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Context of 'December 5-17, 2001: Ground Battle for Tora Bora Rages but Is Later Called ‘Grand Charade’'

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US Special Forces in the foreground with their Afghan allies in the rear. The allies are wearing US-issued parkas.US Special Forces in the foreground with their Afghan allies in the rear. The allies are wearing US-issued parkas. [Source: Robin Moore]US special forces conduct their first two significant raids in the Afghanistan war on this day. In the first, more than a hundred Army Rangers parachute into a supposedly Taliban-controlled airbase near Kandahar. But in fact, the airbase had already been cleared by other forces, and the raid apparently is staged for propaganda purposes. Footage of the raid is shown that evening on US television. In the other raid, a combination of Rangers and Delta Force attack a house outside Kandahar occasionally used by Taliban leader Mullah Omar. This raid is publicly pronounced a success, but privately the military deems it a near-disaster. Twelve US soldiers are wounded in an ambush as they leave the compound, and neither Mullah Omar nor any significant intelligence is found at the house. Prior to these raids, top military leaders were already reluctant to use special forces for fear of casualties, but after the raids, the military is said to be even more reluctant. [New Yorker, 11/5/2001] Author James Risen will later note that Gen. Tommy Franks was “under intense pressure from [Defense Secretary] Rumsfeld to limit the number of US troops being deployed to the country.” [Risen, 2006, pp. 185] Only around three-dozen US special forces will take part in the pivotal battle for Tora Bora (see December 5-17, 2001). Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later blame the failure to capture bin Laden during the war to “the abject fear of American casualties. It’s something that cuts across both [the Clinton and Bush] administrations.” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006]

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment--Delta, Thomas Franks, Army Rangers, Mullah Omar, Taliban

Timeline Tags: War in Afghanistan

Hazrat Ali.Hazrat Ali. [Source: Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images]Hazrat Ali and Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, warlords in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, both later claim that they are first approached in the middle of November by US officers and asked to take part in an attack on Tora Bora. They agree. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002] By late November, the US-allied warlords assemble a motley force of about 2,500 Afghans supported by a fleet of old Russian tanks at the foot of the Tora Bora mountains. They are poorly equipped and trained and have low morale. The better-equipped Taliban and al-Qaeda are 5,000 feet up in snow-covered valleys, forests, and caves. [New York Times Magazine, 9/11/2005] On December 3, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor overhears Ali in a Jalalabad, Afghanistan, hotel making a deal to give three al-Qaeda operatives safe passage out of the country. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002] The US chooses to rely mainly on Hazrat Ali’s forces for the ground offensive against Tora Bora. Ali supposedly pays one of his aides $5,000 to block the main escape routes to Pakistan. But in fact this aide helps Taliban and al-Qaeda escape along these routes. Afghan villagers in the area later even claim that they took part in firefights with fighters working for Ali’s aide who were providing cover to help al-Qaeda and Taliban escape. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002] Author James Risen later claims, “CIA officials are now convinced that Hazrat Ali’s forces allowed Osama bin Laden and his key lieutenants to flee Tora Bora into Pakistan. Said a CIA source, ‘We realized those guys just opened the door. It wasn’t a big secret.’” While the US will never publicly blame Ali for assisting in the escape, the CIA will internally debate having Ali arrested by the new Afghan government. But this idea will be abandoned and Ali will become the new strongman in the Jalalabad region. [Risen, 2006, pp. 168-169] CIA official Michael Scheuer later will comment, “Everyone who was cognizant of how Afghan operations worked would have told Mr. Tenet that [his plan to rely on Afghan warlords] was nuts. And as it turned out, he was.… The people we bought, the people Mr. Tenet said we would own, let Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan into Pakistan.” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Taliban, Michael Scheuer, Hazrat Ali, Al-Qaeda, Haji Zaman Ghamsharik

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Groups of reporters watch US bombing in the Tora Bora region.Groups of reporters watch US bombing in the Tora Bora region. [Source: CNN]Only about three dozen US soldiers take part in the Tora Bora ground offensive (see December 5-17, 2001). Author Peter Bergen will later comment, “If Fox and CNN could arrange for their crews to cover Tora Bora it is puzzling that the US military could not put more boots on the ground to find the man who was the intellectual author of the 9/11 attacks. Sadly, there were probably more American journalists at the battle of Tora Bora than there were US troops.” [PeterBergen (.com), 10/28/2004]

Entity Tags: Peter Bergen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

US Special Forces unloading equipment in the Tora Bora region.US Special Forces unloading equipment in the Tora Bora region. [Source: Banded Artists Productions] (click image to enlarge)Around December 5, 2001, about three-dozen US special forces position themselves at strategic spots in the Tora Bora region to observe the fighting. Using hand-held laser target designators, they “paint” targets to bomb. Immediately the US bombing becomes more accurate. With this improved system in place, the ground battle for Tora Bora begins in earnest. However, as the Christian Science Monitor later notes, “The battle was joined, but anything approaching a ‘siege’ of Tora Bora never materialized.” No other US troops take part, and US-allied afghans fight unenthusiastically and sometimes even fight for the other side (see Mid-November 2001-Mid-December 2001). [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002] The Tora Bora battle will end with a victory for the US-allied forces by December 17, 2001 (see December 17, 2001). However, the Daily Telegraph will later report, “In retrospect, and with the benefit of dozens of accounts from the participants, the battle for Tora Bora looks more like a grand charade.” Eyewitnesses express shock that the US pinned in Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, thought to contain many high leaders, on three sides only, leaving the route to Pakistan open. An intelligence chief in Afghanistan’s new government says, “The border with Pakistan was the key, but no one paid any attention to it. In addition, there were plenty of landing areas for helicopters had the Americans acted decisively. Al-Qaeda escaped right out from under their feet.” [Daily Telegraph, 2/23/2002]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Al-Qaeda, US Department of Defense, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

British special forces soldiers from the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Service (SBS) pursue Osama bin Laden as he flees the battle of Tora Bora (see November 16, 2001 and December 5-17, 2001). According to author Michael Smith, at one point they are “20 minutes” behind bin Laden, but they are “pulled off to allow US troops to go in for the kill.” However, it takes hours for the Americans to arrive, by which time bin Laden has escaped. [London Times, 2/12/2007]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Special Boat Service, Special Air Service

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Four prisoners captured at Tora Bora and shown to the media on December 17, 2001.Four prisoners captured at Tora Bora and shown to the media on December 17, 2001. [Source: Getty Images]US-allied forces declare that the battle of Tora Bora has been won. A ten-day ground offensive that began on December 5 has cleared out the remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Tora Bora. The Afghan war is now widely considered to be over. However, many will later consider the battle a failure because most of the enemy escapes (see December 5-17, 2001), and because the Taliban will later regroup. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002] The Christian Science Monitor later reports that up to 2,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda were in the area when the battle began. The vast majority successfully fled, and only 21 al-Qaeda fighters were finally captured. [Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/2002] US intelligence analysts later estimate that around 1,000 to 1,100 al-Qaeda fighters and an unknown number of leaders escaped Tora Bora, while Pakistani officials estimate 4,000 fighters plus 50 to 80 leaders escaped (see October 2004). [Knight Ridder, 10/30/2004] Author Ron Suskind will suggest in 2006 that there were just over 1,000 al-Qaeda and Taliban in the area, and of those, 250 were killed or captured. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 75 Sources: Ron Suskind] Bin Laden left the area by December 15, if not earlier (see December 15, 2001 and Mid-December 2001). It is believed that al-Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also escaped the area around the same time. [Knight Ridder, 10/20/2002]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Taliban, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

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