Afghanistan War (2001-2021)

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After the 9/11 attack, the United States of America|U.S. determined that the al-Qaeda senior leadership who had planned the attacks were based in Afghanistan, and the U.S., invoking the NATO treaty of collective defense, issued a conditional ultimatum that if the demand to surrender the al-Qaeda senior leadership in Afghanistan were not met met, a new Afghanistan War (2001-2021) would begin. The invasion by NATO forces happened and lasted until the last U.S. troops left the country on Aug. 30, 2021, leaving it in the hands of the Taliban. In 2001, the then-ruling Taliban refused to surrender that leadership and shut down their facilities. Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden later took responsibility for the attacks,[1] although intelligence data provided to NATO already pointed to that conclusion. When the Taliban did not meet the terms of the ultimatum, overt air attacks started on October 7. Covert forces began the Operational Preparation of the Battlespace on September 19; there may have been earlier on-the-ground Central Intelligence Agency liaison with the opposing Afghan Northern Alliance before then.

In December 2001, the U.S. released a video of bin Laden, in an informal setting, speaking of prior knowledge of the attacks and how the destruction in New York had exceeded his "optimistic" expectations; [2] a translation and transcript was provided. [3]

NATO participation was the first invocation of Article 5, the collective defense agreement at the heart of the NATO Charter. The United States and NATO also interpreted United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 as permissive of military action, although it was not suggested that the war was a UN operation.[4]

Initial concept and its development

GEN Tommy Franks, commanding CENTCOM, set out a four-phase plan that was briefed to the President on September 21, 2001:[5]

  • Phase I: Set conditions and build forces to provide the National Command Authority credible military options: build alliances and #Phase I|prepare the battlefield
  • Phase II: Conduct initial combat operations and continue to set conditions for follow-on operations; begin initial humanitarian operations
  • Phase III: Conduct major combat operations in Afghanistan, continue to build coalition, and conduct operations
  • Phase IV: Establish capability of coalition partners to prevent the re-emergence of terrorism and establish support for humanitarian operation: expected to be a 3-5 year effort

It is a maxim of warfare that no plan survives contact with the enemy; it is a reality of modern warfare that no plan survives contact with higher headquarters. This particular set of plans also was quite different than others the U.S. had fought, in several aspects. It was to be a coalition from the start, both with the Afghan Northern Alliance (NA) against the Taliban government, with formal NATO cooperation and with both direct combat and assistive roles from other countries. Within the U.S. military, it was conceived as truly joint, not Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine; Special Operations forces were also to have a major role.

On the 20th, Franks had a tense meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), whom he felt each argued for a plan featuring their service. He asked for and received confirmation from the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF), Donald Rumsfeld, that he had full command authority to develop a service-independent approach.

The actual briefing to the President and Vice President was made by Franks, retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) GEN Hugh Shelton, Vice CJCS GEN Dick Myers (who succeeded the retiring Shelton), and JSOC commander MG Dell Dailey; Dailey indicated the importance of special operations to the plan.

Phase I

Afghanistan is landlocked. Before any operations could proceed, basing rights needed to be established. Kyrgyzstan, which had had Special Forces trainers since 1999, allowed the initial basing at Dushanbe, which subsequently moved to a major facility at Manas. [6]

Initial CIA operations

Before United States Army Special Forces teams could be attached to the various NA forces, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations officers needed to link with their leaders. The first CIA operations team, led by Gary Schroen, left the U.S. on September 19, staged through brief stops in Germany and Uzbekistan, and entered Afghanistan on September 26.[7] Codenamed JAWBREAKER, it reported to the National Counterterrorism Center|Counterterrorism Center. It was attached the forces of Mohammed Qasim Fahim, who had taken command of the Tajiks, and the overall NS military, after al-Qaeda assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9. Additional teams would later join other NA commanders.

Airstrikes and special operations force insertions needed to be done on relatively moonless night, to avoid making them visible to air defenses. October 6 and 7 were optimal from the standpoint of lunar light. [8]

Special Operations

United States Special Operations Command created three task forces in the theater, under the overall direction of MG Dell Dailey of Joint Special Operations Command. There was an acknowledged "white" unit of United States Army Special Forces personnel, assigned primarily to work with Afghans, and various "black" organizations that might work independently or in a largely clandestine role.

5th Special Forces Group

While Special Forces soldiers have an enormous range of skills, one that had not been considered was the ability to ride a horse, the basic transportation system of the Northern Alliance.

Pantyhose: critical secret technology

Once the soldiers, to the amusement of their allies, managed to stay on the horses, they found their legs were chafing uncomfortably due to the unusual friction. A first attempt, covering their skin with petroleum jelly, made matters worse, because it trapped fine but abrasive dust.

At least for some troops, the answer came from American football and Joe Namath: pantyhose. LTG Mike DeLong, deputy commander of CENTCOM, first mentioned the problem and the priority airlift of pantyhose.[9] Linda Robinson, who had close journalistic relationships with Special Forces, added details such as cutting off the feet (of the garment, not the soldier), but also observed that precisely who wore them would remain one of the deeper operational secrets of Special Forces. [10]

The "white" team, 5th Special Forces Group would be in the classic Unconventional warfare (United States doctrine) |unconventional warfare Special Forces role of working directly with native forces; it was designated Task Force DAGGER, under COL John Mulholland. It waited at the K-2 base in Uzbekistan; for political reasons, Uzbekistan announced that it was assisting in humanitarian assistance and combat search and rescue.

5th Group soldiers would follow the lines of battle. They were attached to Hamid Karzai's unit establishing his credibility in the pursuit of the Taliban after Kabul fell. They were present at the Battle of Tora Bora, although there was some friction in role between them and the JSOC task force. 5SFG's role, and admittedly training, were much more in special reconnaissance than direct action.


"Black" teams under MG Dell Dailey of JSOC, included Joint Special Operations Force-North (JSOTF-N), under command of COL Frank Kisner, was the organization actually responsible for Combat search and rescue|Combat Search and Rescue. JSOTF-N operated from at Karshi-Kanabad (K2), Uzbekistan. [11]

Task Force 11

Based at Bagram Airfield, TF 11, also known as TF SWORD, was intended to kill or capture high-value targets. [12] After Dailey rotated back to JSOC headquarters, TF 11 was put under BG Gregory Trebon, from Air Force Special Operations Command.

Advanced Force Operations

Reporting to TF11 was Advanced Force Operations (AFO), primarily a special reconnaissance under LTC Pete Blaber; AFO also included analysts and communications specialists. Trebon had some conflicts with BG Gary Harrell, head of CENTCOM's Joint Security Detachment, also based at Bagram, who had a supplemental job of intelligence fusion.

Direct action teams

The direct action teams under it were TF GREEN when from Delta Force and TF BLUE from United States Navy SEAL#SEAL Team 6|SEAL Team 6.


Harrell had commanded Delta, and many thought him more appropriate for TF 11 than Trebon. Harrell reported directly to GEN Franks and was considered his personal representative. [13] His field organization, which both performed intelligence analysis and prisoner interrogation, was TF BOWIE.


JSOTF-S, designated Task Force KBAR, under Captain (naval)|CAPT Robert Harward, United States Navy, began staging at Masirah, Oman, in mid-October. Its mission was special reconnaissance|special reconnaissance (SR) and direct action (military)|direct action (DA) against the Al-Qaeda and Taliban networks, using Coalition rather than Afghan personnel. It was activated on November 15, and first based at Camp Rhino with the Marines on 22 November. By 15 December, however, it permanently moved to Kandahar Airfield, with personnel from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand and Norway, as well as from the U.S. Navy SEALs and U.S. Air Force Special Tactics Group.[14]

Air operations

Air operations were controlled from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. AC-130 gunships and other fixed-wing support aircraft flew from Qatar.

Phase II

Large-scale overt air attacks started on October 7, 2001; the overall public name was Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. The first priorities were the limited but real integrated air defense system of the Taliban, headquarters and support for the large units, and other infrastructure. There was military logic to this, but it meant that there was little close air support for the Northern Alliance, which caused resentment.

It took approximately 2 weeks before ground special operations by military forces began; CIA teams had to establish their welcomes. The first Special Forces team, United States Army Special Forces#Operational Detachment A|Operational Detachment A (ODA) 595 joined General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance. Just afterwards, two direct action (military)|direct action operations took place. [15] The first was a paratroop attack, by the 75th Ranger Regiment, to seize an airstrip coded Rhino. A second force, by a JSOC Special Mission Unit (SMU), attacked the Kandahar headquarters of Mullah Omar. Rhino was to receive the first conventional ground combat unit, of United States Marine Corps|U.S. Marines. [16]

Hamid Karzai entered Afghanistan from Pakistan, with 4 men, on October 8-9. He spent the next 20 days meeting with local groups, and assembled a force of perhaps 50 men. He had been told "You must come with strength. Go to the United States, come back with the resources and money and weapons, and all that, and begin from a point with strength and then we'll do that. But if you just take the population and march it on the cities, they will take the cities, but then they would also get killed. Why should the civilians suffer?" [17] Karzai used his satellite telephone to call the U.S. consulate and ask for support. Within a day or two, he designated his position, and large amounts of weapons and supplies were parachuted to him, greatly increasing his status. Soon afterwards, he asked for advisers, and ODA 574 flew to him on November 14. [18]

Phase III

On October 30, GEN Franks met with Mohammed Fahim Khan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Karim Khalili and Ismail Khan, of the Northern Alliance, his deputy LTG Mike DeLong, and Gary Berntsen of the CIA. Franks set out his priorities: have the Northern Alliance forces of Dostum take the major Northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, use it as a staging area to make a joint attack with Uzbek forces, now under Berryelah Khan, to make a joint attack on Taloquan. Taking those cities would open an overland supply route to Uzbekistan. According to Bertsen, Franks wanted Fahim's forces, farther south on the Shomali Plain, to move west and cut off the escape of the Taliban in the north. Fahim argued that he wanted to move to take Kabul first. Bertsen saw Fahim's argument as political; Franks restated his plan of Mazar-e-Sharif, Taloquan, and the Shomali Plain.[19]

According to DeLong, he told them "Here's the plan. You'll provide the army. I'll provide the firepower. The United States will fund your armies. We will pay for your weapons and salaries for you and your troops, in cash." He gestured, and the CIA officers uncovered a large amount of money. When he continued that there would be another payment after Mazar-e-Sharif was taken, there would be another large payment. The Afghans conferred, and told Franks they assumed it was a payment to them personally, and more would be needed for their troops. He cursed, refused to haggle, and walked out. After 45 minutes, the Afghans agreed to his terms.[9]

Franks also described the northern cities as priorities, after which the The Northern Alliance would then move to take Bagram Airfield, and then go from the Panshjir Valley to the Shomali Plain north of Kabul. He did not state Fahim's argument for Kabul as strongly as did Berntsen. Fahim agreed not to enter Kabul without Franks' permission; Franks and the CIA supported Hamid Karzai, a Durani Pashtun as the interim national leader, and did not want tribal conflict between Pashtuns and the Northern Alliance tribes.[20] A day or two later, Berntsen and a Special Forces team talked to Fahim's forces on the Shomali Plain, and told them they could not have more airstrikes that were needed in the north.

There is a widespread but incorrect impression that the Northern Alliance had extensive close air support as soon as the Special Forces teams joined them.[21] The reality was that while there was an extensive bombing campaign, it initially focused on suppression of enemy air defense and objectives that the United States believed were strategic, such as Taliban infrastructure. Close air support was essentially on an as-available basis until the movement to take Kabul; it became much more available from that time onwards.

While plans were fairly specific through the capture of Kabul, they became more ad hoc from that point onwards, especially in the pursuit of al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership. The relationship of Pakistan, and to a lesser extent other surrounding countries, changed in the aftermath of Kabul.

Change in American priorities

On November 27, Rumsfeld asked Franks for more detail on his Iraq planning. [22]

The U.S. set up Combined Joint Task Force 180 (CJTF-180) in June 2002 as the CENTCOM forward headquarters, under a lieutenant general, initially Dan McNeill.

U.S. withdrawal and ending of the war

There was an Afghan government in place, with its own Afghan Security Forces, operating independently and in teams with Western forces.

The war took on an international character, with much spillover into Pakistan, where there is an active Taliban insurgency. There was also sanctuary and spillover in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with complex diplomacy involving basing rights for Western forces versus Russian interests. Iran was affected, both from Afghanistan directly and from insurgents crossing from the Pakistani province of Balochistan. The major combat capability remained with the NATO International Security Assistance Force.

However, as with so many invaders of the past, the U.S.-led coalition had to withdraw. The last U.S. troops left Afghanistan in a frantic withdrawal that ended on August 30, 2021, ceding the government of the country to the rule of the Taliban.


  1. Maria Newman (29 October 2004), "Bin Laden Takes Responsibility for 9/11s in New Tape", New York Times
  2. Pentagon Releases Bin Laden Videotape; U.S. Officials say Tape Links Him to Sept. 11 Attack, National Public Radio, 13 December 2001
  3. (NPR independent translators, not affiliated with US Government) George Michael, translator, Diplomatic Language Services; and Dr. Kassem M. Wahba, Arabic language program coordinator, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, ed. (13 December 2001)
  4. United Nations Security Council (28 September 2001), Resolution 1373
  5. Tommy Franks (2004), American Soldier, Harper Collins, ISBN 0060779543, pp. 270-272
  6. John C. K. Daly (May 4, 2007), "U.S. Air Base at Manas at Risk over Shooting Suspect?", Eurasia Daily Monitor, the Jamestown Foundation 4 (88)
  7. Gary C. Schroen (2005), First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Ballentine, ISBN 0891418723, pp. 67-78
  8. Franks, p. 264
  9. 9.0 9.1 Michael DeLong with Noah Lukeman (2009), Inside CENTCOM: the Unvarnished Truth about the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Regnery, ISBN 0895260204, p. 46 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "DeLong" defined multiple times with different content
  10. Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces, PublicAffairs, September 6, 2005, ISBN 1586483528, p. 167
  11. History 1987-2007, United States Special Operations Command, p. 88
  12. Sean Naylor (2005), The untold story of Operation Anaconda: Not a Good Day to Die, Berkley, ISBN 0425196097, pp. 29-32
  13. Naylor, pp. 33-34
  14. USSOCOM History, p. 104
  15. The United States Army in Afghanistan: Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (October 2001-March 2003), Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, p. 14
  16. Franks, pp. 301-305
  17. "Interview: President Hamid Karzai", PBS Frontline, May 7, 2002
  18. USSOCOM history, p. 94
  19. Gary Bertsen and Ralph Pezzulo (2005), JAWBREAKER: The attack on Bin Laden and al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Field Commander, Three Rivers Press, Crown Publishing Group, Random House, ISBN 0307351068, pp. 90-92
  20. Franks, p. 310-312
  21. Schoen, pp. 240-241
  22. Franks, p. 314