Northern Alliance T-55 tanks rolling into Kabul during mid-November 2001. The Taliban proved incapable of holding any of Afghanistan’s key cities. Even a last stand in their spiritual homeland in Kandahar failed to materialise.
The key to OEF was driving the Taliban from Kabul – only this would truly herald their defeat. This meant that everywhere they went the Taliban were attacked across the country. The world watched in awe as American air power first chewed up the Taliban’s air force, its air defences and then its armour during the campaign.
Although in the wake of 9/11 the US rapidly came to the decision that it wanted the Taliban government and al-Qaeda terrorists ousted, it did not want to do it at the cost of thousands of American troops on the ground. The solution was to use six-man Close Air Support (CAS) Special Forces A-Teams operating alongside the Taliban’s nemesis, the Northern Alliance. The special forces, equipped with laser designators, would pinpoint enemy targets for American air strikes.
The US began secretly to insert its CAS teams twelve days after the air campaign opened. The six men of Tiger 01 were infiltrated into northern Afghanistan on 19 October 2001 by two MH-53J Pavelow helicopters of the 160th Special Operations Aviation regiment. In the next few days, liaising with General Fahim’s opposition forces, they were involved in efforts to capture Bagram airfield, 45km north of Kabul. This they found defended by some fifty armoured vehicles including tanks, APCs and ZSU-23 Shilka self-propelled Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA).
Heavy strikes, including B-52 carpet-bombing, were conducted on 31 October against Taliban forces near Bagram. Airstrikes called in by Tiger 01 obliterated everything over a period of 6 hours. The following day the strategic Taliban garrison at Kala Ata, guarding the approaches to Taloqan, was also attacked. The raids lasted for over 4 hours.
Attacks also continued in the south in the Kandahar area and in the north in the Mazar-e-Sharif area. Within a week of this intense bombing the Taliban crumbled first at Mazar-e-Sharif, then Kabul and Jalalabad, and as a result they were in headlong flight to their stronghold at Kandahar. Team Tiger 02 helped General Dostrum capture Mazar-e-Sharif on 9 November 2001, seizing the vital airfield and opening the supply route to Uzebekistan. The team called in strikes directing US Marine Corps FA/-18 and AC-130 Spectre gunships to silence the deadly ZSU-23-4 and T-55s accounting for at least fifty vehicles.
In just a few days during early November the Taliban lost control of much of the country in the face of the Northern Alliance’s rapid ground offensive. Also in the prelude to the Northern Alliance’s advance, their old enemies the Russians shipped in several hundred tanks and APCs to help them. The dramatic collapse of the Taliban army was due to a combination of American air attacks, defections and an unprecedented level of cooperation between rival anti-Taliban factions. The Northern Alliance quickly gained control of most of the cities north of a line extending from Herat in the far north-west to Kabul in the east.
During the attack on Kabul on 11 November, Tiger 01 team accounted for twenty-nine tanks plus numerous vehicles and artillery pieces. Just three days later it was all over, Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance. Tiger 03 directed to help capture the city of Kunduz and destroyed fifty tanks, APCs, AAA and artillery.
Texas 11 helped General Daoud’s forces liberate Taloqan, the Northern Alliance’s former HQ, and capture Kunduz. On 17 November they called in airstrikes which claimed 5 tanks, 9 BRDM, 1 BTR-70 and 4 trucks. Between 14 and 29 November 2001, their battle-damage assessment included 12 Taliban tanks, 5 ZPU/ZSUs, 3 BMP/BM-2ls, 3 BTR-70/BRDMs and 51 lorries. Texas 12, assigned to Hamid Karzi, future interim president, at the town of Tarin Kowt, north of Kandahar, stopped a Taliban counter-attack involving over 80 vehicles including BRDM, and 35 to 45 of these were destroyed.
Within just three months of the air campaign commencing the Taliban government had been routed. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda suffered notable losses, particularly at Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz. The Taliban troops trapped in Kunduz surrendered, abandoning some 2,000-5,000 foreign supporters to flee or capitulate. After the fall of Kabul the Taliban retired to prepared positions in and around Kandahar, their spiritual heartland in the south. By the end of November, with the collapse of the Taliban field forces, the focus of the air campaign switched to the Kandahar area and Tora Bora near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.
American air attacks were then directed against al-Qaeda terrorist camps in the south of Helmand province. Kandahar surrendered to opposition forces on 7 December 2001, without a fight. The al-Qaeda fighters trapped there, by the peaks and valleys of the 15,400ft White Mountains, had lost most of their heavy equipment. They had nothing with which to shoot back at the opposition forces’ exposed tanks perched on the foothills.
Despite the success of the CAS teams, the use of special forces in Afghanistan came in for some criticism. A former Green Beret said, ‘All special operations troops depend too much on technology and aerial support . . . The entire campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are flawed. Heavy handed and misuse of special operations troops — thus no relationships with locals and no real intelligence.’ In reality prior to the arrival of the American special forces much of the Taliban armour and aircraft had already been smashed at the Afghan storage depots and barracks. Nonetheless, the combination of these teams and American air power sealed the fate of the Taliban.
The stunned survivors from the Taliban’s armed forces and al-Qaeda fighters, perhaps over 1,000 men, fled to the Tora Bora stronghold high in the White Mountains late in 2001. Their intention was to use the base to conduct hit and run attacks on the Northern Alliance supporting the Coalition or make a last stand if necessary. Moscow’s advice to the Coalition was that this complex could prove to be impregnable if the defenders resisted to the last.
It was anticipated that the Tora Bora stronghold would be protected by minefields, ingenious booby traps and defended by Islamic fanatics prepared to resist to the last. The core of the defenders were thought to number 300, of whom half were Arabs and the rest Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Afghans. However, other estimates put them as strong as 1,500.
Washington decided that it would not deploy its 500 US Marines on standby at Kandahar, but leave it to its special forces and the Eastern Council to clear the caves. On the Pakistani side of the border Pakistan’s military kept the Khyber and Bati passes closed to try and prevent any terrorists slipping through undetected and then up into the unruly North West Frontier Province. As many as 2,000 al-Qaeda fighters were thought to have fled towards Pakistan.
British and American special forces were concentrated on suspected terrorist strongholds, particularly Tora Bora, where bin Laden was believed to be hiding. Babrak Khan, a Jalalabad resident who worked as a guard at an Arab base during the 1990s, said, ‘I saw Osama in the sixth or seventh truck and behind him were from 100 to 200 vehicles. At the end of the convoy were five armoured vehicles. Arabs from across the city were gathering here, coming from all directions.’ it was claimed bin Laden had helped the city’s former governor strike a deal with city elders so they could take control until the formation of an interim government. Having done that, he escaped to Tora Bora.
Meanwhile, Taliban leader Mohammed Omar and 500 of his supporters were thought to be besieged in the rugged mountains of the Bagran area, in northern Helmand. While the Tora Bora region was heavily bombed Afghan opposition forces under the Eastern Council started to advance into the area. These troops blocked off all escape routes prior to launching a major offensive on the region following the fall of Kandahar.