Operation Jawbreaker: The War Against Osama Bin Laden & The Taliban
“CIA was built to gather intelligence, not conduct wars. When it became clear that we were going to be asked to play a leading role in ousting al-Qa’ida, we added a new branch to our Counterterrorism Center — CTC Special Operations, or CTC/SO. To head up this new branch, we tapped Hank Crumpton. Upon his return from overseas, Hank headed directly to Langley from the airport. There, he met with Cofer Black, who outlined his expectation.
“Your mission is to find al-Qa’ida, engage it, and destroy it.”
(“The Eye Of The Storm”, author George Tenet)
Hours after United Airlines Flight 93 had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, the CIA’s counterterrorism center (CTC) had many of its employees returning to work, some worked 24 hours straight, to read information cables from around the world which was coming in at a steady pace. The suspect who was blamed for the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C was none other than Osama Bin Laden. All throughout the summer of 2001, intelligence was pouring in from many countries warning the United States that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were planning something big. The flight manifests for the planes which were hijacked were sent to the CTC operations center, where it ultimately seen by George Tenet. To his shock he muttered, ‘oh my god, it’s all of them!”. Two names struck him.
Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.
The same suspects the CIA had monitored since they left a house in Sana’a, Yemen where they travelled to a high level Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia. Not to mention the suspects from the “Hamburg Cell” who were living in Germany and then relocating to Florida, New Jersey, Virginia and New York City whom many of them were made known from the foreign intelligence services who were operating without the knowledge of the United States government. Just a few months prior to the attacks, the Israeli government had given the CIA a list of suspects who they felt might be participating in a terrorist attack in the near future. Many of them were already inside the US, again, the Israelis didn’t mention this fact nor that they were monitoring them in the first place.
Tenet immediately notified the State Department of a military reaction to the terrorist attacks in the country. There needed to be a vicious response, but this time “with the gloves off” as Cofer Black the Deputy Chief of the CTC once remarked to the Joint House Inquiry panel in 2003. However, the reaction had to come from the CIA’s Special Activities Division and US Special Operations Command. The plan? To find and kill all Al Qaeda fighters and those who harbor them, including Taliban. This included, locating and killing the emir of Al Qaeda and the alleged mastermind of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks, Osama Bin Laden.
The plan was birthed back in 1999, in the months after the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania which took the lives of 224 people. Tenet had declared war on Al Qaeda in December 1998, just three months after the bombings had taken place. Tenet gave Black the authority and had him outline a plan of attack against Al Qaeda. By July 1999, Black drafted “The Plan”, an outline to locate and destroy Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, it had been briefed to CIA operational level personnel, and to the NSA, the FBI, and other partners. According to s source close to the CTC the baseline draft went like this.
“Cofer Black and his new bin Laden unit wanted to “project” into Afghanistan, to “penetrate” bin Laden’s sanctuaries. They described their plan as military officers might. They sought to surround Afghanistan with secure covert bases for CIA operations — as many bases as they could arrange. Then they would mount operations from each of the platforms, trying to move inside Afghanistan and as close to bin Laden as they could to recruit agents and to attempt capture operations. Black wanted recruitments and he wanted to develop commando or paramilitary strike teams made up of officers and men who could “blend” into the region’s Muslim populations.”
The CIA and the CTC began calling up a very select group of individuals who would later become part of the largest CIA operation in its history. Tenet would task Hank Crumpton to work with the CTC. Crumpton, a fresh faced case officer who at age 23 had been the youngest trainee in his class, became involved in the investigation of the al Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 attack of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. Crumpton was a novel but unquestioned choice, a dedicated company man with a ‘no nonsense” dedication rarely seen at his age.
By February 2000, Black had tasked Gary Berntsen, a career officer who served in the Directorate of Operations between October 1982, to create a team which could serve as a springboard for establishing a presence in Afghanistan. The code name for the deployments was “Jawbreaker”. The mission in which Berntsen was given was simple, to enter the Panjshir Valley and begin working along with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance who were fighting against the Taliban, and gather intelligence on Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda training camps there.
Gary Schroen was a 30 year veteran with the CIA’s Near East Division, Directorate of Operations in 1999, a post he held through 2001.He was “semi-retired” at this time but worked at the CIA’s Islamabad as he was chief of station. He was familiar with the culture and tribes in Afghanistan and had begun working with the Northern Alliance to find as much information about Bin Laden as possible, but he remained elusive.
After Tenet had read the flight manifests that evening on September 11th , he would begin designing a new covert unit, which would begin a new plan. The unit heading this operation was called, CTC Special Operations, in which Hank Crumpton was to lead. Schroen was having difficulty working with the native Afghans, as they were a tribal people. Always working with and against one another for the right price. Berntsen however, would be chosen to replace Shroen, and lead the Jawbreaker unit, this was Crumpton’s call. As soon as Berntsen landed at Islamabad airport he was taken to see Schroen who informed him that he was the new chief of Jawbreaker. Schroen filled him in, the teams would work alongside the Afghans and produce intelligence on enemy positions and capabilities that CTC headquarters would use to drive and coordinate the war, while working alongside with US Central Command General Tommy Franks.
On October 19th 2001, 200 US Army Rangers from the 75th Regiment would end up capturing a key area, an airstrip just 75 miles south of Kandahar. Crumpton would begin the Berntsen led operations by having the deputy director for intelligence, John McLaughlin in charge of operations with Franks Vice Admiral Albert Calland with special operations command of SOCOM. Berntsen would begin supplying the Tajiks and begin the fight against the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley. There would be a number of different teams operating with Jawbreaker teams.
There were a number of factions who led the charge from the ground against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The Hizib-e-Wahdat Hazaka led by Karim Khalili
The Uzbeks led by Rashid Dotsom.
The Northern Alliance led by General Mohammad Qasim Fahim
Fighting in the Eastern front of the country were US Special Force units led by Lt. Col. Chris Haas the commander of Special Forces Team 555. Haas was in command of all special forces units in Eastern Afghanistan.
Washington wanted a pincer attack on Taliban hiding out in caves and ditches whose numbers were in the tens of thousands. With the Northern Alliance from the South and the Eastern Alliance and Haas to the East. Starting with the Jawbreaker teams to destroy Taliban targets in the Shomali Plains located just north of Kabul, the country's capitol. When the Northern Alliance and Jawbreaker teams had defeated the Taliban, the Alliance would stop 5 miles outside of Kabul, and allow the United Nations to come and organize a peaceful transition of power, which would be handed to Hamid Karzai.
Karzai had previously served as Deputy Foreign Minister in the Islamic State of Afghanistan while also being the head of the Popalzai tribe, a Pashtun people. He also visited the western embassies including the U.S. embassy in Islamabad several times, talking with Norbert Holl, and attempted to gain American support for “modern, educated Afghans” to weaken the Taliban’s views. In July 1999 the Taliban had assassinated Karzai’s father, Abdul Ahad Karzai. The son led the charge ever since against the Taliban.
One of the Jawbreaker units were led by “RJ” and the Special Forces Team 595, which would radio in airstrikes on Taliban locations in Mazar-e-Sharif while General Dotsom would charge against dazed Taliban fighters immediately afterwards. Tens of thousands of Taliban fighters were no match for US B52’s and their incessant air strikes which levelled their positions while Dotsom’s armies razed what was left on the ground, which was usually led by the vicious general who usually wielded a sword on his horse. By November 10th the Tajik’s took control of the city and freed native Uzbeks from Taliban captivity. With their recent defeat, the Taliban fighters then headed east toward Kunduz as RJ and SF team 595 went north to meet them and engage them in battle. With Mazar-e-Sharif under control of Dotsom, the Friendship Bridge was now open between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan which was now used to facilitate logistical support. Central Command could now focus it’s air power on Taloqan, which is the capital of Takhar Province, in northeastern Afghanistan.
Another one of Jawbreakers teams led by “Breen” was already in Taloqan. Breen had Special Forces Team 585, which was also headed by master sergeant John Bolduc. Bolduc was relentless as he called in US air strikes from the powerful Spectre C-130 gunships which made the Taliban quickly relinquish the city. The Spectre C-130’s are heavily armed, long-endurance aircraft carrying an array of anti ground-oriented weapons that are integrated with sophisticated sensors, navigation, and fire-control systems.
Meanwhile over at Shomali Plains, Lt. Col Haas was waiting for orders to begin making advancements. Berntsen however was patient. Jawbreaker reports had collected information that Osama Bin Laden was seen fleeing the Nangarhar Province and heading toward Jalalabad. Crumpton gave the order to Berntsen to begin forward advancements.
The Taliban had hunkered down for a final showdown in Mazar-e-sharif, as approximately 5,000 fighters would try and defend against Dotsom’s forces with Mohammad Daoud in the West and Beryallah Khan in the East as US air strikes rained down from above. Knowing that they could not with stand the daily assaults, the Taliban surrendered. The final stage was now to capture or kill Bin Laden and the rest of al Qaeda fighters with him.
The idea was to trap Bin Laden and his fighters in a “kill box” between three promontories manned by US Special Force teams. Two new teams would be positioned to the south and west, one on Tonga Mountain and another closer to Sangla Hill further south while the original post near Milagwa would be reestablished to the east. US CENTCOM, under Berntsen’s orders, bombarded the White Mountains as B-52 and B-1 bombers, from carrier ships stationed in the Persian Gulf, saturated the mountain side with heavy artillery fire in the day. While using Spectre AC-130 ships at night. Al Qaeda hid i the caves to avoid being reduced to molecules. Using such heavy aerial bombardment, Berntsen wanted to flush Bin Laden against the White Mountains.
It all seemed almost a impossible task to escape for Bin Laden. However, there was one last chance to escape. Berntsen also knew it. Behind Bin Laden was an escape route, a road which led to Pakistan. What he wanted was to have the permission to call up 250 US Special Force fighters to block off the last escape route. Berntsen called General Franks, who would end up taking orders from the US State Department. Franks reported back to Gary, and relayed a message. Let the Afghans block off the backend to Pakistan. Berntsen was livid, for he knew they could not be fully trusted for this mission.
The aerial assaults from the BLU-82, known as “daisy cutter bombs” complete destroyed and flattened the ground. Scorched earth, flattened trees, which meant Al Qaeda could be seen from above in the open. Making them an easy target. Berntsen called Crumpton, maybe he could help get the men needed to block the escape route. However, it was forwarded to General Franks. Then a sudden change in plans. Something which blindsided Berntsen. Crumpton called. Berntsen was to be replaced. Richard Blee, the former Chief of the Bin Laden Issue Station (Alec Station) is to arrive soon.
Meanwhile here was a huge defeat for Al Qaeda under the unrelenting aerial bombing campaigns near Gardez approximately 260 miles north of Kandahar. In the evening hours of November 14th, Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda’s top military commander, had been asleep in a guest house along with several other members. Sayf-al-Adl al-Masri, Al Qaeda organization’s chief of military operations, spoke about what happened next.
“We heard a missile passing over our heads immediately before we had finished eating and it exploded 100 meters from the house. We immediately started to leave fearing that we were the target and the targeting would be corrected so as to hit us. We left the house and saw the smoke at the end of the street as the US aircraft flew overhead. There were two houses where the missile fell. One belonged to the Arab Afghans families but was empty and the other belonged to Taliban.
I thought they targeted the students (Taliban’s members). We looked at the aircraft and saw it fire the second missile and we took cover. It fell in the middle of the road. The brothers and I walked on foot to a nearby position. A students patrol we met on the way told me that there were Arab women in the house and that a brother was killed and another injured and both were evacuated to hospital while all the women left and went to the villages.”
American intelligence intercepted communications from those digging through the rubble of Atef’s home, leading them to believe they had been successful in killing him. During a search of the rubble, US military and Special Forces would find important documents such as Al Qaeda training manuals and manuals on Guerilla warfare. It was a tremendous kill for the Americans.
With the cold month of December raging, and the snow tops of the white mountains capped, Bin Laden and approximately 400 Al Qaeda fighters were hiding in locales houses and in the caves,. A radio which was recovered in a former taliban safehouse which had been used to listen in on the radio transmissions of Al Qaeda fighters had heard the voice of it’s top man. Osama Bin Laden. He apologized to his men fearing they would be killed soon, for getting them trapped in the White Mountains in Tora Bora.
“I’m sorry for getting you involved in this battle if you can no longer resist, you may surrender with my blessing.”
But he was allowed more time to escape. According to report entitled “Tora Bora Revisited” : How We Failed To Get Bin Laden & Why It Matters Today, which was presented to the Committee on Foreign Relations on November 30th 2009.
“The Special Operations Command history records that CentCom refused to back the ceasefire, suspecting a ruse, but it said the special ops forces agreed reluctantly to an overnight pause in the bombing to avoid killing the surrendering Al Qaeda fighters. Ghamsharik negotiated by radio with representatives of Al Qaeda. He initially told Dalton Fury that a large number of Algerians wanted to surrender. Then he said that he could turn over the entire Al Qaeda leadership. Fury’s suspicions increased at such a bold promise. By the morning of December 12, no Al Qaeda fighters had appeared and the Delta Force commander concluded that the whole episode was a hoax. Intelligence estimates are that as many as 800 Al Qaeda fighters escaped that night, but bin Laden stuck it out.
Despite the unreliability of his Afghan allies, Fury refused to give up. He plotted ways to use his 40 Delta Force soldiers and the handful of other special ops troops under his command to go after bin Laden on their own. One of the plans was to go at bin Laden from the one direction he would never anticipate, the southern side of the mountains. “We want to come in on the back door,’’ Fury explained later, pointing on a map to the side of the Tora Bora enclave facing Pakistan. The peaks there rose to 14,000 feet and the valleys and precipitous mountain passes were already deep in snow. `The original plan that we sent up through our higher headquarters, Delta Force wants to come in over the mountain with oxygen, coming from the Pakistan side, over the mountains and come in and get a drop on bin Laden from behind.’’
The audacious assault was nixed somewhere up the chain of command. Undeterred, Fury suggested dropping hundreds of landmines along the passes leading to Pakistan to block bin Laden’s escape. “First guy blows his leg off, everybody else stops,’’ he said. “That allows aircraft overhead to find them. They see all these heat sources out there. Okay, there is a big large group of Al Qaeda moving south. They can engage that.’’ That proposal was rejected, too. About the time Fury was desperately concocting scenarios for going after bin Laden and getting rejections from up the
chain of command, Franks was well into planning for the next
war — the invasion of Iraq.”
Bin Laden is said to have split his group in two. 135 of his men headed east into Pakistan. Over 200 others, including Bin Laden, left for the Pashtun tribal area of Parachinar guided by members of the Ghizai tribe, a local Pashtun people. When Bernsten returned to the United States, he knew when they pulled him off Jawbreaker, they had in essence pulled the final plug on the operation. Berntsen also viewed his replacement Blee as being there, along with Michael Anne Casey , head of the Ahmed al-Hada operation, as not having to testify before the 9/11 National Commission or the Joint House Inquiry. The most important failure of CENTCOM leadership came at Tora Bora when they turned down the simple request by Berntsen for a battalion of oly 250 US Rangers to block Bin Laden’s escape into Pakistan.
However, General Tommy Franks, who denied the request by Berntsen, would lend his final thoughts in an o-ed piece posted by the New York Times in October 2004.
“We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Some intelligence sources said he was; others indicated he was in Pakistan at the time … Tora Bora was teeming with Taliban and Qaeda operatives … but Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp.”
Dalton Fury (pen name), who was part of the Tora Bora military operation remarked otherwise.
“Rather than allowing bin Laden to escape, Franks and Rumsfeld could have deployed American troops already in Afghanistan on or near the border with Pakistan to block the exits while simultaneously sending special operations forces and their Afghan allies up the mountains to Tora Bora. The complex mission would have been risky, but analysis shows that it was well within the reach and capability of the American military.”
It seemed the war in Iraq took precedence over capturing the man, who many in the state department believed was behind the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, in Osama Bin Laden. The war on terrorism could have ended right then and there.