For most Americans of the present generation, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, represent the benchmarks of time and consequence around which many will summarize their lives. That the events of 9/11 were broadcast live on television and radio, and were spread by the growing presence of the Internet only make them more tangible to a generation that has embraced instant communications and social interaction as a birthright. Nevertheless, like all such events, 9/11 has a back-story that has rarely, if ever, been told publicly.
When Osama bin Laden chose Afghanistan as the base of operations for the al Qaeda terrorist network, he did so for good reasons. One of the most remote countries on Earth, Afghanistan was in 2001 surrounded by countries hostile and/or ambivalent to the United States. Add to this a decrepit road infrastructure, mountains more than 20,000 feet high, and a government devoted to rolling back every feature of modern life, and the days following 9/11 looked like a “no can do” challenge for the American military.
Other than the cruise missile strikes following the 1998 al Qaeda attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S. military had no experience in operations in Afghanistan. Logistically, it would have been difficult in the fall of 2001 to support even a company of American infantry in Afghanistan, much less the kind of forces that would be needed to attack the forces of the ruling Taliban government protecting al Qaeda. In short, there was no “conventional” military option for responding in Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks short of “glassing” the country with thermonuclear weapons.
Enter Cofer Black.
In 2001, Cofer Black was director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) Counterterrorist Center (CTC), and a career clandestine service officer. Black and his CTC team had begun to hunt down the al Qaeda leadership in 1999, and had made some progress prior to the 9/11 attacks. He had sent a CIA field operations team to make contact with Northern Alliance leader Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud in northern Afghanistan, in the hope of building a dialogue and developing targeting information on the al Qaeda leadership. Unfortunately, Massoud was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks by an al Qaeda suicide bomber team posing as a television crew, one of the terrorist group’s quid pro quo offerings to the Taliban government in Kabul in exchange for sanctuary.
On the morning of Sept. 11, while eating breakfast, Black first heard about the opening attacks on the World Trade Center, and knew immediately that al Qaeda and bin Laden were responsible. And while it would take five days to explain his ideas on how to respond, Black already knew what he wanted to do. A hard and direct man, Black was not the kind of person you invited to the White House for afternoon tea. But the Saturday after 9/11, in the Aspen Lodge at Camp David, Md., Black found a man ready to hear exactly what he had to say: President George W. Bush.
“Flies on the Eyeballs”
From the beginning of his tenure as the director of the CTC, Black had been thinking about ways to eliminate al Qaeda, particularly its leadership. Black was a key supporter of arming the new RQ-1 Predator surveillance drone with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles to provide a long-range precision assassination capability for the United States. He also built strong ties between CIA’s Operations Directorate and the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). In particular, Black saw real potential in the idea of teaming CIA field operations teams, like Jawbreaker-5, with U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachments-Alpha and U.S. Air Force combat controllers.
Black’s idea, which he presented to Bush and his national security team in two meetings including the one at Camp David, was to combine the CIA field officers with ODAs and CCTs/TAC-Ps, along with contractor-supplied translators. These combined units could then be used to support friendly insurgents like those in the Northern Alliance with training, tactical/operational advice, and terminal guidance of precision airstrikes. The problem that Saturday morning was that the Northern Alliance leader, Massoud, was dead, and that the “conventional” U.S. military had no large-scale experience in “unconventional warfare” (UW). As he got up to give his presentation to the president and his team, Black began what would become a memorable lesson on UW.
Author Bob Woodward, in his best-selling book, Bush at War, told the story of the presentation:
Now, he [Black] noted, the desired end was to capture the al Qaeda and render them to law enforcement so they could be brought to justice. With regret, however, he had learned the al Qaeda do not surrender, and they would not negotiate. The great martyred Northern Alliance leader Massoud had once told him “We’ve been fighting these guys for years and I’ve never captured one of these bastards.” The reason was that anytime one of their units was overrun, they bunched together and detonated a hand grenade. So the task would be killing al Qaeda, Black said.
“When we’re through with them they will have flies walking across their eyeballs,” he said. It was an image of death that left a lasting impression on a number of war cabinet ministers. Black became known in Bush’s inner circle as the “flies on the eyeballs guy.” … Black’s enthusiasm was infectious … Powell, for one, saw that Bush was tired of rhetoric. The President wanted to kill somebody.
The president, angry at having America attacked and nearly 3,000 Americans killed on his watch, was ready for what would later be described as a “kinetic solution.” He would get his wish.
Birth of a Legend: Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan
Over the next few weeks, the senior leadership of the Bush administration worked to create the conditions under which Black’s “flies on the eyeballs” notion could become a real-world fact. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his staff worked miracles with nations in Southwest Asia to put together a coalition and access to the bases that would be needed to reach Afghanistan. While the CIA’s field operations officers and SOCOM’s special operations force (SOF) warriors would be the “tip of the spear” in the coming conflict, there would be a vast conventional military effort to support them.
Two aircraft carrier battle groups, along with an amphibious task force with a Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked, were moved to the Arabian Sea. Heavy bombers and tanker aircraft, holdovers from the days of the Cold War, began to move to bases in England, Guam, and Diego Garcia. Control centers and air bases in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and Uzbekistan quietly began to allow U.S. operations. Nowhere was this more critical than Pakistan, which allowed “support” personnel and aircraft to operate out of bases like Peshawar. War stocks of supplies and munitions were broken open, and satellite bandwidth in vast quantities was made available. And at key SOF bases in places like Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia, a few hundred very special men packed their rucksacks, travel bags, and briefcases, to fight the war for which they had spent half a century preparing.
This became the legend that is today known as “the 49 Days” of Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan, Rotation I.
This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.