Challenges hunting Osama bin-Laden in Tora Bora: from “Jawbreaker”


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As we celebrate the successful operation of killing of Osama Bin Laden, aka Geronimo, with “talking heads” referring to earlier efforts in the Tora Bora mountains, I felt it timely to write this post. What do we know about that rugged mountain area where CIA led teams engaged the enemy at 11,000 feet altitude as they chased and killed vast numbers of al-Qaeda forces yet were unable to catch Bin Laden.
On March 30, 2006 producers Ron and Anna Winship and myself interviewed Gary Berntsen, the CIA’s key field commander “coordinating the fight against the Taliban forces around Kabul, and the drive toward Tora Bora in his no-holds-barred pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.” That stealth location interview is still available in the www.CuttingEdge-atalkshow.com archives under the title “Company Business.”
With assistance from award winning screenwriter Ralph Pezzullo, Gary authored the book entitled “Jawbreaker.” The opening sentence reads: “This is a book that the CIA didn’t want you to read.”
Having read the book from cover to cover I can report that Gary and Ralph had to make many concessions as sentences to paragraphs and pages, representing 40 pages of the original draft, were redacted in order to finally see the light of day. Being stonewalled by his bosses Gary was forced to file a lawsuit against the CIA to gain approval from a Federal Judge to publish this account of his involvement in the “company.”
To honor the victims of 9-11 we would remiss not to remember and point out other victims whose names, to the best of  my knowledge, we have not seen in print or heard on the tube. From Jawbreaker.
“Master Sergeant Jefferson Donald Davis, staff Sergeant Brian Cody Prosser and Sergeant First Class Daniel H. Petithor who all had fought valiantly in the defense of the town of Tarin Kowt, only to be killed as a result of friendly fire on Dec 5, 2001 along with three of (Hamid) Karzai’s mujahideen fighter as we were planning an assault on Kandahar.
They were members of Special Forces Team ODA 574. Five minutes after the blast, a shaken Karzai received a satellite phone call informing him that he’d been selected to lead Afghanistan’s new interim government.”
Fast forwarding to chapter 17, “The Battle of Milawa.”
“The four men from Jawbreaker Juliet returned with the dead from [Pashai warlord] Babrak’s security detachment then turned around and humped back into the mountains with their mules. Ahead of them lay large trails and even roads, which they avoided for fear of being detected by an enemy that outnumbered them by at least 100 to 1.
Babrak’s guides knew exactly where to go, leading them through a primitive agricultural area towards a valley high in the mountains nestled between two sharp sets of peaks. Parker, Dusty, Lance and Reno were at over 10,000 feet and counting. With increasing frequency they stopped to examine hilltops through their binoculars and scopes.
Climbing into the thinning oxygen for two days, they stopped at a bluff overlooking a valley with small villages and primitive farms .
Babrak’s guides pointed to a military camp built into the embankment, where they spotted trucks, houses, command posts, checkpoints, machine gun nests, an obstacle course and hundreds of Bin Laden’s men.
“Bingo!” Parker exclaimed.
Carefully they moved their mules out of sight and established a position behind rocks and some scrawny trees where they couldn’t be seen.”
Reading ahead. Providing coordinates to pilots the four men directed strike after strike with B-1’s, B-2’s and F-14s onto the al-Qaeda encampment with incredible precision. Somehow through the massive bureaucracy, thousands of miles of distance, reams of red tape and a diffuse system of command that had been hastily assembled and never used before, the U.S. had managed to place four of the most skilled  men in the world above the motherload of al-Qaeda, with a laser designator and communications system linked to the most potent air power in history. Al-Qaeda soldiers who once dreamed of wreaking havoc on the West were now paying  with their lives.
As I listened over our encrypted radio network, one word kept pounding in my head: revenge. I thought let’s do this right and finish them off in the mountains.
Onto page 269 where it reads:
“Hello Gary,” I heard Hank Say.
“What’s up?”
“Gary,” he said clearing his throat. “It’s apparent that you have a team up near Tora Bora and they’re calling in a lot of air strikes.”
“Yeah, that’s us.”
“Good for you . Based on your intel and intercepts form our end it appears that bin Laden is up there too.”
“That’s correct.”
I could hear Hank chuckle with approval on the other end. “Good job. I’m proud of you. Keep it up.”
I said “I’m seeing Colonel Mulholland [Special Forces] tomorrow  morning. I want to insert Colonel Alexander’s SF team–the one you sent me to train counterterrorism pursuit teams–into the mountains. They have enough men for three observation points, so we can increase our air attacks . We can train the Afghan pursuit teams later. I wan to kill as many al-Qaeda in Toro Bora right now.”
Page 274. Following the U.S. air bombardment, bin Laden and his men abandoned their Milawa camp and retreated further into the White Mountains…..
Colonel Alexander had initially planned to establish three new observation points, but decided that two were better suited to the difficult terrain and new sets of targets. The idea was to trap bin Laden and his fighters in a kill box between three promontoires manned by SF teams. Two teams would be positioned on peaks south and west–one on Tonga Mountain, another closer to Slinga farther south–while the original post near Milawa would be reestablished to the east
Note: Hank was the hard-as-nails director of CTC [CIA’s Counterterrorism Center]
Page 276. Discussing the plans for Tora Bora. Gary writes.  Major General Daily arrived to discuss the issue of including the British in his operations. I told him that if he wanted to use the British, he should, but it was more important that he read the operational order drafted by Colonel Alexander and XXXX [Redacted]. He refused.
I tried to hand him the order and said “General, we’re involved in a very  important combat operation down in Tora Bora and I would like you to read this document.”
“No, thank you,” he responded.
J.P. looked at me as if to say, I can’t believe this.
I was ready to raise my voice ,when Lt. Colonel Sutter stepped in covering for his boss, “I’ve seen it sir. It’s fine.”
After General Dailey departed, I turned to J.P. and said, “I don’t get it ! Why wouldn’t he read the order?”
J.P. who knew the Defense department politics better than I did, answered, “If things go badly in Tora Bora, he won’t have his fingerprints on it. If they go well, they’ll have a party for him at the Pentagon.”
Note: General Dell Dailey was head of Joint Special Operations Command (Delta Force) the highest ranking U.S. military officer in Afghanistan during the fighting in Tora Bora.
In assessing his experiences leading a Jawbreaker team right after 9-11 Gary writes:
The biggest and most important failure of CENTCOM leadership came at Tora Bora when turned down my request for a battalion of U.S. Rangers to block bin Laden’s escape.
Note: CENTCOM is the U.S. Armed Forces Central Command based in Tampa, FL
Before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on July 31, 2002, General Tommy Franks explained: “On Tora Bora, early December 2001, the United States at that time had about 1,300 Americans in country in seventeen different locations. Kandahar was, as of that time, still not fully under control. We had our marine forces acting out of Camp Rhino, which was our original point of entry into Afghanistan. We were very mindfull —and I guess I’ll take credit or blame for this –I was very mindful  of the Soviet experience of more than ten years, having introduced  620,000 troops into Afghanistan, more than 15,000 of them being killed, more than 55,000 of them wounded.”
Moving to page 315 where Gary writes:”Where is bin Laden? He’s hiding among the millions of Pushtuns who live along the mountainous Afghan-Pakistan border and believe it’s their tribal duty to protect him from outsiders. Will we ever catch him? If we’re creative, aggressive and not afraid to take risks, yes!”
Typical redaction. ” [NOTE TO READER: CIA censors redacted a critical request for help on the battlefield that was made by me and distributed to CIA headquarters]”
Another example “[Note to reader: CIA censors redacted the details of Team Delta’s mission]”
When word reached CENTCOM that an agency operation was underway in Ghanzi, senior staff expressed anger that they hadn’t been informed and refused to send a rescue team. From their narrow bureaucratic perspective, if the Agency wanted to conduct operations  without them, then the agency could organize their own transportation . What CENTCOM didn’t realize  was that three of the five men on Team delta were active duty military officers–one Navy Seal, one Marine and one Army. I would have gladly sent my own helicopter to pick them up but it had a bum tail rotor that needed to be replaced.
After making Delta Team wait several hours in very dangerous territory, CENTCOM changed its mind and sent a helicopter. Team Delta  throw the keys to their Hazara allies and loaded their prisoners on the bird for the trip to Bagram.
A few hours later I spoke to Hank, who said that CENTCOM was still pissed, but would get over it. “Congratulate Team Delta for me,” he said. “Capturing the number two and three in Taliban intel was a good day’s work.”
Dec 15. Later in the afternoon of the fifteenth Bilal and Dam Khan in Tora Bora  were listening to the Yazoo radio Bilal had picked up from a dead al-Qaeda soldier when they heard Osama bin-Laden speak. Bill immediately recognized the al-Qaeda leaders’ voice because he’d heard it  more than fifty times before in taped interviews and intercepts.
As Bilal and Adam Khan listened, bin Laden addressed his men in Arabic. Forgive me,” he said. He went on to apologize for getting them trapped in the White Mountains and pounded by American air strikes. Then he gathered them together in prayer.
Note: Bilal and Adam Kahl names changed to guard their identity.
The story goes on to say that  “Bin Laden split his forces in two. One group numbering 135 men, headed east into Pakistan where they XXXXXXXXX.[Redacted]  A number of al-Qaeda detainees later confirmed that bin Laden escaped with another group of two hundred Saudi and Yemenis by a more difficult route  eastern route over difficult snow-covered passes into the Pushtun tribal area of Parachinar, Pakistan.
Towards the end of the book, and my lengthy overview of the Tora Bora manhunt, Even with the successes his team achieved in the months after 9-11 Gary writes. “My thoughts were more shaded with gray. Mostly, I felt frustration. If only headquarters had given me and my team another month. If only CENTCOM had sent Rangers I asked for to block and hunt bin Laden.
If only’s have haunted me throughout my career. They were hounding me again.
When will we learn? When will the bureaucrats back in Washington face the real challenges and respond appropriately?
Notes: It’s important to note that Jawbreaker was finally published in late  2005.
Respectfully, General Tommy Franks was wrong. Two dozen Navy Seals just took Obama out
Based on the successful April 30/May 1st operation we did take risks and were successful
Chasing after bin Laden in the White Mountains by itself was a major challenge. When you factor in the fact that you are engaging different war lords in a third world country it was not a walk in the park.
Beyond covert actions on foreign soil, even with the skillsets to be successful,  we have many facets to directives of this magnitude be it the Foreign Government, Diplomats, Defense Dept, CIA or U.S. Armed Forces, which all may come into play. Gary discovered it as stated herein.
Final comments. “Gary spent more than 20 years as an officer in the Clandestine Service and has been awarded both the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and the Intelligence star.”
For security reasons we are kept in the dark on covert operations. Gary Berntsen’s CIA service record dates back to president Clinton’s watch. Gary undertook an operation against al-Qaeda terroists as far back as late 1999 in the Balkans. His first deployment to Afghanistan’s Panshir Valley was March 2000, long before the 9-11 terrorist attacks inside our country.
He is an American hero.
Jawbreaker is a book that once you open the front cover you won’t put it down until the reach the end.


About Larry Gilbert