Tora Bora, Afghanistan— On December 7, 2001, Taliban rule in Afghanistan officially ended. By then, they had been driven out of Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, Kunduz, and Kandahar and tens of thousands of Taliban and their foreign allies were dead, captured, or fled into Pakistan. But not all were ready to concede.
Since mid November, the CIA had been warned about enemy forces gathering along the Pakistan border in the White Mountains south of Jalalabad. The locals, including former Mujahadeen fighters who opposed Taliban rule, called the place Tora Bora. SAD Paramilitary Operations Officers already on the ground in the region reported on al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters taking refuge in fortified caves and fighting positions used during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan decades earlier. It turned out to be an uphill battle—in more ways than one.
Dug-in al-Qaeda fighters occupied the high ground, so an attacker was always at a disadvantage. And while the local warlords were enthusiastic about the copious amounts of cash being handed out by the CIA, the men under their command were considerably less fervent about fighting fellow Muslims, especially after dark or when the weather was bad. This reticence would likely have blossomed into outright mutiny had the United States committed large numbers of conventional forces to the region, given the long local memories of the 1980’s Soviet occupation.
As the weather turned colder, the CIA advisors watched in frustration as tribal fighters fought tit for-tat battles with al-Qaeda and Taliban holdouts without measurable progress. In early December, they convinced tribal elders to allow a select few U.S. commandos to join the fight in early December. Fewer than one hundred American soldiers were engaged, mostly Delta Force operators and men from the 5th Special Forces Group.
This tiny band was given the daunting task of doing what the entire Soviet army failed to do—dislodging a determined foe from the steep slopes of Tora Bora. Chief among those to be targeted: the terrorist who started the war on 9/11/01—Osama bin Laden.
Accompanying these elite warriors were a handful of USAF Special Operators—Combat Air Controllers (CCTs) and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs). Their job was—and is—to bring to bear the most powerful weapon the United States had in the fight—air power.
In the special operations community, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) are admired for their ability to call down fire from above. They aren’t Old Testament prophets—just highly trained and equipped U.S. Airmen who can summon bombers, fighters, unmanned aerial vehicles, evacuation helicopters, and gunships to support a unit on the ground. JTACs specialize in putting heavy ordnance on ground targets with pinpoint accuracy, often while under fire and inside the “danger close” radius of their own munitions. They carry the same personal weapons as the Special Operators they accompany into battle. But their most valuable weapon is the radio they wear on their backs.
Nowhere was the effectiveness of the Combat Air Controller more evident than Tora Bora. For days on end small teams of three or four operators would occupy observation points on windswept ridgelines and work the airwaves, lining up dozens of attack aircraft and guiding their munitions onto enemy fighting positions and cave entrances.The citation for the Silver Star awarded to USAF Tech Sgt Michael Stockdale for action during the Tora Bora fight exemplifies what they endure—and what they can do.
In one sense the battle for Tora Bora was an unqualified victory—the U.S. Operators neutralized thousands of al-Qaeda fighters and destroyed most of their mountain stronghold. But tribal double-dealing by local commanders compounded by the fog of war caused a failure of the stated mission—to kill bin Laden. By the time fierce winter forced an end to the operation in Tora Bora, nobody could be sure whether he’d escaped or survived.
Members of some SOCOM units yet to be deployed to Afghanistan lamented their misfortune at having “missed out” on the war. What no one knew then was that there were many more Special Operations missions ahead—including one that would etch in history the name of an obscure mountaintop in southeastern Afghanistan: Takur Ghar.
Editor’s Note: I received a copy of Oliver North‘s new book. It’s a very nice edition with pictures and stories printed on a heavy stock paper, think of it more as a small coffee table books for those interested in military operations. I got a hold of North’s team and they were good enough to send me this excerpt for G & P readers. To view the book click here. ~ Mike P.