Tora Bora, Afghanistan. December 5, 2001: US military forces launch a devastating attack on Tora Bora, a sophisticated al Qaeda military complex, where the quest for Osama bin Laden takes solders into a terrorist underworld.
"We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest."
President Bush addressing a joint session of Congress on 9/20/01
As the World Trade Center smolders furiously, the Pentagon settles in partial ruins, and a field in Pennsylvania bears a gaping wound, President Bush prepares a stunned nation for war. Just nine days after the most evil terrorist assault in American history, the executor of the four simultaneous attacks is named. It is al Qaeda.
President Bush outlines a firm demand to the Taliban in Afghanistan: relinquish al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden and help dismantle the terrorist network or face a commanding military strike. But the implication of war and destruction of the regime is of no consequence. The Taliban reject the mandate.
Two weeks later, on October 7th, the War on Terror begins.
Stealth and long-range bombers and strike aircraft drop stunning payloads on specific targets in Afghanistan: Taliban air defense installations, the defense ministry, command centers, and airfields. As American gunships relentlessly shell Taliban production centers and hideouts with bombs and cruise missiles, American ships and submarines infiltrate the surrounding sea.
Bin Laden survives the relentless opening to the war. A month after the initial bombing campaign, he walks into the Saudi-funded Institute for Islamic Studies in Jalalabad and addresses his followers, urging them to fight and reassuring his insurgents that al Qaeda has the weapons and technology to win the war. Bin Laden’s sermon is punctuated by American bombs exploding outside.
Clearly al Qaeda does not possess either the technology or weaponry to compete with America, but they do have an extensive knowledge of Afghanistan’s vast terrain, a key advantage. The US decides to recruit local Afghan warlords and fighters, thousands of anti-Taliban soldiers who once fought side-by-side with al Qaeda against the Russians. They know the landscape and the language. They know the enemy.
In November, information begins to filter in that up to 1,000 al Qaeda fighters, possibly accompanied by bin Laden himself, are retreating to the mountains south of Jalalabad. The rumors are reinforced by a radio transmission from al Qaeda fighters picked up and translated by anti-Taliban commanders. The message is that the Sheik has arrived. "The Sheik" is a code name for Osama bin Laden. He is in Tora Bora.
A desolate and frigid expanse along the Pakistani border, Tora Bora is an extensive underground network of deep bunkers and caves shrouded in an ominous, murky soil for which it is named. Meaning "black dust," Tora Bora is 13,000 feet above the valleys and fortified by the brutal White Mountains. The refuge is bound by vertical slopes that offer al Qaeda the high ground to greet exposed soldiers with a landslide of gunfire.
The Afghan fighters' first-hand familiarity with the caves gives US forces a better chance at breeching the perimeter. The operations begin with reconnaissance by fire: Afghan fighters get close enough to draw fire from al Qaeda teams lying in wait. They reveal the covert fox holes and sniper nests around the complex. Commanders use those coordinates to direct crushing air strikes.
Bunker Busters and Daisy Cutters fill the skies and shake the earth in a ruthless, two-week campaign, and by December 16th, the base is destroyed. But Osama bin Laden is gone.