Tora Bora

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Kabul, Peshawar, and some cities in Nangarhar, Afghanistan 6.png

In the Afghanistan War (2001-), it is believed that Osama bin Laden and his key supporters fled to a mountainous area on the Afghan-Pakistan border, Tora Bora, after Jalalabad fell, and eventually escaped to Pakistan during the Battle of Tora Bora. There is much controversy over the policies and tactics with which the battle was fought, involving decisions up to the level of the U.S. President but certainly among different military organizations and different officers in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Principally Afghan forces, with United States Army Special Forces, CIA Special Activities Division and Delta Force assistance, pursued bin Laden. A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, in November 2009, concluded bin Laden was present, and could have been captured or killed. [1]

Tora Bora is an extremely rugged area, south of Jalalabad, as having two valleys running north and south. One U.S. soldier called it a "vertical no man's land, a hellish place of massive, rocky, jagged unforgiving snow-covered ridgelines and high peaks separated by deep ravines and valleys studded with mines. [2] In early 2001, the U.S had done an intelligence-community-wide exercise, run by Richard Clarke and Charles Allen (Deputy Director of Central Intelligence for Collection) to identify where al-Qaeda would be likey to hide chemical weapons, if they had them. The analysts identified one area, and mapped it thoroughly: a valley in Afghanistan called Tora Bora. [3]

According to "Dalton Fury", pseudonym for the on-scene Delta Force commander, White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke described, in his book Against all Enemies, an exercise considering where Al-Qaeda might hide weapons of mass destruction in Afghanistan. Tora Bora was quickly selected, and made a priority for U.S. intelligence collection. This study, however, did not address how to attack it. The imagery intelligence collected according to Clarke, was not available for Fury's planning.

Doctrinal conflict

One of the factors in not using large numbers of American troops was that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and regional commander GEN Tommy Franks had rejected the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, using an economical force "designed to deliver a swift and economical knockout blow through airpower and the limited application of troops on the ground. Instead of overwhelming force, the Afghan model depended on airpower and on highly mobile special operations forces and CIA paramilitary teams, working in concert with opposition warlords and tribal leaders. It was designed as unconventional warfare led by indigenous forces, and Franks put a ceiling of 10,000 on the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan."[4] This approach was indeed effective in much of Afghanistan, but not in the specific case of going for bin Laden. [5]

Forces to be deployed

A continuing issue, through the war, was what the military calls a Quick Reaction Force, not limited to Tora Bora, but for any situation in which Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, or other high-value targets were spotted. In United States Special Operations Command doctrine, Army Rangers have a quick-reaction role to surround a target, by means including parachute and helicopter. Delta Force would then take the close-in capture or kill mission.

Troops from the 10th Mountain Division were waiting in Uzbekistan and conceivably could have been used as a blocking force, [6] although Uzbekistan had not authorized overt combat operations from its soil. The 10th, who are general light infantry rather than mountain specialists, the name being historical, are qualified in helicopter assault and foot movement in difficult terrain.

In the case of Afghanistan, however, Delta Force was told that Afghan forces would be the QRF. There were both technology and political concerns here. The mujahideen had little night vision equipment or training to use it; but disliked fighting in the dark. [7] They were not qualified in parachute or helicopter assault. The Delta troopers were later joined by British Special Boat Service operators.

The commitment of various warlords to kill bin Laden was not a given; the CIA team leader said "as far as our Eastern Alliance allies were concerned, they would be happy to take our money and let al-Qaeda slip away." [8] Nevertheless, Delta was ordered to work with the newly formed Eastern Alliance, for the specific objective of Bin Laden; this was a separate mission than the mujahideen support that the 5th Special Forces Group had been providing to the Northern Alliance and other Afghans.

The Eastern Alliance was led by Gen. Hazrat Ali, a Pashai from Nangarhar Province.[9] Prior to the Delta Force offensive, Ali, then the internal security chief for the province, said ""I lived up there as a mujahideen in the 1980s, and it's almost impossible to attack...We will give him to the international authorities [if we capture him]."[10] Ali was especially concerned with the local political implications of introducing U.S. troops.[11]

Earlier, another Pashtai, named Babrak, had been identified as an Eastern Alliance resource to the CIA JAWBREAKER team.[12] Nuruddin, another warlord, had been suggested by the Pakistanis, whom Babrak considered a rival. In "what later turned out to be the biggest mistake I made in the deployment", CIA team leader Berntsen ordered contact with Nuruddin.[13]

Yet another participant was Hajj Zaman Ghamshareek, who Ali called a "politician" and actively insulted Ali in combat.[14] The Christian Science Monitor said he was military chief for the province, and said ""We have nothing, no weapons, to go up into the mountains and fight with, no food to eat, no place to sleep, so how can we go and fight?" [10]

Ali and Zaman may have had up to 2000 men.[15] Using Afghans was consistent with the overall concept of using special operations force to assist the Northern Alliance, rather than repeat the Soviet mistake of using their own forces for most combat. Nevertheless, the QRF mission is not the same as committing armored divisions.

Ahmed Rashid described Hazrat Ali as a minor and brutal commander, Zaman as an adventurer that had come from France, and Haji Zahir as the inexperienced son of Abdul Qadir, the elder brother of Abdul Haq. He said Franks, in retirement, became unusually partisan in the 2004 election.[16]

Tactical alternatives

Fury described three basic approaches: climb from the lowlands, making a trail or using known but small footpaths; helicopter assault on Tora Bora; helicopter infiltration into Pakistan and moving into Tora Bora via the "back door". Pakistan was quickly ruled out as politically unacceptable. Direct helicopter assault was too hazardous, given the expected amount of air defense. Most military sources are of the opinion “because there were not enough boots on the ground, that some bad guys got away." More U.S. troops on the ground became the concept for the subsequent Operation ANACONDA (Afghanistan War 2001-) in the Shahi-i-Khot Valley.[17] Those units engaged the enemy almost exclusively by directing air strikes; there was very little gunfire.

CIA had proposed putting American troops on the Pakistan side of Tora Bora, saying Pakistan could not contain bin Laden. President Bush, according to Suskind, decided to trust Pakistan. [18] As an alternative, it had been proposed to mine the passes leading out of Tora Bora, but some U.S. allies had said they would leave the coalition if mines were used. [19]

In an interview with the Senate staff, MG (ret.) Mike DeLong said
The real reason we didn’t go in with U.S. troops was that we hadn’t had the election [of the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai ] yet. We didn’t want to have U.S. forces fighting before Karzai was in power. We wanted to create a stable country and that was more important than going after bin Laden at the time."[20]

Bin Laden's escape

According to Abu Jaffar, an al-Qaeda financier who was in Tora Bora, the fighting there was principally to allow bin Laden to escape. The most fanatical fighters were Chechens. Abu Jaffar explored a UN-brokered surrender of the remaining al-Qaeda fighters, but, according to the Telegraph, bin Laden had already escaped, between November 28th and 30th. "The escape was made on foot. Ghilzi tribesmen that bin Laden had paid off in Jalalabad were waiting to lead him through their villages inside Pakistan's lawless tribal areas." [6]

This account is by no means certain, as there are a number of reports that signals intelligence did put bin Laden in Tora Bora on December 3. [21] Nevertheless, he certainly survived Afghanistan, as evidenced by his subsequent broadcasts.

GEN Franks later changed the approach of using Afghan troops for critical missions. According to the Washington Post, Franks had inadequate awareness of the tactical situation. The highest-ranking officer at Tora Bora was a lieutenant colonel, but even then, the first Americans did not arrive until three days into the resistance there.[21]

Franks said that the decision was correct given political realities of relations with the Afghans and Pakistanis; there was a much more solid relationship with the Northern Alliance than with Afghans in the east and south. The Pakistanis eventually cordoned their borders and captured lower-ranking al-Qaeda members.
Our relationship with the Afghans in the south and east was entirely different at that point in the war...It's no secret that we had a much more mature relationship with the Northern Alliance fighters...[he] still thinks that the process he followed of helping the anti-Taliban forces around Tora Bora, to make sure it was crystal clear to them that we were not there to conquer their country . . . was absolutely the right thing to do."[21]


MG Dell Dailey, the senior United States Special Operations Command officer in Afghanistan, briefed Delta that killing bin Laden was their goal. He was concerned about the risk, although not as strongly as COL Mulholland; these were professional judgments about fighting in an unknown mountainous environment, with unknown allies and no support base. [22] Bertsen wrote that Dailey did not want to read the CIA operational order for Tora Bora. While the details were redacted, the CIA team asked for a Ranger battalion as a quick reaction force, rather than Afghans.[23]

On December, one of the 5th Special Forces Group teams, ODA 572, using the codename COBRA 25, went to Jalalabad. COL Mulholland had assessed the Eastern Alliance as having exceptionally poor capabilities, and limited COBRA 25 to advising and assistance with air support, but not leading Afghan troops or coming close to the forward edge of the battle area. [24] The team split into two observation posts. OP25A set up east of the canyon and began calling in air support. COBRA 25B went in on the 8th, relieving a CIA team that had been in place for five days. [25]

After an air strike on December 9, Delta troops, designated TF11, took operational control and prepared an assault element; two Delta personnel joined OP25A to improve command and control. [26] The COBRA personnel had been ordered to stay four miles from the battlefield, giving Delta Force a clear field. A first Delta probe went in on the 10th for reconnaissance.[27] British Special Boat Service operators joined the effort on the 11th; signals intelligence suggested bin Laden was still in the area on the 10th. [6]

Delta went in again on the 12th, after considerable friction with two different Afghan leaders. Eventually, they thought they had spotted him and called in multiple airstrikes, believing they had killed him. In a subsequent interview with CBS News Fury said he thinks
bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel from an American bomb, and was then hidden a town next to the al Qaeda cemetery...[ was sheltered by Afghans, and ] It’s my understanding they believe he got into a vehicle. He moved as far as he could and then got out and walked across or was carried across into Pakistan. Free and clear...When this is all over and this all dies down, and once we finally do grab Osama Bin Laden, I think the fact that we lost him in Tora Bora will move out of my memory so to speak. I'm looking forward to those days.[28]

GEN Franks, on December 14, said Pakistani forces were providing assistance on the routes out of Afghanistan into Pakistan. Opposition forces are moving north and south from Jalalabad forming "a hammer and an anvil." He did not know bin Laden's location.[29]


  1. Tora Bora Revisited: How we failed to get bin Laden and why it matters today, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 30 November 2009, 
  2. Dalton Fury (pseud.) (2008), Kill Bin Laden: a Delta Force Commander's Account of the Hunt for the World's Most Wanted Man, St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0312384394 , p. 74
  3. Richard A. Clarke (2004), Against all Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, Free Press, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0743260244 , p. 179
  4. Senate report, p. 15
  5. Michael E. O’Hanlon (March/April 2002), "A Flawed Masterpiece", Foreign Affairs, quoted in Senate Report pp. 25-32 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Philip Smucker, (September 12, 2002), "How bin Laden outsmarted America's military might in Tora Bora", Telegraph (U.K.), 
  7. Fury, p. 79
  8. Berntsen, p. 290
  9. Fury, p. 84
  10. 10.0 10.1 Scott Baldauf and Scott Peterson (November 26, 2001), "Closing in on the elusive bin Laden", Christian Science Monitor, 
  11. History 1987-2007, United States Special Operations Command, , p. 93
  12. Berntsen, p. 197, p. 240
  13. Berntsen, p. 238
  14. Fury, p. 130-135
  15. SOCOM History, p. 93
  16. Ahmed Rashid (2006), Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, Viking, ISBN 9780670019700 , pp. 88-89
  17. Operation Anaconda: An Air Power Perspective, U.S. Air Force, 2005, , p. 19
  18. Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine, quoted by Dalton Fury, p. 77
  19. Fury, p. 78
  20. Senate report, p. 9
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Barton Gellman and Thomas E. Ricks (April 17, 2002), "U.S. Concludes Bin Laden Escaped at Tora Bora Fight", Washington Post, 
  22. Fury, p. 124
  23. Gary Berntsen 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. 276-277
  24. SOCOM History, p. 94
  25. SOCOM History, p. 95
  26. SOCOM History, pp. 95-96
  27. Fury, pp. 163-166
  28. "Elite Officer Recalls Bin Laden Hunt", 60 Minutes, CBS News, Oct. 5, 2008,