Military History

Operational analysis of the Battle of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, 2001

By Daniel Turner November 8, 2021

Introduction: The Battle of Tora Bora was a US led assault on the Tora Bora cave complex in the Safed Koh mountain range in Eastern Afghanistan, near the Khyber Pass and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The battle was one of the opening stages of the invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 terror attacks. It was fought fought from 06-17 December 2001, with the primary goal of capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden, the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist organisation.[1] This analysis will mention the invasion of Afghanistan at times but will remain focused on the Battle of Tora Bora itself.

Planning: Following the September 11 attacks, US military planners began looking for targets in Afghanistan. Their primary target, Osama Bin Laden, had been known and monitored by US intelligence agencies for several years before the attacks, and wanted by the FBI since 1998. US intelligence officials were confident Bin Laden and much of Al Qaeda were in Afghanistan under the protection of Afghanistan’s Taliban government, who refused to hand Bin Laden over to the United States for prosecution. Subsequently the invasion of Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, began on 07 October 2001. The goals of the operation were capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden and to eliminate Al Qaeda’s haven in the country by removing the Taliban government.[2]

Planning was hastened by leaders in the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban movement, being American allies during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. American assistance of the Mujahideen in the 1980s created these allies, and relations were maintained in the interim years by the CIA.[1] This would prove extremely valuable in the Battle of Tora Bora where safe movement on the ground was dependant on local allies being bought.

The United States’ global military presence simplified resupply, reinforcement, and air support for the coming battle. The Taliban government was removed quickly, and intelligence reported that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters retreated to the Tora Bora caves, where a stronghold had been established to protect Osama Bin Laden. With members of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and Green Berets of the US Army’s 5th Special Forces Group working with large groups of the Northern Alliance across Afghanistan, they could not pursue Bin Laden without damaging relations with the fighters at their side.

By 2001, special operations forces were well established across the globe, but due to their nature they were unknown to most, including those in high office. This was caused by several factors. Special operations were largely unproven and were not entirely trusted in 2001. Due to their secretive nature, many who could employ them did not know about them, and military hierarchies comprised of regular officers refused to use them. After 9/11, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld visited the base of the US Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta (SFOD-D, commonly known as Delta Force) to review their capabilities and speak to senior Delta officers. Delta Force conducted a force presentation to display their capabilities to Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld described the unique abilities, skills and requirements for the upcoming Battle of Tora Bora (operating under cover as locals, alone in a hostile region with questionable allies against an entrenched enemy, and still kill or capture Osama Bin Laden). Asked if such a unit existed in the US military, or if it was feasible to raise such a unit, the Delta Force officers told him that such missions are what Delta Force was raised for. 70 operators from Delta Force would go, with specialists to speak to US planes providing air support. The United States turned to its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, to provide military assistance. The British Special Boat Service (SBS) and the German Kommando Spezialkrafte (KSK) each contributed operators for the battle.[1][3]

CIA operatives on the ground in Afghanistan organised the allies who would enable the attack on the Tora Bora caves. Officers Gary Bernsten and Gary Schroen led the CIA Jawbreaker team, and the hunt for Bin Laden.[1] They guaranteed support from local warlords with duffel bags of American money. Their choice of allies was questionable, but to operate here without buying or bribing them would mean fighting them instead. Some warlords were enemies and refused to work together, but each was important to succeed. One warlord controlled the Tora Bora and fought alongside Bin Laden during the Soviet invasion and knew the terrain. Another warlord was to transport the Delta operators and their supplies but initially refused to work with the warlord previously mentioned. Each of them was paid extra to get past their rivalries. [3][4][5]

Execution: The only way to get to Tora Bora was by truck. From Bagram airfield, the special operators were smuggled inside barrels and boxes. The roads they had to use caused difficulties to keep the operators supplied. They were heavily damaged or just non-existent and often passed through enemy controlled territory. Their destination was an abandoned village, the operators arrived at 'the schoolhouse', where CIA officers had set up a command post.[3][4][5]

Transport from the schoolhouse to the battleground was troublesome as the vehicles took the men only an hour further, from there the operators moved on foot for several hours uphill. The operators wanted to spend the nights in the mountains, but their Afghan allies insisted on returning every night to break their Ramadan fasts, sacrificing the ground they claimed during the day. Their allies hindered the efforts of the operators, they fought amongst themselves, required prayer breaks and refused to continue if it was too dangerous. Upon being sighted, enemy positions were given to US planes and destroyed, collapsing or sealing off most of the Tora Bora caves this way. Staying back to be safe from the ordnance, the operators were rarely engaged directly. As the battle continued, the bombing had a diminishing effect on the enemy’s morale. Bin Laden himself was heard on the radios, and from 12 December 2001 onwards he sounded distressed while rallying his men over the radio. Noting which areas were being bombed when he sounded distressed, Bin Laden enabled the Delta operators to close in on their target.[1][3][4]

On 16 December 2001, Bin Laden had been located. The operators were in sight of his suspected position when they saw a group of men with a taller man in flowing white robes enter the cave. This was the common appearance for Bin Laden. A ground assault was decided when an ally warlord ordered a halt, stating Al Qaeda fighters nearby were attempting to surrender, and he was negotiating terms. The Delta operators determined the warlord was stalling to allow Bin Laden to escape, and when the operators attempted to push on, their Afghan guides turned their weapons on them. During an hour-long stand-off, the operators had six bombs dropped on the cave entrance. It was believed Bin Laden had been wounded but not killed. Later intelligence confirmed that Bin Laden escaped into Pakistan. On 27 December 2001 , Bin Laden released a video proving he was alive, but he was visibly weary. Physical cues and behaviour suggested he had serious injuries to the left side of his body.[2][3][5]

Lessons learnt: The battle was planned and executed in a short amount of time, but problems were still experienced. The beginning of the war in Afghanistan was special operations heavy, nobody argued the role they would play. Despite this, nobody with authority to deploy them understood what Delta Force could offer. If their capabilities were known to US officials earlier, Delta Force would have deployed earlier to Tora Bora. CIA officers Bernsten and Schroen would have bought warlord loyalties sooner, and the fighting at Tora Bora would not have occurred during the Muslim period of Ramadan, which saw Afghan allies descend the mountains every night and sacrifice ground. With these changes, I believe Bin Laden would have been more likely to be intercepted by Delta Force. These can be attributed to a lack of communication between the military and the White House, with Delta Force’s existence communicated but not their capabilities. After the battle, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld became focused on special operations which would prevent this in the future. Future commanders should be aware of this generation’s equivalent to Delta Force: a capability or unit which is unknown or without experience but will be important in the coming years of warfare. They must understand what is under their command.[3][6][7][8]

The choice to use less than 100 special operators in the Battle of Tora Bora has been criticised. CIA officers Bernsten and Shroen requested 1,000 US Army Rangers [1][4][5], US Marine General Mattis requested to send 1,200 Marines[4][5], both were denied. In an interview, US General Tommy Franks, who made the decisions at US Central Command (CENTCOM), said involving large forces of troops was the wrong method. He knew that large numbers of Soviet troops were decimated by the Mujahideen in Tora Bora. Using large numbers of troops, rather than working with warlords, would alienate the locals and the US would be compared to the Soviets. These were tactical decisions with strategic impact, and General Franks was mindful of the geo-political ramifications. [5][6][9] His decisions were supported by the Delta Force commander on the ground. 'Dalton Fury' said that, 'We had to operate in virtual invisibility to keep Ali on top of the Afghan forces', and 'It would have been a major slap in Ali’s face' had mass troops been used. If the warlords 'didn’t turn, then they definitely would have gone home.'[5] When executing an operation, the commander must be aware of their effect on the local population. General Franks was committed not to copy the Soviets’ mistakes. The US government learnt that they could deploy sizeable numbers of personnel and supplies across the globe at short notice and maintain supplies easily. The conventional choice of mass troops would not always fit the task. History in the area is important and relying on local allies may be unavoidable.

Being dependant on local fighters was not ideal but could not be avoided without going to war with every Afghan in the region. If military commanders refused to adapt and befriend the warlords, there would have been no success in Tora Bora. Every American in Afghanistan would have been in greater danger, being viewed as invaders and bogged down in fighting, allowing Bin Laden to undoubtedly escape. Adapting to this type of operation was paramount, and to achieve their strategic goals they had to work with the locals, which military and political leaders had to accept. After the attacks on 9/11, the US government had the emotional backing of its citizens, this was personal for every American. The US military developed templates for future conflicts and the special operators learnt lessons in Afghanistan’s culture and people, which would be invaluable in the war.[3]

A mistake some agree on was relying on Pakistan to lock down the border and capture escaping enemies. Drone footage showed Pakistani soldiers accepting bribes and allowing escaping Al Qaeda safe passage. I do not believe these issues could be avoided. In these mountainous areas, tribal ties mean more than anything. Mass deploying troops into the mountains to cut off escape routes would take an obscene number of troops who could not be resupplied, whether they were Pakistani or American. To prevent Bin Laden escaping, the Delta Force commander requested planes air drop landmines to seal off escape routes. This was denied because allies threatened to leave the war due to anti-landmine treaties they were members of, prohibiting them from using or enabling the users of landmines. The British and German assistance in Tora Bora was crucial and being allies does not mean you share the same rules. Several factors came together to give Bin Laden a chance to escape, and it cannot be blamed on just one. Human and operational factors which could not be changed each made exploitable circumstances which compounded on each other, providing a window for escape. [1][3][5][9]

Conclusion: The Battle of Tora Bora was partially successful. Osama Bin Laden escaped with suspected injuries, but his Tora Bora stronghold was destroyed. Bin Laden was already familiar with the area and knew the escape routes. The cave entrances were not visible from the air, pilots would have to guess where to drop mines. They needed the Delta operators to mark targets for them, and the mountains going into Pakistan could never be policed or shut down. Most of Al Qaeda was dead or buried, leaving them crippled and unable to perform widely for years. The Taliban were overthrown and the safe environment for terror groups had been removed. Tora Bora reinforced that the powers had shifted, crippling enemy morale across the country. In this the US can claim success. Al Qaeda still exists today, killing Bin Laden would not have dismantled it or shortened the war. His ability to organise attacks on the West had been crippled, gaining some strategic success without managing to kill or capture him. For these reasons, I determine partial success was achieved.

Reference list



[3] Book - “Kill Bin Laden”- by Dalton Fury

[4] Book - “Jawbreaker”- by Gary Bernsten and Ralph Pezzullo

[5] Article - Tora Bora Reconsidered - by Benjamin Runkle

[6] Report to US Senate committee on foreign relations



[9] Interview with US General Tommy Franks



Daniel Turner


Daniel Turner serves as a Regimental Signals Section Commander for 3CER and is an army linguist who can speak, read and write in French, Italian and German. They are interested in international security studies, leadership and counter insurgency. They are currently studying towards a Bachelor in Security Studies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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