minutes later, dropping off a fuel bladder to set up a forward arming and refueling point (FARP.) Four Chinook helicopters from KITTY HAWK began arriving six minutes later.
After refueling at Rhino, the primary raid force departed to the residential compound of Mullah Omar, deemed Objective Gecko. AC-130s and MH-60L Black Hawk helicopters delivered preparatory fires to cover the disembarkation of 91 Special Operations personnel and their assault vehicles from four Chinook helicopters. Army Rangers set up a perimeter while the Delta Force assault team entered the buildings, initially to no opposition. Although it was possible Mullah Omar would be there, he was not, and the team set about sensitive site exploitation and Intelligence gathering.
On the objective for about an hour, by the time the Delta assault team exited the buildings, a sizable force of Taliban fighters had responded with heavy mortar or rocket-propelled grenade fire and intense small arms fire. Roughly 30 Taliban were killed in the exchange, but 12 U.S. personnel were wounded. Under covering fire from the AC-130’s and Black Hawks, U.S. personnel were successfully extracted by the Chinooks, although one helicopter’s undercarriage was ripped away, and the Taliban later displayed the wheel assembly as a trophy.
As the raid on Mullah Omar’s compound was ongoing, the third company of Rangers was parachuting in to Dalbandin, Pakistan (Objective Hondo,) a remote site about 26 miles south of the Afghanistan border in order to set up a refueling point for the outbound raid. After the Rangers secured the site, an MH-60K Black Hawk attempted to land, but billowing dust caused a “brown out,” disorienting the pilots. The helo hit the ground so hard a wheel broke off and the Black Hawk rolled on its side, tragically killing two Army Rangers and injuring three more.
Prior to the Task Force Sword mission, the 15th MEU(SOC) on PELELIU received orders to prepare to conduct tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, and to serve as a tertiary reserve in case the Rangers’ reserves both became committed during the raid. This Marine forces was designated Task Force Bald Eagle. At about 0300, the PELELIU ARG received a heads up from NAVCENT of a mission to retrieve the downed helicopter. Two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters of HMM-163 launched at 0500 for Dalbandin. The Marines left their security team behind at the request of the Rangers, who would provide their own security at the site. The mission was supported by four Marine VMA-331 AV-8B Harrier II jets, a Marine KC-130 tanker and a USN P-3C.
Upon arrival at Dalbandin, the Marines successfully rigged a sling for the Black Hawk, but fuel consumption due to the 10-ton weight of the helo necessitated a stop at a site further south near Panjgur, Pakistan. While on the ground, awaiting an inbound aircraft with additional fuel, twelve unidentified militants (probably Baluchi in that area, but possibly Pashtun) opened fire on the Marines. The Marines returned fire, but aborted the mission, temporarily leaving the MH-60K, and departing with just enough fuel to reach Pasni on the coast.
A follow-on mission to retrieve the Black Hawk was delayed for several days due to political consideration. Finally Pakistani security forces arrived to set up a large enough perimeter to keep local gunmen away. Early on 24 October, the CH-53E’s launched from PELELIU protected by four AH-1W Super Cobra gunship helos. Two of the CH-53E’s carried an 85-man Marine security team and the other was intended to lift the Black Hawk. A TF 57 P-3C provided overwatch and a KC-130 provided radio relay. Fortunately there was no opposition and the force lifted off from Panjgur with the Black Hawk at 0500 and returned the helicopter to KITTY HAWK at 0630.
On 20 October, a USN F-14 missed several Taliban vehicles with two 500-pound bombs that impacted in a residential area northwest of Kabul. Collateral damage incidents were very rare, and great efforts were made to make them so. The coalition made great efforts via radio and leaflets to convince the population of Afghanistan that the attacks were directed only at al Qaida and the Taliban, not at the general population. This was the exact opposite of what bin Ladin was hoping for, i.e., scenes of collateral damage that would inflame the Islamic world against the U.S. and allies. Nevertheless, the U.S. and international media tendency to sensationalize every incidence of collateral damage worked to al Qaida’s advantage (something that would continue for years.)
Also on 20 October, 80 bombers and strike aircraft, including 60 carrier-based jets attacked 11 target areas, including airfields, radars, tanks, vehicles, and military training facilities.
During mid-late October U.S. Navy SEALS began conducting an increasing number of missions into Afghanistan. Navy Seal RADM Albert M. Calland III led the CENTCOM Special Operations Command. SEAL personnel formed the nucleus of two joint and combined Special Operations Task Forces (CJSOTF) – Task Force North (Dagger) worked with Northern Alliance. Task Force South (K-Bar) focused on destruction of al Qaida ability to conduct operations in Afghanistan. CAPT Robert S. Harward, USN was the Commander CJSOTF-South. The two task forces together conducted more than 60 special reconnaissance, direct action, and sensitive site exploitation missions. They would ultimately call in nearly 150 airstrikes, as well as destroying more than half a million pounds of enemy explosives and weapons.
Beginning about 21 October, Uzbek forces under the command of General Abdul Rashid Dostum commenced an approach toward the strategic northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980’s, General Dostum had been in command of the Soviet-backed Army forces garrisoning the city. Dostum repelled multiple attempts by mujahideen fighters to take the city. After the Soviets left, Dostum and his forces remained in control of the city under the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah. Dostum remained out of the civil war that followed until it looked like the Najibullah government was about to collapse and then he turned against it. Dostum then established an almost completely autonomous region and was able to keep the Taliban at bay until one of his own generals betrayed him, forcing him to flee. General Abdul Malik Pahlawan then invited the Taliban in, but then turned on them in a bloody uprising in 1997 – as many as 3,000 captured Taliban were massacred. Dostum briefly resumed control of the city before the Taliban recaptured it in 1998, responding with a massacre of their own, indiscriminately killing over 8,000 mostly Shiite civilians, including ten Iranian diplomats (a significant factor in the animosity between Iran and the Taliban.)
By 23 October, the arrival of the first SOF ODA team (555) emboldened Dostum to commence moving forward to lay siege to the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif. Another force of Tajiks under General Fahim Khan began to approach from the east, and other smaller Northern Alliance groups from the west. Nevertheless, the number of Taliban in the city outnumbered the Northern Alliance forces closing in from three sides. Amongst the other Northern Alliance elements there was a degree of “wait and see” what happens to Dostum’s Uzbeks before they would commit to attack, plus they wanted their own ODA teams, which were slow to arrive.
On 23 October, CENTCOM Commander, GEN Tommy Franks visited the KITTY HAWK. The next day, Commandant of the Marine Corps, GEN James L. Jones visited the PELELIU ARG/15th MEU(SOC.) On 24 October, the BATAAN ARG/26th MEU(SOC) finally concluded participation in Exercise Bright Star on the Egyptian Mediterranean coast and commenced operations in the Mediterranean in support of European Command regional objectives. The engagement value of Bright Star was considered so important that it continued despite the onset of war, as well as a signal to terrorists that the U.S. would not be deterred from conducting “business as usual.”
By the third week of the war, criticism of the conduct of the air campaign became increasingly vociferous back in the United States from the media, some members of Congress, and even some government and military officials. The word “quagmire” was increasingly heard. For some reason many had an expectation that the Taliban would fold after only a few days of bombing, yet from the outside it appeared that the U.S. was being drawn into an endless air campaign that was showing no results. For fighters that had endured over 20 years of conflict and hardship, this was an unrealistic expectation. The Taliban were nothing if not tough.
It was true that by this point there were few traditional fixed targets left to bomb, and in some cases U.S. bombing was just making the rubble bounce. The delays in getting the SOF ODA teams into Afghanistan was both a source of dissatisfaction by Pentagon leaders as well as a factor in the perceived ineffectiveness of the bombing campaign. Other criticism of the air campaign came from those who were in charge of it, the CAOC, who were unhappy with CENTCOM’s tight-fisted control of the targeting process. Even Northern Alliance leaders were complaining about the U.S. targeting strategy. There was also the disconcerting sense that we were making this up as we went along, and what was more disconcerting was that it was true.
Nevertheless, at the point where things were starting to look bleak, NAVCENT N2 provided an assessment to VADM Moore that the Taliban were starting to crack faster than the Iraqis during Desert Storm or the Serbs in Allied Force, and that this would tip soon. And consistent with traditional warfare in Afghanistan, when the turning point came, the Taliban would lose ground very quickly, especially when air support to the Northern Alliance became more effective. (Traditionally Afghans would fight when the odds seemed even. If one side was overmatched, it was common for them to switch sides. This would result in a domino effect as more and more defections resulted in rapid swings in territory.)
This NAVCENT N2 assessment was based on reports of discussions amongst Taliban commanders who were becoming increasingly frustrated and demoralized. What those in the United States were seeing as an endless bombing campaign, the Taliban also saw as an endless bombing campaign, i.e., the realization that there was no end in sight to bombs falling on their heads. Although relatively few Taliban had been killed to that point, since they had dispersed their personnel from any obvious targets, they watched with increasing dismay as their infrastructure was relentlessly destroyed with incredible precision and with complete impunity.
During the Soviet occupation in the 1980’s, Soviet conventional bombs usually missed their targets. U.S. precision-guided munitions almost always hit their targets. Even if there were no Taliban at the aimpoint, the lesson was not lost; if they ever concentrated enough to be seen, they would be hit with great accuracy. In addition, the JDAMs and laser-guided bombs came from high enough altitudes that defenders on the ground rarely saw them coming, nor could they effectively hit back at the aircraft. The Soviets suffered significant aircraft losses, especially in the later years of the war, but the Taliban were unable to lay a glove on U.S. aircraft. So, from the outside it may have appeared that the bombing campaign was increasingly futile, but from the Taliban perspective, it was relentless and precise, and there was absolutely nothing they could do about it except realize that if they came out of cover they would die.
On 25 October, the THEODORE ROOSEVELT relieved ENTERPRISE, which had been extended beyond her normal deployment. After cross-decking ammunition, ENTERPRISE commenced her return transit home. THEODORE ROOSEVELT would ultimately set a then-record 153 consecutive days at sea between portcalls.
The same day, a particularly noteworthy strike occurred. By then Northern Alliance forces from three different groups, but primarily Uzbeks under General Dostum, had Taliban forces penned in the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban then mounted a determined counter-attack that came dangerously close to overrunning the Special Operations team working with the Uzbeks. The G-FAC with the SOF team vectored in a USMC F/A-18C of VMFA-251 (off THEODORE ROOSEVELT) which had been loitering on an extreme long range mission (700 NM) waiting for targets. Major Brantley Bond rolled in on a series of attacks, knocking out at least four anti-aircraft guns and stopping a Taliban tank with a very close near-miss. The attack caused other Taliban troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers to flush from hiding and Bond attacked repeatedly. Once out of ordnance, he guided additional aircraft in to attack using his forward looking infrared (FLIR) system. As the survivors attempted to flee, other carrier aircraft destroyed 15 more armored vehicles. Then as the Taliban retreated back into Mazar e-Sharif they were bombed by B-52’s inflicting massive casualties. Major Bond would subsequently be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.
NAVCENT N2 assessed that the blunting of the Taliban counter-attack would be the tipping point in the North. Even though the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif significantly outnumbered the Northern Alliance Forces, they had no answer to USN and USAF air power. The effectiveness of the airstrikes in stopping the counter-attack, would (and did) energize the other Northern Alliance commanders, and sure enough the clamor for air support for their own factions increased to a fever pitch. The Taliban also knew how quickly the inhabitants of the city could turn against them. In expectation of yet another round of bloody retribution, there were already signs that Taliban defenders at Mazar e-Sharif were starting to melt away. NAVCENT N2 assessed that once Mazar-e-Sharif fell, other Taliban positions in the North would quickly fold. Many Taliban would try to blend into the pockets of Pashtun population in the North, many would defect, but most would attempt to flee to the south to regroup and make a stand in the Pashtun heartland around Kandahar.
The Navy’s and Military Sealift Command’s logistics effort to support not only the Naval forces in the North Arabian Sea, but also the USAF’s bombing campaign was immense. As an example, on 25 October, the USNS MAJOR BERNARD F. FISHER (T-AK-4396) offloaded 373 containers of ammunition and 5 containers of flares at Diego Garcia to replenish stores used by USAF B-1 and B-52 bombers during attacks against Taliban and al Qaida targets. Between 28 October and 3 November, USNS JOHN ERICSSON (T-AO-194) delivered 407 pallets of cargo to Navy ships in North Arabian Sea, the most ever delivered in a one week period by an underway replenishment oiler.
On 26 Oct, Abdul Haq, a famous anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen leader was captured, tortured and killed by Taliban. He had entered Afghanistan on 21 October from Pakistan, where he had been in exile since the Taliban take-over, without any U.S. support. A belated attempt by the CIA to prevent his capture by attacking a Taliban convoy with an MQ-1 armed Predator UAV proved too late. Abdul Haq’s intent was to create a popular anti-Taliban uprising amongst Pashtun tribes. Unlike the Northern Alliance, Abdul Haq was ethnic Pashtun and as result represented a significant threat to the Taliban. He is believed to have been betrayed by the Pakistani ISID who were still playing a double game of acquiescing to U.S. operations in Afghanistan, but still covertly supporting the Taliban. Abdul Haq was actually opposed to both the Taliban and to U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. Given his stature and Pashtun ethnicity, Abdul Haq would have been an obvious candidate to lead a post-Taliban Afghan unity government.
Also on 26 October, another targeting foul-up occurred, when two USN F/A-18’s and two USAF B-52’s dropped GPS weapons on the Kabul warehouse complex, hitting the Red Cross food warehouse again, even though it had been taken off the target list. There were no confirmed reports of casualties on the ground.
On 27 October, after the conclusion of Exercise Bright Star, Brigadier General James N. Mattis, USMC, Commanding General of 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, arrived at NAVCENT headquarters Bahrain for staff meetings with VADM Moore. VADM Moore gave BGen Mattis a briefing on the situation and his expectation that the situation in the north would quickly turn against the Taliban, and that the Taliban would attempt to regroup and hold out in the south. VADM Moore wanted to get U.S. Marines into southern Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from regrouping. The city of Kandahar had over 600,000 people, and Kandahar province almost a million and a half. The retreating Taliban would be expected to blend into this large civilian population, making it extremely difficult to destroy them using air power alone and without inflicting large-scale civilian casualties.
VADM Moore also understood that the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the Northern Alliance would have no inclination to go into “Pashtunistan” to fight once they had liberated their own tribal areas, especially with the onset of winter and the end of the traditional Afghan “fighting season.” If the Taliban succeeded in reconstituting themselves in Kandahar before the onset of winter, they could hold out for months if not years. VADM Moore asked BGen Mattis to put together a plan to quickly get Marines into southern Afghanistan to disrupt the Taliban, while he engaged GEN Franks to convince him of the necessity of doing so (this would be in the face of intense U.S. Army opposition at the Washington DC-level to having the Marines be the “first in” Afghanistan, senior DoD officials’ desire not to put any ground troops in Afghanistan at all, as well as GEN Franks’ stated belief that Afghanistan was “too far” for the Marines from ship.)
On 30 October, Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England visited PELELIU and KITTY HAWK. He hinted that 15th MEU(SOC) might play an offensive role in near future. The same day, CENTCOM notified NAVCENT of a forthcoming warning order for the conduct of amphibious raids into southern Afghanistan. The warning order had actually been instigated at VADM Moore’s request following meetings between VADM Moore and BGen Mattis.
NAVCENT, MARCENT Forward and BGen Mattis’ small staff formed an operational planning team, with Intelligence support initially provided by NAVCENT N2, and soon bolstered by superb reach-back support from the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA) at Quantico, and augmented by the considerable Navy/Marine Intelligence capability on PELELIU and BATAAN. Besides planning for raids into Afghanistan, the NAVCENT/USMC team also began planning for interdiction and non-combatant evacuation (NEO) in the Horn of Africa. At this point VADM Moore did something heretical and placed BGen Mattis in charge of all amphibious forces in theater and tasked him to conduct amphibious raids into southern Afghanistan. This appointment made BGen Mattis, in the words of an official Marine Corps report, “the first Marine to command a naval task force in wartime.”
At this time, BGen Mattis also formed a close partnership with CAPT Harward (who had grown up in Iran and spoke fluent Farsi, which is virtually the same as Afghan formal Dari.) The SEALs of TF K-Bar and the Marines quickly formed a mutually supporting ad hoc relationship that proved exceptionally beneficial to both. This unorthodox relationship would soon also include Australian Special Air Service (SAS) commandos.
Activated on 1 November, Task Force 58 (TF 58) combined the PELELIU ARG/15th MEU(SOC) and the BATAAN ARG/26th MEU(SOC,) when it arrived, into one organization under the command of BGen Mattis, with his new call sign, “Chaos.” (Doctrinally, the Navy remains in command of an amphibious force until the Marines establish the ability to command and control ashore. However, as BGen Mattis said, “Doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative…it is a guide, not an intellectual straitjacket. Improvise, adapt, and overcome.”)
By this time it was clear that the previous NAVCENT engagement with the Pakistani Navy was paying off; the Pakistani Navy and Marine Corps were especially helpful ashore, and their ships and submarines remained clear. Although there was concern terrorists could use an aircraft to crash into a U.S. or Coalition ship, the Taliban clearly posed no threat at sea. Therefore there was no compelling need for the Navy to be in command of the amphibious task force. Nevertheless, VADM Moore’s decision did draw some flak from back in Washington for setting precedent, but his decision made operational and tactical sense for the particular situation.
Each MEU(SOC) included a detachment of six AV-8B Harrier II’s from VMA-331 and VMA-223 respectively. Two KC-130’s normally allotted to each unit proved insufficient and the task force received six of the planes, two from VMGR-252 and four from VMGR-352, forward deployed to Bahrain and frequently operating out of Jacobabad. The formal NAVCENT Warning Order for TF 58 to plan raids into Afghanistan was issued 1 November. Also on 1 November, NAVCENT issued a formal request for the BATAAN ARG/26th MEU(SOC) to transfer from the European Command AOR to the CENTCOM AOR. NAVCENT also requested additional forces to relieve the 15th MEU(SOC) of security duty at Shahbaz Airfield at Jacobabad.
Also on 1 November, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld announced that by the 25th day of combat operations Coalition aircraft flown more than 2,000 sorties and delivered more than 1 million humanitarian rations to Afghan refugees (by air drop.)
On 2 November, two USAF Sikorsky MH-53J Pave Low III helicopters of 20th Special Operations Squadron attempted a night medical evacuation of a soldier in northern Afghanistan. One helicopter crashed during a white out in freezing rain at altitude above 10,000 feet in Pakistan along the border. The other MH-53J recovered the crew of the crashed helo, four of whom had been injured. PELELIU prepared to launch an HMM-163 CH-53E Super Stallion and two AH-1W Super Cobra escorts to retrieve the downed helicopter. However, instead of putting recovery forces at risk, two VF-102 F-14B Tomcats (off THEODORE ROOSEVELT) destroyed the MH-53J with two GBU-16 1,000-pound laser guided bombs.
On 3 November, three AV-8B from 15th MEU embarked on PELELIU flew the first Harrier II strikes against targets in southern Afghanistan using Mk. 82 500-pound bombs. The same day, BGen Mattis briefed TF-58’s concept of operations for raids into Afghanistan to VADM Moore. On 5 November COMUSNAVCENT issued the concept of operations for raids in Afghanistan. BGen Mattis then issued the planning directive for raids in southern Afghanistan and interdiction of main supply routes.
On 4 November, a monkey-wrench was thrown in the plans for the raids when NAVCENT was tasked by CENTCOM to send the PELELIU ARG/15th MEU(SOC) into the Arabian Gulf to cover the conference of the World Trade Organization in Doha, Qatar. The mission was a bit ambiguous, but had there been a major terrorist attack on the conference, PELELIU was positioned to provide response and consequence management. PELELIU left station in the North Arabian Sea on 6 November and took up station off Qatar on 9 November. The World Trade Organization Conference was another “the show must go on” event to show that terrorists would not prevent the U.S. and international organizations from doing business. It was, however, disruptive to operations as PELELIU transited into the Gulf and remained there until 17 November.
Also on 4 November, USAF Special Operations MC-130 Combat Talons dropped two massive BLU-82B 15,000-pound bombs on Taliban positions near Mazar e-Sharif (these were Vietnam era “Daisy Cutters” originally intended to clear landing zones in the jungle.) The huge explosions added to the demoralization of the Taliban. The period also saw the first use of a USAF RQ-1 Predator UAV to mark targets for AC-130 gunships.
Between 6 and 9 November, numerous USN carrier aircraft participated in the battle for Mazar e-Sharif in the far north of Afghanistan (700 NM from the carriers.) On 8 November Coalition aircraft flew 78 strike sorties into Afghanistan, including 60 USN carrier aircraft, about ten USAF heavy bombers, and several USAF F-15 fighters flying all the way from Kuwait. Almost all of the strikes were flown against Taliban forces defending Mazar e-Sharif. F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18C Hornets dropped mostly laser-guided bombs on enemy positions, aiding the Northern Alliance forces closing in on the city. One raid killed a Taliban leader and an estimated 85 Islamic Militants.
On 9 November, BGen Mattis briefed the TF-58 Concept of Employment to VADM Moore, who approved. The next day BGen Mattis briefed the concept to the CENTCOM Deputy Commander, Lieutenant General Mike Delong, who concurred with the plan.
Also on 9 November, continued intensive airstrikes by USAF and mostly USN aircraft finally broke the back of Taliban resistance at Mazar-e-Sharif. Taliban began to flee or attempt to blend into the civilian population. About 400-500 die-hards barricaded themselves in the Sultan Razia Girls School (unused by girls since the Taliban take-over,) believing they would be protected from air attack by the close proximity of the venerated Blue Mosque, a sacred Shiite shrine that houses the remains of Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam and a cousin and son-in-law to the prophet Muhammad.
As the Uzbek forces of the Northern Alliance surrounded the Taliban hold-outs, General Dostum requested an airstrike. USN aircraft dropped four precision-guided bombs directly into the building, killing, wounding or stunning most of the Taliban, without significantly damaging the Blue Mosque. A sizable number of Pakistani volunteers showed up to assist the Taliban; they were barely-trained, arrived too late, and for the most part met a sad end.
With that, Mazar-e-Sharif became the first major city to fall to the Northern Alliance, energizing the other Northern Alliance factions and demoralizing the Taliban. The Taliban retreat from Mazar-e-Sharif, quickly turned into a bloody rout. The capture of Mazar-e-Sharif gave the Coalition its first major airfield in Afghanistan and opened an overland supply route into Uzbekistan. Those Taliban that didn’t attempt to melt away after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif attempted to retreat to the east toward the major city of Kunduz to make a stand. Intense Coalition air strikes inflicted heavy casualties on the retreating Taliban, despite the challenges of sorting our friend from foe in the suddenly very fluid battlespace.
On 10 November, an E-2C Hawkeye directed a VF-102 F-14B Tomcat (off THEODORE ROOSEVELT) to attack a Taliban column moving eastward from the city (Mazar-e-Sharif). The F-14 destroyed the lead truck, blocking the remaining vehicles in a narrow mountain defile. Commander Roy J. Kelly, VF-102 Commanding Officer, flew another F-14 and led the destruction by other Navy fighters of vehicles packed with enemy troops in the ensuing traffic jam that stretched for almost ten miles. During this action, Lieutenant (junior grade) Sara A. Stires of VF-102 became the first woman in the USN to earn a Distinguished Flying Cross; she was the radar intercept officer (RIO) of the F-14 that hit the first truck and then took out six more.
With the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, Taliban resistance in the north quickly collapsed, as predicted. The newly re-energized Northern Alliance attacked across multiple locations. ODA 555 shifted its area to supporting Fahim Khan’s forces that were holding most of Bagram Airfield. The ODA Team called in 25 airstrikes that destroyed 29 Taliban tanks, six command posts, and inflicted about 2,200 Taliban casualties. USN carrier aircraft participated in these attacks, but USAF heavy bombers with large PGM bomb loads and long loiter times became increasingly effective. With the support of U.S. airpower, a force that had been hanging on by their fingernails for nearly six years, all of a sudden went on a stunning offensive. Within the space of three days, the Northern Alliance went from controlling only 15% of Afghanistan to almost 50%. With stunning rapidity, the Northern Alliance was on the outskirts of Kabul by 12 November.
On 11 November, Northern Alliance Forces under General Mohammad Daud Daud quickly routed Taliban defenders of the northern city of Taloqan, without needing U.S. air support. Daud then moved on Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance forces met very heavy resistance. Daud decided to dig in and lay siege to the city, counting on U.S. aircraft to reduce the Taliban defenses.
In far western Iran, the major city of Herat fell to a combined Iranian, U.S. and Northern Alliance operation (yes, you read that right.) On 11 November, ODA 554 was inserted near Herat to link up with a Northern Alliance force of about 5,000 men, under the command of Ismail Khan. A Tajik, Ismail Khan had been a highly respected anti-Soviet mujahideen commander and subsequent governor of Herat. His forces held off the Taliban for several years, until he was betrayed by General Dostum in 1995, forcing Ismail Khan to flee to Iran (although the Tajiks are Sunni Muslims, they are ethnically closely related to Persians.) Ismail Khan was later captured by the Taliban while trying to foment an uprising in far western Afghanistan. He escaped from prison in Kandahar back to Iran.
On 12 November, Iranian commandos secretly entered Herat. These were members of the Iranian Quds Force, commanded by Major General Qassem Soleimani. The Quds Force was the part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps specializing in unconventional warfare (and terrorism) and military intelligence operations. (Soleimani was killed in Iraq in a U.S. UAV strike in January 2020.) The Quds Force commandos instigated a surprisingly quick and effective popular uprising that drove the Taliban out of Herat, enabling Ismail Khan’s force and U.S. Special Forces advisors to enter the city without a fight to the cheers of the local population who hated the Taliban. Ismail Khan then became the strongly pro-Iranian governor of Herat.
As the Northern Alliance went on the offensive, frantic negotiations were underway between the U.S., United Nations and Pakistan over how to establish an interim government in Kabul, effect a transition of power, and establish a longer term unity government. Almost everyone thought the Taliban would hold out in Kabul for some time, which would result in heavy urban fighting and consequent civilian casualties, that would also be accompanied by a generalized breakdown of law and order. Pakistan was adamant that any new government must include Pashtun representation, vehemently objecting to having an Afghan government comprised completely or even mostly of the Northern Alliance ethnic minorities. Conscious of the necessity of keeping Pakistan on the right side of the War on Terror, significant attempts were made to accommodate Pakistan’s desires and mitigate International Community concerns over a potential blood bath in the city. U.S. forces were even directed to hold back air support in an attempt to slow the Northern Alliance. President Bush even requested that the Northern Alliance hold up outside the city while the negotiations were on going.
The Taliban made the complex negotiations over the fate of Kabul moot. After the beating at Bagram (northeast of Kabul,) retreating Taliban just kept on going, abandoning the city without a fight. The Northern Alliance could hardly keep up, and with no resistance were inside Kabul by 13 November and in control by the 14th. This was viewed by Pakistan as a major humiliation and a failure of their decade of support to the Taliban.
As Kabul was on the verge of falling, the JOHN C. STENNIS (CVN-74) Carrier Battle Group deployed from San Diego on 12 November, several weeks early. The STENNIS CVBG was under the command of Rear Admiral James M. Zortman, Commander Carrier Group SEVEN. Carrier Air Wing NINE (CVW-9,) was embarked on STENNIS. Ships in the CVBG included LAKE CHAMPLAIN (CG-57,) PORT ROYAL (CG-73,) DECATUR (DDG-73,) ELLIOT (DDG-967,) JARRETT (FFG-33,) HMCS HALIFAX, JEFFERSON CITY (SSN-759,) SALT LAKE CITY (SSN-716,) BRIDGE (T-AOE-10,) CONCORD (T-AFS-5,) and FLINT (T-AE-32.)
On 14 November, carrier aircraft provided cover to three U.S. Special Operations helicopters near Ghazni (50 miles southwest of Kabul) that picked up eight Christian relief workers freed from a Taliban prison by Northern Alliance forces. The rescued aid workers were imprisoned by the Taliban in August 2001, accused of proselytizing Christianity (a crime under the Taliban) and included Americans Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer of Shelter Now. Ghazni would be about as far south as the Northern Alliance was willing to go.
Also on 14 November, the city of Jalalabad fell to the Northern Alliance. Jalalabad was the key city on the Afghan side of the strategic Khyber Pass, and its capture would soon open an overland supply route for the Northern Alliance into Pakistan. It was also an escape route for over 3,000 Taliban and al Qaida fighters into Pakistan. In addition, the BATAAN ARG/26th MEU(SOC) finally transited the Suez Canal into the Red Sea en route the Arabian Sea.
As of 15 November, carrier air strikes focused on pockets of Taliban troops near Mazar e-Sharif and against Taliban forces stubbornly holding out in the northern city of Kunduz. The Taliban were bolstered by bin Ladin’s Arab fighters (who proved more willing to fight to the death than the Taliban) as well as Pakistani ISID advisors trapped in the city.
On 15 November, a VF-102 F-14 Tomcat (off THEODORE ROOSEVELT) flown by Lieutenant Andrew P. Hayes spotted several bivouacs of Taliban armored vehicles only two miles from U.S. Army Special Forces. Despite anti-aircraft and small arms fire, Hayes’ F-14 dropped three laser-guided bombs that hit moving tanks and a revetted armored vehicle. He then guided three GBU-12 laser-guided bombs released by his wingman that destroyed two revetted tanks and a fuel truck. Secondary explosions forced more than 50 Taliban troops to flee their positions. Over the next six hours, Hayes guided 12 coalition aircraft until low fuel forced his disengagement. Navy carrier aircraft dropped 20 laser-guided and 16 general purpose bombs that resulted in the destruction of 33 vehicles including 27 armored. Hayes received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
16 November marked the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (through 16 December.) Pakistani President Musharraf called on the Coalition to significantly slow the pace of bombing. This had less to do with religious reasons than a desire by Pakistan not to see their extensive investment in the Taliban completely crushed. However, the Northern Alliance was on a roll and the Taliban were on the run so it didn’t matter much. Coalition operations continued unabated.
Meanwhile the siege of Kunduz in the north continued, with heavy U.S. airstrikes on Taliban positions. USAF B-1B and B-52 bombers conducted this mission with great effect (and also got a lot of TV news coverage.) Over the course of 11 days, U.S. aircraft (including carrier aircraft) destroyed 44 Taliban bunker complexes, 12 tanks, and 51 trucks, killing some 2,000 Taliban. Within the city were a significant number of Pakistani volunteers who had gone into Afghanistan after 9/11 to support the Taliban, as well as a number of Pakistani ISID advisors. Somehow most of the Pakistanis managed to escape, and there were reports that Pakistan was able to airlift them out. Reporting after the war claimed the U.S. at a very high level agreed to permit the airlift. These reports were denied by both the U.S. and Pakistan.
On 16 November, BGen Mattis refined the concept of operations for raids into Afghanistan and issued the Fragmentary Order (FRAGO.) The operation called for Navy SEALs to establish surveillance over the objective (Rhino, the dirt airfield 80 miles southwest of Kandahar.) The 15th MEU(SOC) would then secure desert air strip (Objective 1.) The 26th MEU (SOC) then would flow through Rhino to seize Kandahar airport (Objective 2.) Then, on order, the Marines would interdict Route 1 (Objective 3.)(Route 1 was the “Ring Road” that connected most of the major cities of Afghanistan.
Also on 16 November, the Pentagon announced that key al Qaida operative Mohammed Atef was killed in pre-planned UAV strike. Mohammed Atef was essentially the No. 3 person in al Qaida, after bin Ladin and Ayman al Zawahiri. Unlike many reports of killed al Qaida leaders, in this case he was actually dead. Most accounts indicate a CIA UAV strike was the cause, but a USAF history states pretty unequivocally that it was an LGB from an F-15E on the longest fighter combat mission in history - 15.8 hours.)
On 17 November, F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets (including USMC from VMFA-251) on THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71) attacked a large column of Taliban troops in trucks and armored vehicles rapidly approaching Special Operations Forces from Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 514 who were protecting Hamid Karzai near Tarin Kowt, near Kandahar. Like Abdul Haq, Karzai was also Pashtun. Although much less well-known, he was still viewed by the Taliban as a great threat as Karzai had the potential to turn other Pashtun leaders and people against the Taliban. Karzai had spent time in exile in Pakistan and the United States, spoke English very well, and had returned to Pakistan by 9/11.
Karzai had first gone into Afghanistan from Pakistan on 8 October, without U.S. support or knowledge. He headed for Tarin Kowt, the home turf of his Popalzai Durrani Tribe (he was born in Kandahar) but also near the homeland of Mullah Omar, which incensed the Taliban. Karzai was nearly captured by the Taliban on 4 November, but was rescued at the last moment by U.S. Special Operations Forces. He was reinserted into the same area on 14 November, this time accompanied by ODA 574.
The “Battle of Tarin Kowt” was the second determined Taliban effort to kill Karzai. A force of about 100 Taliban vehicles, including several armored personnel carriers, with about 1,000 Taliban was spotted by the ODA team supporting Karzai, who called in U.S. Navy aircraft for support. For more than three hours, carrier strike aircraft pounded the Taliban column, destroying over 30 vehicles and killing about 300 Taliban fighters. In doing so, naval aircraft saved the future President of Afghanistan. Karzai would later claim that this was the decisive battle of the war, breaking the will of the Taliban to resist.
On 17 November, the BATAAN ARG arrived in North Arabian Sea, including WHIDBEY ISLAND (LSD-41) and SHREVEPORT (LPD-12.) TF 58 issued the Operations Order to establish forward operating bases in southern Afghanistan and to seize Kandahar airfield. Elements of TF 58 – Navy SEALs, Marine Force Recon, and Marine Expeditionary Unit Service Support Group 15 conducted hydrographic survey of Chur Beach near Pasni, Pakistan, which would be used as a staging area for the operation, with equipment brought ashore under cover of night to avoid stirring up any local opposition (who liked neither the Pakistani government nor the Taliban nor foreigners in general.) This activity continued on 18 November.
On 18 November, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment helicopters launched from KITTY HAWK and inserted Special Operations Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 583 into southern Afghanistan, where it linked up with anti-Taliban Pashtun leader Gul Agha Sherzai. Sherzai was also a famed anti-Soviet mujahedeen fighter and had been Governor of Kandahar until driven into hiding in Pakistan by the Taliban. This action blocked the main road between Kandahar and Quetta, Pakistan and the border crossing near Spin Boldak.
Although NAVCENT’s primary focus was on the war in Afghanistan, NAVCENT actions to curtail the smuggling of Iraqi oil continued. Small tankers, many in poor material condition, would load Iraqi oil in the Shatt-al Arab, Iraq, in violation of United Nations sanctions. These tankers would then thread the line of Iranian territorial waters, ducking in to escape U.S. ships and ducking out to escape Iranian ships before transshipping oil to other vessels in United Arab Emirates (UAE) waters. (The degree of Iranian tolerance for this activity changed over time; sometimes the Iranians turned a complete blind eye, other times they used their ability to control access to the Shat al-Arab to almost completely shut down the activity. Occasionally the UAE would also make a desultory effort to clamp down on the transshipment activity, but there was just too much money being made.)
On 11 November, the destroyer O’KANE (DDG-77) stopped and boarded the cargo ship M/V SMARA (spelled multiple ways in different accounts, but formerly the M/V NAVIGATOR.) The boarding party discovered 1,700 metric tons of Iraqi oil hidden in cargo holds. SMARA was a dry cargo vessel crudely modified to carry liquid cargo, which was becoming an increasingly common way for smugglers to attempt to avoid being caught. SMARA was detained and then taken to a holding area where other smuggling ships were detained awaiting disposition of their illegal cargo and of the ships themselves. SMARA was unusually decrepit even by the low maintenance standards for other smuggling vessels.
The destroyer PETERSON (DD-969) had the duty to guard the holding area, and an eight-member security team from PETERSON was posted on board SMARA to keep watch. On 17 November, weather suddenly deteriorated and high winds and heavy seas caused SMARA to founder. Despite the adverse weather, a LAMPS Mk III helicopter from HSL-44 Detachment 4 embarked on PETERSON, an SH-60B Seahawk of HSL-42 Detachment 2 from LEYTE GULF (CG-55,) two rigid hull inflatable boats from the cruiser and INGRAHAM (FFG-61,) and HMAS SYDNEY (FFG-03) were able to rescue six of PETERSON’s sailors and ten smuggler crewmen. Unfortunately, EN1 Vincent Parker, ET3 Benjamin Johnson and four smugglers were lost with the ship. Despite extensive efforts during the course of the anti-smuggling operations to train and prepare boarding teams to deal with any hostile action from the smuggling ships (or terrorists using the smuggling ships as cover,) it was the sea that killed the first U.S. Sailors during the operation.
On 19 November, approximately 65 carrier-based USN and USMC aircraft struck numerous targets, focusing on Taliban and al Qaida cave and tunnel complexes, and Taliban troops in the Kandahar and Kunduz regions, where the Taliban continued to hold out. The carriers had conducted strike operations every day that weather permitted since 7 October. 19 November also marked the first flight of a USAF RQ-4A Global Hawk over Afghanistan, rushed right out of its test and evaluation stage.
On 20 November, BGen Mattis and his small staff relocated from NAVCENT Bahrain to PELELIU. The same day, elements of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division relieved elements of the 15th MEU in providing security for the CSAR base at Jacobabad, Pakistan. The Marines then re-embarked the PELELIU ARG.
On 21 November, TF 58 commenced ship-to-shore movement to stage forces ashore near Pasni, Pakistan. Although this operation was conducted with the acquiescence of the Pakistani Government, the U.S. activity remained restricted to nighttime due to local anti-Pakistan political sensitivities near Pasni. This ship-to-shore movement (over the next three months) would eventually total 1,700 personnel, 180 vehicles and 267 short tons of cargo from PELELIU ARG and 1,800 personnel, 70 vehicles and 400 short tons of cargo from BATAAN ARG.
Also on 21 November, a 20-man Navy SEAL detachment from Task Force K-Bar (CJSOTF-South) was inserted into Afghanistan by aircraft from Task Force Sword (off KITTY HAWK) to provide special reconnaissance of the dirt airfield at Objective Rhino. The SEALS were to determine the presence or absence of any Taliban on the objective and report back. The SEALS were supported by TF 57 P-3C aircraft providing overwatch.
During the night on 22 November, four VMA-223 AV-8Bs embarked on board BATAAN (LHD-5) flew the first sorties of 26th MEU(SOC) into Afghanistan. Just before dawn the Harrier II’s destroyed an al Qaida convoy with laser-guided bombs.
By 23 November, relentless airstrikes by Navy and USAF aircraft finally broke back of Taliban and Arab resistance in the northern city of Kunduz. About 3,500 Taliban ultimately surrendered, but most of the remnants of the 55th Arab Brigade trapped in the city fought to the bitter end, although some managed to escape to Tora Bora and across the border into Pakistan. As the city fell, there were reports of looting and execution of Taliban prisoners. An unknown, but probably large (estimated 250-2,000) of these prisoners suffocated in shipping containers while being transported from Kunduz to Sheberghan prison, with any survivors shot and killed by Northern Alliance forces under General Dostum. This would later be known as the Dasht-i-Leili massacre. There were vague reports at the time that Taliban prisoners had been killed, but the details of this remain murky to this day.
Once Kunduz fell, Kandahar in the south became the last major city remaining in Taliban hands. The south of Afghanistan was solidly Pashtun, except for a very few semi-nomadic minority groups. Although the Soviets had occupied Kandahar, the entire region remained implacably hostile. During the subsequent Civil War, no non-Pashtun groups had successfully operated in the south. The remainder of the Taliban were determined to make their stand in their historic heartland of Kandahar, and were reasonably confident they could hold out against the Northern Alliance. Their confidence would be rudely shattered by the surprise arrival of U.S. Marines in their rear.
After two days of delay awaiting execute authority from CENTCOM, on 24 November, BGen Mattis, Commander of TF-58, issued the execute order for Operation Swift Seizure, the opening phase of Operation Swift Freedom, the longest-range assault from the sea in U.S. Naval history – 400 miles from the sea to Objective Rhino.
By 1200 on 25 November, TF 58 assumed control of the refueling point at Shamsi, Pakistan (46 miles south of the Afghan border.) At 1615, the escort force lifted off from PELELIU, consisting of four AH-1W Super Cobra and three UH-1N Iroquois (“Huey”) helicopters of HMM-263. The escort force would refuel at Shamsi before continuing to the objective. A TF 57 P-3C with a Marine liaison officer aboard provided target overwatch. Four AV-8B Harriers (two from each MEU)SOC) and additional F-14B and F/A-18C from THEODORE ROOSEVELT would be positioned to provide air support. The lead elements of the assault force were expected to reach the objective at 2100.
At 1700, the CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters of HMM-163 lifted off from PELELIU with lead assault elements of 15th MEU(SOC.) Three more CH-53E’s of HMM-365 lifted off BATAAN, touched down on PELELIU and lifted off the remainder of the 15th MEU assault force by 1745.
The six CH-53E’s were to refuel from two Marine KC-130 tankers of VMGR-352. The first echelon of three helicopters had no problem, but mechanical problems with the hose of one tanker prevented two of the three helicopters in the second echelon from taking fuel. This contingency had been foreseen, so the helicopters had enough fuel to reach Rhino, but would have to shut down on arrival.
As the CH-53E’s finished refueling, the escort force crossed into Afghanistan leading the way for the last 90 miles in staggered waves; two Super Cobras, then three Hueys, then two Super Cobras. The helicopters initially flew at 75-feet, but increased to 200-feet when the only light came from the moon. As the assault waves approached, the SEAL team was providing updates to the command center on PELELIU and the P-3C was transmitting real-time images. As the SEALS and P-3C confirmed no Taliban present, the SEALS placed flashing infrared strobe lights on the runway. The escort forces reported the objective clear of hostile forces, transmitting the code word “Winter.” After more than four hours in the air, the first CH-53E arrived within 30 seconds of the designated L-hour. The other CH-53E’s approached at 10-minute intervals, although severe brown-out conditions from billowing dust caused several helicopters to shoot multiple approaches.
The first wave disembarked 66 men and two interim fast-attack vehicles with heavy machine guns and man-portable Javelin anti-tank missiles. The second wave disembarked 95 passengers, including the small jump command post, with a suite of satellite, high-frequency and ultrahigh frequency radios to communicate directly with orbiting P-3C and USAF E-8C Joint Stars surveillance aircraft. In addition, a detachment from the USAF 21st Special Tactics Squadron disembarked to survey the runway condition.
As soon as the USAF team declared the runway C-130-capable, the first Marine KC-130 from Shamsi, Pakistan landed 90 minutes after L-hour, with more combat Marines and equipment. Seven more C-130’s arrived at 20-30 minute intervals, and by the next morning 403 troops, four fast attack vehicles and supporting equipment had been landed at Rhino, and a forward refueling point had been established. Due to the potential MANPAD threat, initial aviation operations were restricted to nighttime hours; the helicopters would soon be permitted during daylight, but fixed-wing operations remained restricted until the end of December.
The Marines at Rhino represented the first U.S. conventional ground force in Afghanistan. (A Battalion of British Royal Marines had gone into Bagram Airfield on 17 November, after it was already in the hands of the Northern Alliance.) One of the first Marine platoons on the ground at Rhino planted an American flag, only to be told by CENTCOM a few days later to take it down. CENTCOM Commander GEN Franks then banned use of the term Swift Freedom. Only Enduring Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) were permitted. This was ostensibly because DoD’s messaging was that this would be a “Long War,” i.e., nothing swift about it.
Also on 25 November, more than 300 Taliban and al Qaida prisoners staged a sudden uprising where they were being held captive in the fortress of Qala-e-Jhangi, six miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif. These were mostly “foreign fighters” separated out for interrogation from most of the Taliban prisoners that went to Sheberghan Prison. The prisoners used hand grenades that they had hidden and overpowered the Uzbek guards. The prisoners also killed CIA agent (and former Marine) Johnny M. Spann, who was in the courtyard interrogating prisoners when the rebellion broke out; he was the first combat death of the war. The prisoners then stormed the armory, armed themselves and seized most of the citadel.
In response to the prisoner rebellion, USN F/A-18C Hornets were called in to drop seven Joint Direct Attack Munitions on the fortress while two USAF AC-130H Specter gunships raked the compound with 40mm and 105mm rounds that touched off a hidden munitions dump. After three days of fighting in the labyrinthine underground tunnels beneath the fortress, during which Coalition forces flooded the tunnels with icy water, the remaining holdouts were killed or surrendered (again.) During the uprising and the fighting afterwards, 73 Afghans were killed and about 250 wounded, along with five American and four British Special Forces wounded. About 300 of the prisoners were killed and 86 were re-captured (some of these were later reported executed by Dostum’s men.) One of those captured was the “American Taliban,” John Walker Lindh, who got all the press. However there was a second American citizen, Yaser Esam Hamdi (born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,) who was also recaptured.
U.S. Navy Seal Stephen Bass was awarded the Navy Cross, the first for a SEAL since the invasion of Panama in 1989 (Operation Just Cause); “The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Chief Boatswain’s Mate Stephen Bass, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism as a member of Sea-Air-Land Team ONE (SEAL-1,) while serving with the British Special Boat Service during combat operations in northern Afghanistan on 25 and 26 November 2001. Chief Petty Officer Bass deployed to the area as a member of a Joint American and British Special Forces Rescue Team to locate and recover two missing American citizens, one presumed to be seriously injured of dead, after hard-line Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at the Quala-i-Jangi fortress in Mazar-e-Sharif overpowered them and gained access to large quantities of arms and ammunition stored in the fortress. Once inside, Chief Petty Officer Bass was engaged continuously by direct small arms fire, indirect mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenade fire. He was forced to walk through an active anti-personnel minefield in order to gain entry to the fortress. After establishing the possible location of both American citizens, under heavy fire and without concern for his own safety, he made two attempts to rescue the uninjured citizen by crawling toward the fortress interior to reach him. Forced to withdraw due to large volumes of fire falling on his position, he was undeterred. After reporting his efforts to the remaining members of the rescue team, they left and attempted to locate the missing citizen on the outside of the fortress. As darkness began to fall, no attempt was going to be made to locate the other injured American citizen. Chief Petty Officer Bass then took matters into his own hands. Without regard for his own personal safety, he moved forward another 300-400 meters into the heart of the fortress by himself under constant enemy fire in an attempt to locate the injured citizen. Running low on ammunition, he used weapons from deceased Afghans to continue his rescue attempt. Upon verifying the condition and location of the American citizen, he withdrew from the fortress. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, Chief Petty Officer Bass reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
On 26 November, a Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) E-8 detected a column of about 15 Taliban vehicles, including two BRDM-2 armored personnel carriers, probing the northwest perimeter of Rhino. F-14B Tomcats of VF-102 from THEODORE ROOSEVELT CVN-71 broke up the attack. Two Marine AH-1W Super Cobras then routed the survivors.
On 28 November, CENTCOM imposed an arbitrary cap of 1,000 personnel at Rhino (there were already 1,078.) The cap made no tactical sense, and afterwards no one from Secretary Rumsfeld on down ever fessed up for ordering the cap, but while it was in effect it caused confusion and some absurd decisions, including sending forces back from Rhino to stay under the limit, such as limiting the number of Seabees who could get off the C-17 that arrived on the 28th. The first 27 Seabees were from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133, and immediately made themselves useful improving the runway and living (and sanitary) conditions for the Marines. This was also the first flight of a C-17 into a combat zone, conducted with a degree of USAF trepidation. The cap number was subsequently adjusted upwards to 1,100 on 29 November and 1,400 on 1 December, but even then, this kept the Marines from bringing in 26th MEU(SOC) helicopters for several days.
At sea on 28 November, PRINCETON (CG-59) conducted the first Leadership Interception Operations (LIO) off Gwadar, on the southwest coast of Pakistan, even though the LIO Oporder hadn’t been issued yet. The LIO operations were meant to interdict any Taliban or al Qaida senior personnel attempting to flee from Afghanistan via the sea to some other location. The assumption behind the operation was faulty, in that Taliban and al Qaida personnel who escaped into Pakistan and took refuge in the Pashtun tribal areas were under no pressure to leave. With fewer targets in Afghanistan, some aircraft from THEODORE ROOSEVELT commenced searching for ships and dhows that might be attempting to smuggle key Taliban or al Qaida personnel. During the course of the operation, much hashish was found, as well some smuggling of destitute Afghans and Pakistani laborers to other Middle East countries, but no terrorists.
By 30 November, USN P-3C reconnaissance aircraft spotted Taliban troops fleeing toward Tora Bora, a summit that rises from the Spin Ghar Mountains about 35 miles southwest of Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Tora Bora was the area where bin Ladin first became involved with the Afghan mujahideen during the anti-Soviet insurgency in the 1980’s. Tora Bora was also the area most familiar to bin Ladin, as well as the most friendly area in Afghanistan. Bin Ladin had given considerable money over the years to local Suleiman Khel tribesman who returned the favor by sheltering bin Ladin and his followers.
Also on 30 November, VADM Moore relinquished tactical control of TF 58 land elements to Coalition Land Component Commander, Lieutenant Genera Paul T. Mikolashek, U.S. Army. During the period 25-30 November, NAVCENT had the preponderance of both ground and air assets engaged inside Afghanistan. TF 58 quickly came to appreciate NAVCENTs “mission type” orders compared to the Army’s ever-more insatiable need for detailed information from the Task Force.
On 1 December, the BONHOMME RICHARD (LHD-6) ARG, with 13th MEU(SOC) embarked, deployed six weeks ahead of schedule from San Diego. Included in the ARG were OGDEN (LPD-5,) and PEARL HARBOR (LSD-52.)
On 2 December, the Combined Land Forces Component Commander (CFLCC) finally issued orders to TF-58 to isolate Kandahar and prevent escape of enemy forces from Afghanistan. The arrival of the Marines in force at Rhino appeared to catch senior American policy makers as much by surprise as the Taliban. Several days were wasted in high-level discussion about what follow-on mission to give the Marines. There was also the issue of deconfliction with Special Operations Forces, which were having a field day (described as a “license to hunt”) interdicting Taliban traffic on the Ring Road and elsewhere. BGen Mattis also made an unfortunate comment to the press that the “Marines now own a piece of Afghanistan,” which contradicted the approved narrative that the U.S. was not an occupying force, and caused consternation at senior levels (and VADM Moore had warned him not to say something like that.)
Finally, Forward Operating Base Rhino was reinforced by 26th MEU(SOC) helicopters, which had been kept out due to the force level cap. The helos preparated for movement toward Kandahar. By this time, however, many Taliban had already escaped for the Pakistani border.
On 4 December, VADM Moore issued planning guidance for operations to interdict Taliban and al Qaida leaders at sea. Actually the first “LIO Ops” were already underway.
On 5 December, Navy and Marine and Navy aircraft flew close cover for interdiction missions along Route 1 between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, Afghanistan to cut off the escape of Taliban and AQ terrorists fleeing from battles in the north of the country. In addition, the Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133 maintained the runway at Rhino, and built a UAV launching area nearby, and continued other support to the Marines.
On 5 December, USN forces conducted the first non-compliant LIO boarding. An SH-60F and two HH-60H Seahawks from HS-11 (two of the helicopters detached from THEODORE ROOSEVELT and one from ashore,) and additional Sailors from HS-6, carried out a visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) of container ship KOTA SEJARAH, suspected of smuggling contraband and terrorists in the Arabian Sea. The Seahawks intercepted the ship and flew armed cover as they guided SEALs (from SEAL Team 8) in two boats who boarded and stopped the ship and mustered her 22 crewmembers. HS-11 deployed 71 additional Marines, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) Sailors and SEALs via fastrope for security and search, supported by a leadership interception operation detachment from amphibious transport dock SHREVEPORT (LPD-12.) Although detained until 7 December, KOTA SEJARAH was subsequently released after no contraband or terrorists were found. “Task Force Cutlass” conducted similar maritime interception operations into the New Year.
Also on 5 December, a B-52H mistakenly dropped a GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) on Operational Detachment Alpha 574 and future Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s forces operating north of Kandahar, killing three U.S., five Afghans and wounding another 20 U.S. (one mortally) and 18 Afghans including Karzai. When the USAF air controller put a new battery in the GPS receiver, it defaulted to his own position, rather than the target. TF 58 helicopters of 15th MEU landed reinforcements to protect Karzai and evacuated 41 casualties to Rhino. Fortunately Karzai’s injuries were not serious. Seventeen American casualties were flown to a USAF hospital set up in Oman. Twenty Afghan casualties (one already deceased) were flown from Rhino to PELELIU (LHA-5) and BATAAN (LHD-5,) which took ten each, for medical treatment. Medical teams on PELELIU performed 36 limb-saving and life-saving procedures while BATAAN’s teams performed 29. The deceased Afghan was flown back to Rhino and buried with military honors.
On the night of 5 December, a lone camel wandered into the Marine perimeter. Concerned that the camel might have explosives (which mujahideen had done against the Soviets,) Marines opened fire on the camel. Despite a deluge of fire, the next morning all that could be found were the tracks of the camel leading away.
On 6 December a P-3C Orion providing overwatch for Rhino detected and reported a Taliban probe. Marines on the ground had also sighted probable vehicle lights in the distance. At this point, a Marine UH-1N Iroquois crashed while taking off to support interdiction operations along Route 1; the helicopter burst into flames and was destroyed, but all four on board either escaped or were pulled from the flames by support personnel. The Marines opened fire on the probe with 81mm mortars. The P-3C downlinked video-imagery of approximately ten persons dismounting and attempted to reach the runway through a wash. The 81mm mortars then fired on grid coordinates provided by the P-3C. The Marines then sent three light armored vehicles (LAV) forward and engaged with a MK19 automatic grenade launcher. Reconnaissance the next morning revealed only footprints. One account states F/A-18C Hornets and F-14 Tomcats were called in and disrupted the attack by dropping six 500-pound and two 1,000-pound laser-guided bombs, however a Marine history does not mention any fixed wing aircraft involvement.
On 6 December, the Taliban made an offer to surrender in exchange for the safety of Mullah Omar; the U.S. and Karzai refused the offer. On 7 December, Taliban forces that hadn’t already fled began surrendering anyway in Kandahar to Pashtun forces under the command of Karzai. Taliban leader Mullah Omar fled from hiding in Kandahar and successfully crossed into Pakistan. The first “High Value Detainees” culled from Taliban and al Qaida prisoners began arriving at Rhino, among them the American Taliban John Walker Lindh.
By 9 December, Kandahar was fully in the hands of Hamid Karzai’s forces, and the last Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan had fallen. Marines formed Task Group 58.4 and deployed north to Kabul to establish security for the U.S. Embassy, that had just symbolically reopened.
On 12 December, a B-1B Lancer bomber crashed 30 miles north of Diego Garcia returning from night strike in Afghanistan. A VP-4 P-3C Orion located the crashed bomber and guided RUSSELL (DDG-59) to the scene. RUSSELL put two rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB) in the water and rescued all of the four-man crew in shoal water. RUSSELL had been stationed off Diego Garcia for just such an eventuality.
On 13 December, Task Force Sledgehammer, a combined anti-armor team from 26th MEU, advanced to Kandahar airport, linking up with Army special operators. AV-8B Harrier II’s and AH-1W Cobras supported by additional USN and USMC carrier aircraft provided close air support. CH-53E Super Stallions flew in reinforcements, enabling the Marines to establish a forward operating base (FOB.)
During thi period, USN carrier aircraft continued strikes in support of Marine and SOF operations. In one case, SOF on the ground sighted a group of Taliban hiding under a bridge. With SOF cueing, a VINSON jet skipped an AGM-65 Maverick missile under the bridge, killing the Taliban without significantly damaging the bridge.
On 16 December, JOHN C. STENNIS (CVN-74) relieved CARL VINSON CVN-70 and launched her first strikes in OEF (one of the bombs had chalk markings, “Payback for CNO IP.” – CNO Intelligence Plot was destroyed on 9/11.) VINSON commenced her return transit to Bremerton, Washington via Pearl Harbor. KITTY HAWK departed the North Arabian Sea the same day after flying off remaining Special Operations helicopters.
On 17 December, Coalition spokesmen claimed victory in the Battle of Tora Bora. Navy F/A-18C Hornets bombarded escape routes as Taliban and al Qaida allies straggled across the border into Pakistan. From 25 November, Coalition aircraft had dropped more than 1,600 bombs including JDAM on the enemy cave complexes in the Tora Bora mountains. There were over 200 caves in the Tora Bora area. Aircraft used a variety of ordnance in an attempted to penetrate the caves, including a B-52 delivering an AGM-142 Have Nap missile, and an MC-130 dropping the BLU-82/B 15,000-pound bomb. Six AC-130 gunships contributed, and F-16 and B-52’s dropped bombs to intentionally cause massive rock slides. Two CIA teams and three Special Operations teams infiltrated into Tora Bora in attempt to ferret out bin Ladin and other leaders, and to provide laser target designation for air strikes.
Despite the intensity of the airstrikes directed against Tora Bora, the decision by CENTCOM (against the advice of VADM Moore, and BGen Mattis) to rely on local tribesmen working at the behest of the Northern Alliance instead of using Marines or airborne troops to block the passes enabled bin Ladin and other key al Qaida and Taliban personnel to escape to safety in Pakistan. The local tribesmen took money from both sides (in some cases enabling Taliban and al Qaida to escape) and generally showed reluctance to close with the enemy, particularly in the face of stiff resistance whenever Taliban or al Qaida were cornered. Putting Marines or airborne troops into the passes in the high mountain elevations in the winter would have entailed significant risk. This was the biggest strategic failure of the campaign. From the sanctuary of Pakistan, the Taliban was able to recuperate, regroup and by 2003 was able to conduct increasing attacks within Afghanistan. Bin Ladin would not be found and killed until 2011.
On 18 December the first 24 “High Value” Taliban and al Qaida detainees arrived at holding facility at Kandahar Airport (constructed by Navy Seabee NMCB 133.) The number of detainees would rise to 350 by 9 Jan 2002. Eight high value detainees, including U.S. citizen John Walker Lindh, were sent to PELELIU and then transferred to BATAAN when PELELIU departed.
On 18 December, for the first time since 7 October, no bombs were dropped in Afghanistan.
Also on 18 December, French Task Force 473 rendezvoused with U.S. Task Force 50 about 50 miles off Pakistan coast. THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN 71,) JOHN C. STENNIS (CVN-74,) French carrier CHARLES DE GAULLE (R-91,) and Italian V/STOL carrier GUISEPPE GARIBALDI (C-551) posed for a group photo. British carrier HMS ILLUSTRIOUS also operated with Coalition forces. By this date, Task Force 50 included almost 60 ships from seven nations, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, and Italy. The Japanese contributed with four Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) replenishment ships providing fuel to other Coalition ships. Other significant contributions by allies included two Canadian CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft that relieved USN P-3C’s of routine patrol duty in the Arabian Gulf.
On 20 December, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1386, forming the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan. Commandant General James L. Jones, USMC, and Lieutenant General Michael W. Hagee, USMC (Commander 1 MEF,) visited PELELIU and BATAAN.
In the first bombing mission since 17 December, Navy strike fighters and USAF AC-130 gunships destroyed a convoy of 10-12 vehicles leaving a Taliban compound near Khowst in eastern Afghanistan on 21 December. The parade of dignitaries continued, with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff GEN Richard B. Meyers visiting THEODORE ROOSEVELT.
On 22 December, Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Chairman of the interim sixth-month Government of Afghanistan. CENTCOM GEN Tommy Franks and the USO visited PELELIU and BATAAN. GEN Franks then visited STENNIS on 25 December.
On 23 December KITTY HAWK returned to Yokosuka, Japan. On 24 December, 15th MEU commenced redeployment from FOB Rhino back aboard the PELELIU ARG.
As of 31 December, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft had flown 75 per cent of all OEF strike sorties, this percentage was even higher in the first weeks of the war. USAF heavy bombers dropped ¾ of the tonnage of ordnance. Of 6,500 Coalition strike sorties in the first three months of Enduring Freedom, U.S. Navy carrier jets accounted for 4,900 of them. During OEF, 60% of bombs dropped (out of 17,500) were precision guided munitions (PGMs.) For the Navy, the percentage of PGMs was 93% satellite or laser-guided (and almost 100% in the first couple weeks.) A total of 120 fixed targets and 400 vehicles were hit. The Navy strikes were apportioned 1/3 to fixed targets and interdiction and 2/3 air support to friendly forces; with ground air control guidance to sort out friend from foe, these strikes were very effective. Of Navy aircraft that dropped ordnance, 80% did not know what the target was when the aircraft launched; in these cases targeting was provide by airborne or ground air controllers. Of Navy aircraft that dropped ordnance, 84% hit at least one target, and the average was two targets hit per sortie. Most targets were hit in the first three hours of daylight. The three carriers with full air wings averaged 40 strike sorties per carrier per day (the limitation was actually the limited number of targets more than fuel.) Each carrier averaged 14-16 hours of flight operations per day, enough to keep three two-plane sections constantly over Afghanistan; this met all CAOC taskings and calls for air support. Most carrier flights were triple or quadruple cycle. Over 25% of carrier strike sorties, were longer than 5.5 hours.
In summary, the capability of the U.S. Navy was critical in the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom. Within 48 hours of 9/11, U.S. Navy ships with 200 TLAMs and two aircraft carriers were within range to strike Afghanistan, with or without Pakistan’s permission, or any other country in the region. Given that the terrorists in the camps had dispersed and there was no CENTCOM plan for a comprehensive air or ground campaign, it would not have made sense to attack so soon. Nevertheless, the Navy could have done so if so ordered. It took another 26 days for the rest of the Joint Force to get the necessary over-flight, staging, basing, CSAR, and force deployments to commence strike operations on 7 October, and even then some of these were not complete.
Naval carrier aircraft (including a USMC squadron) were critical in providing close air support to the Northern Alliance, during the longest carrier strike flights in history. Carrier aircraft played a decisive role in turning back the Taliban counter-attack south of Mazar-e-Sharif, which was the turning point of the war. Carrier aircraft were decisive in destroying the last major Taliban attack, saving the future President of Afghanistan. The use of KITTY HAWK as an afloat forward staging base enabled Special Operations Force operations in southern Afghanistan, with operational security that would not have been possible operating from Pakistan. The insertion of NAVCENT Marines into close proximity to Kandahar, the longest amphibious operation in history, caught the Taliban by surprise, furthered their demoralization and prevented them from making a last stand in their historic heartland. No Sailors or Marines died in combat in this operation. Without the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps team, Operation Enduring Freedom would not have been possible.
The first three months of Operation Enduring Freedom accomplished the objectives of taking down the Taliban government, destroying al Qaida infrastructure in Afghanistan, and eliminating many al Qaida personnel. This was accomplished with almost no U.S. combat deaths and very few casualties, and with minimum civilian deaths. As a result, bin Ladin’s strategy to provoke a global Jihad and bankrupt and exhaust the “far enemy” (the. U.S.) failed – at least initially. However, bin Ladin escaped, along with other senior al Qaida leaders (except Mohammad Atef,) as well as Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The subsequent shift of U.S. attention and resources to the invasion of Iraq gave the Taliban and al Qaida breathing room to regroup, and the high U.S. and civilian casualties incurred during the Iraq campaign re-energized al Qaida and spin-off terrorist groups.