Operation Enduring Freedom


Northern Alliance fighters, some in and atop armored vehicles, entered the Afghan capital, Kabul, just after dawn on November 13, 2001.

ODA 574 with Hamid Karzai. U.S. Army photo

Eleven Men at the Gates of Kandahar – Special Operations Forces and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Enduring Freedom was the code name given to the U. S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that began on October 7, 2001. The purpose of the invasion was to topple the Taliban government and kill or capture members of the Al Qaeda terrorist group, which had just carried out the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The Taliban had sheltered Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, on Afghan territory and provided the terrorists with bases, training facilities, and quite possibly financial support.

The United States faced major problems in planning a war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Prime among these were logistical concerns, for Afghanistan is a landlocked country quite distant from U. S. basing facilities. American planners decided that an alliance would have to be forged with the Afghan United Front (also known as the Northern Alliance), an anti-Taliban opposition force within Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance would do the bulk of the fighting but would receive U. S. air support, along with assistance, advice, and cash from U. S. special operations forces.

The war began on October 7, 2001, with American air strikes from land-based B-52 and B-1 bombers, carrier-based F-14 Tomcat and F-18 Hornet aircraft, and Tomahawk cruise missiles. These attacks were intended to knock out the Taliban’s antiaircraft defenses and communications infrastructure. However, desperately poor Afghanistan had a very limited infrastructure to bomb, and the initial air attacks had only minimal impact. Al Qaeda training camps were also targeted, although they were quickly abandoned once the bombing campaign began. U. S. special operations forces arrived in Afghanistan on October 15, at which time they made contact with the leaders of the Northern Alliance.

The first phase of the ground campaign was focused on the struggle for the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, which fell to the Northern Alliance forces led by generals Abdul Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammed on November 10, 2001. The fighting around Mazar-e Sharif was intense, but U. S. air strikes, directed by special operations forces on the ground, did much to break Taliban and Al Qaeda resistance.

As the fighting progressed, the Taliban and Al Qaeda improved both their tactics and combat effectiveness. Camouflage and concealment techniques were also enhanced, helping to counter American air power. However, the Taliban’s limited appeal to the population meant that the regime could not withstand the impact of a sustained assault. The repressive rule of the Taliban ensured that the Taliban never widened its base of support beyond the Pashtun ethnic group from which they originated.

Northern Alliance forces captured the Afghan capital of Kabul without a fight on November 13. On November 26 a besieged garrison of 5,000 Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers surrendered at Kunduz after heavy bombardment by American B-52s. Meanwhile, an uprising by captured Taliban fighters held in the Qala-e-Gangi fortress near Mazar-e Sharif prison was suppressed with great brutality in late November.

The scene of the fighting then shifted to the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Because the Taliban had originated in Kandahar in the early 1990s, they were expected to put up a stiff fight for the city. Kandahar was attacked by Northern Alliance forces led by generals Hamid Karzai and Guyl Agha Shirzai, with U. S. special operations forces coordinating the offensive. The Taliban deserted Kandahar on December 6, and Taliban leader Mohammed Omar and the surviving Taliban elements went into hiding in the remote mountain regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fall of Kandahar marked the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, only nine weeks after the beginning of the bombing campaign. On December 22, 2001, an interim administration, chaired by Hamid Karzai, took office.

Despite the rapid and efficient progress of Operation enduring freedom, Taliban and Al Qaeda elements remained at large in Afghanistan, and the operation failed to capture or kill either Osama bin Laden or Mohammed Omar. Bin Laden was believed to be hiding in mountain dugouts and bunkers located in the White Mountains near Tora Bora. A 16-day offensive in early December 2001 failed to find bin Laden. For this offensive, the United States once again relied on Northern Alliance ground troops supported by U. S. special operations forces and American air power. Later there would be charges that this offensive was mishandled, and an opportunity to take bin Laden was lost. Bin Laden escaped, probably into Pakistan through the foreboding but porous border that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Despite the failure to capture or kill bin Laden, the United States could point to notable success in the so-called War on Terror by the end of 2001. The Taliban had been deposed and Al Qaeda was on the run, with many of its members and leaders having been killed or captured. This occurred despite the fact that the United States deployed only about 3,000 service personnel, most of them special operations forces, to Afghanistan by the end of the year. The U. S. death toll was remarkably light, with only 2 deaths attributed to enemy action. Estimates of Afghan fatalities are approximate, at best. As many as 4,000 Taliban soldiers may have been killed during the campaign. Afghan civilian deaths have been estimated at between 1,000 and 1,300, with several thousand refugees dying from disease and/or exposure. Another 500,000 Afghans were made refugees or displaced persons during the fighting.

The United States attempted a different approach in March 2002, when Al Qaeda positions were located in the Shahi-Kot Valley near Gardez. On this occasion, U. S. ground troops from the 10th Mountain Division and the 101st Airborne Division led the way, along with special operations forces from Australia, Canada, and Germany, and Afghan government troops, in an offensive code-named Operation anaconda. Taliban reinforcements rushed to join the Al Qaeda fighters, but both were routed from the valley with heavy losses.

Since 2002 the Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants have maintained a low-level insurgency in Afghanistan. Troops from the United States and allied countries, mainly from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states, remain in Afghanistan operating ostensibly under the banner of Operation enduring freedom. An upsurge of Taliban insurgent activity beginning in 2006, however, has necessitated a series of coalition offensives.

References Biddle, Stephen. Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2002. Hanson, Victor Davis. Between War and Peace: Lessons from Afghanistan to Iraq. New York: Random House, 2004. Kagan, Frederick. Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy. New York: Encounter, 2006. Maley, William. The Afghanistan Wars. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

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