Operation Enduring Freedom – The Air War


A British military GR-9 Harrier aircraft conducts a combat patrol over Afghanistan. As the insurgency mounted these aircraft along with RAF Tornados and Army Air Corps Apaches provided valuable close air support for British ground troops.


The great wild goose chase for the al-Qaeda leadership. An American Blackhawk helicopter picks up men from 45 Commando during Operation Buzzard in the summer of 2002. Those Taliban not killed or captured scattered into the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Even before Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan was a very troubled land having endured decades of war. After the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, its puppet regime eventually collapsed and the country was ruled by a loose confederation of constantly warring Mujahideen factions. They in turn were ousted in 1996 by the devoutly Islamic Taliban movement originating in the city of Kandahar. The former government forces, known as the Northern Alliance (or United Front – representing Afghanistan’s Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek and other ethnic minorities), were largely pushed back to an enclave in the north-east of the country protected by the Hindu Kush.

Aiming to punish those responsible for 9/11, President Bush decided to use his air power and special forces to assist the Afghan Northern Alliance to drive the Taliban from Kabul and destroy al-Qaeda’s presence once and for all under OEF. This was to involve air strikes, using US Navy (USN) and strategic air assets as well as ship and submarine-launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs), to hit terrorist-related facilities, the Taliban’s military infrastructure and their field forces.

OEF was directed by US Central Command (CENTCOM) from McDill Air Force Base, Florida. USN aircraft deployed to the region included F-14 Tomcat and F/A-1 8E/F Super Hornet fighter-bombers and global assets included heavy long-range B-IB, B-2A and B-52H strategic bombers. The US was not able to conduct any regional land-based fighter missions using USAF F-16, as crucially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan refused to allow any attacks to be conducted from their soil. Pakistan’s government, with its Pashtun population, brothers of the Pashtun Taliban, had to walk a diplomatic tightrope.

At least 50 per cent of the targets to be bombed were terrorist related. These included training camps, stores, safe houses and mountain hideouts. The camps were used to train Chechens, Kashmiris, Pakistanis, Saudis, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Uighurs and Yemenis. Their services were then exported back to their home countries. The bulk of the terrorist facilities was in the Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad areas and belonged to al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In particular Kandahar and Jalalabad were the favoured targets, as these locations were where Osama bin Laden and his cronies were most likely to have gone to ground. Kandahar was the stronghold of Bin Laden’s one-time ally, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Since its foundation the Taliban Air Force had been active and had flown over 150 sorties during the campaigns to capture the Northern Alliance’s capital at Taloqan. However, with the loss of Bagram air base in 1998 it was forced to destroy or disable many of its aircraft during its retreat from the Shomali plain. Against the Coalition air campaign the Taliban Air Force initially had about eight MiG-2 1, eight Su-22 and about four L-39 light jets plus a few Mi-8/17 helicopters. Most were simply destroyed on the ground in the opening hours of the air attacks.

It is almost impossible to get a consensus on the Taliban and Northern Alliance’s tank fleets. However, it would be fair to say that at the time of the American led offensive the Taliban had roughly about 300 tanks, mostly old Soviet-built T-55s and some T-62s, perhaps several hundred tracked BMP-1/2 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), 500 wheeled BTR APCs and some BRDM scout cars. Taliban mobile rocket launchers included some Soviet BM-21 and BM-14, while there were probably no more than a handful of mobile surface-to-surface missile launchers of the Scud and FROG-7a/b variety. The biggest threat to US Air Force emanated from the Taliban’s SA-13 mobile surface-to-air missiles. The serviceability of all these vehicles was chronic and it is doubtful that even half were operational.

The goal of the air attacks was to enable the complete destruction of the Taliban regime and the creation of a broad-based successor government under UN auspices. Otherwise drugs, war and terrorism would remain a way of life for another twenty years. In light of their victories over the Northern Alliance and previous experience against the Soviets, the Taliban was not expected to crumble easily. Well before the air strikes started the Afghan economy was already in tatters, and the continuing civil war had prevented any recovery.

The UN identified intensified drug production with the economic, social and political collapse in Afghanistan caused by over two decades of civil war Afghanistan, a long-established centre of opiate production, after the Taliban’s seizure of power in 1996 emerged as the main global supplier of opium. By the late 1990s it accounted for some 75 per cent of the world’s opium. It is probable that the trafficking impacted on the Taliban war effort against the Northern Alliance and other factions, as well as its support for regional Islamic guerrilla movements.

Under the Taliban, taxation ceased, foreign investment dried up and there was rampant inflation. The situation was exacerbated in 1998 when Saudi Arabia withdrew essential financial support to the Taliban for harbouring bin Laden. By then he was wanted for various attacks on American interests in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Yemen.

It was unclear just how far the Taliban relied on these drug revenues to maintain the tempo of their military operations and support for international terrorism. However, it was self-evident from the level of anti-narcotics activity that neighbouring states, such as Iran, were forced to undertake that Afghanistan’s narcotics trafficking was a major problem. To the west and east, Iran and Pakistan previously attempted to crack down on drug smuggling across their borders. Ironically, Pakistan’s success simply resulted in pushing heroin manufacturing into Afghanistan. Iran in turn expended considerable resources trying to control the well-armed drug warlords.

Profits generated from narcotic exports helped to fund the Afghan civil war. Nevertheless, it remained unclear what percentage of revenues actually reached central Taliban coffers; local Taliban probably benefited the most from drug taxes. The production and smuggling of drugs across Asia also became a vital source of revenue for terrorist and international criminal organisations. This endangered the security and stability of a region threatened by further upheaval.

Beyond Afghanistan’s borders to the north, in the Central Asian states, Afghan drug money and organised crime assisted pro-Taliban opposition groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the former United Tajik Opposition. Also ethnic Uighurs from China’s Xinjiang province (bordering Afghanistan and Tajikistan) were known to have trained in Afghanistan with the IMU. The Uighurs had been agitating against central Chinese authority for years, necessitating a number of large Chinese military operations against them. The IMU was particularly troublesome in the Fergana Valley straddling Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Indeed, American bombing was to target the 3,000 IMU fighters supporting the Taliban inside Afghanistan.

Bush’s air war opened on 7 October 2001, with B-1 and B-52 bombers flying from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and B-2s flying from Whitman Air Force Base, Missouri. The latter flew on to Diego Garcia after a record 44 hours in the air and six air-to-air refuellings. These bombers were joined by carrier based F-14 and F/A-1 8 fighter-bombers operating from the aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, while some fifty Tomahawks were also launched. The Royal Navy fired two small batches of TLAMs, and the RAF contributed several hundred reconnaissance and tanker refuelling sorties in support. British air support, although small, was significant compared with that of other nations. France’s contribution consisted of reconnaissance flights using Mirage IVP and C.160G ELINT (Electronic intelligence) aircraft and an intelligence-gathering ship. Italy volunteered tactical reconnaissance, air-to-air refuelling, transport aircraft and a naval group. In addition, Turkey announced it would send special forces to train the Northern Alliance.

The key achievement of the intense air attacks was the swift acquisition of air superiority through the destruction of the Taliban’s rudimentary air force, air defences and early warning systems. Only isolated SA-I 3 and man-portable surface-to-air missiles were believed to pose a low-altitude threat. As well as attacking the Taliban’s infrastructure, Coalition assets also struck vulnerable dispersal areas, catching exposed Taliban armour in the hills outside Herat. The US Department of Defense released imagery of the air strikes on airfields at Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, vehicle depots at Kandahar and Pol-e-Charkhi, Herat army barracks and a Kabul radio station, to name but a few targets.

Ironically, initially the air campaign did not greatly affect the Taliban’s rudimentary infrastructure or ability to wage war against the Northern Alliance, only its ability to resist Coalition air attack. The Northern Alliance had little in the way of an air force that posed a threat to the Taliban air defences. Until the concentrated attacks on the Taliban’s field forces, the degradation of the Taliban’s communications was the greatest hindrance to their conduct of the civil war against the Northern Alliance. The American special forces’ raids on 19 October 2001 against a command and control facility and an airfield near Kandahar illustrated the Coalition’s freedom of operations on the ground. However, it was B-52 carpet-bombing, coupled with Taliban defections and withdrawals, which produced dramatic results and hastened the end of organised resistance. By the close of October air strikes began to shift away from high-profile urban targets toward Taliban front-line positions.

Heavy strikes, including carpet-bombing, were conducted on 31 October against Taliban forces near Bagram, 30 miles north of Kabul. These attacks lasting several hours were the most intense against Taliban front-line positions since the air campaign began. The following day the strategic Taliban garrison at Kala Ata, guarding the approaches to Taloqan, was also attacked. The raid lasted for over 4 hours and windows were allegedly broken up to 15 miles away as a consequence. Attacks also continued in the Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif areas. Within a week of this intense bombing the Taliban crumbled first at Mazar-e-Sharif, then Kabul and Jalalabad, their forces in headlong retreat to Kandahar.

US air strikes continued against regrouping Taliban/al-Qaeda forces and their facilities in eastern Afghanistan. These were concentrated in Paktia province against Zhawar Kili, site of the Soviet-backed offensive in 1987. The facility first suffered American air strikes in 1998, in retaliation for the attacks on American embassies in East Africa. According to the US, on 28 December 2001 they bombed a walled compound and bunker associated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership in Paktia province. The media subsequently claimed the attack killed up to 100 innocent civilians.

Sustained raids were conducted on both Zhawar Kili and anti-aircraft defences near the town of Khost. The US feared that Zhawar Kili was going to be another Tora Bora. General Richard Myers of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said, ‘We have found this complex to be very, very extensive. It covers a large area. When we ask people how large they often describe it as huge.’ The camp was composed of three separate training areas and two cave complexes. US Marines and special forces moved into the areas after an initial wave of strikes by B-1 and B-52 bombers and carrier-based Navy fighters. They then piled up unexploded ammunition and heavy weapons, which were destroyed by a second series of air attacks.

Despite three attacks on the complex over a four-day period by US aircraft, surviving al-Qaeda leaders repeatedly tried to regroup at a warren of caves and bunkers. One strike on the Zhawar Kili training camp hit tanks and artillery, but it was feared the terrorists remained. The pressure on the Taliban was unrelenting. On 6 January 2002 strikes on Khost and the Zhawar Kili training camp were among 118 sorties flown by American air assets over Afghanistan.

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