Academic journal article Air Power History

Air Power and the Battle for Mazar-E Sharif

Academic journal article Air Power History

Air Power and the Battle for Mazar-E Sharif

Article excerpt

In a similar way, the battle for Mazar was a transforming battle. Coalition forces took existing military capabilities--from the most advanced (such as laser-guided weapons) to the antique (40 year-old-B-52s updated with modern electronics) to the most rudimentary (a man on a horse with a weapon)--and used them together in unprecedented ways, with devastating effect on enemy positions, enemy morale....

Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense

The Vertical Flank

Phase One of America's war on terrorism was fought during the fall of 2001 against Afghanistan's Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. The air offensive began on October 7, and by late December Taliban forces were fleeing from their fortifications. The key to these victories was the capture of Mazar-e Sharif by the Northern Alliance on No. vember 9. Shortly afterward, the Taliban retreated from Herat, Kabul, Jalalabad, and eventually from Kandahar in early December. These cities fell like dominos, as Taliban and Al Qaeda forces headed into the mountains, where they continued their fight using guerrilla warfare tactics.

The Northern Alliance, a patchwork of militias, was commanded by Gen. Muhammed Fahim. This armed force's triumph over the Taliban defending Mazar-e Sharif was primarily due to the effectiveness of air power. American special forces, working with the Northern Alliance, used laptops and ground-laser target designators to pin point enemy forces. Then, they signaled this information to loitering B-52s and other aircraft that attacked with precision guided munitions. The Taliban were confronted from the right flank, the left flank, and the vertical flank as air power rained bombs down upon them. According to the Jane's Intelligence Review, it was in these vertical flank attacks, especially in the conquest of Mazar-e Sharif that victory hinged. (1) The sequence of events leading to the capture of Mazar-e Sharif began immediately after September 11th.

The President's War Plans

Immediately after the terrorist attacks on the New York World Trade Center and Pentagon, President George W Bush and his administration began searching for those responsible and evaluating possible responses. Claiming that Osama bin Laden had master minded the attacks, CIA Director George J. Tenet was the first to call for a military operation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. (2) Four days later the President and his staff headed for Camp David, where they continued their discussions of various options. Again, CIA Director Tenet presented his robust strategy, that involved a military campaign to overthrow the Taliban and conduct a covert anti-terror war against Al Qaeda in sixty or more nations. (3)

Tenet wanted to send CIA agents and Special Forces into Afghanistan and provide the Northern Alliance with military support in their war against the Taliban. Once in place, Special Forces would provide targeting information to American aircraft, which would then attack key Taliban positions.

The war would be fought by the Northern Alliance, with the U.S. providing financial aid, logistical support, arms, and precision air attacks. "It would take discipline and patience," stated Tenet, "but it would work." (4)

At this point, the Pentagon offered the President other options, including an immediate cruise missile attack on various Al Qaeda training camps. A second option involved a combined cruise missile and manned bomber attack against the terrorist training camps and key Taliban centers.

A proposal for an all-out land invasion was offered, but it was quickly dismissed. The last Pentagon recommendation focused on implementing a coordinated air campaign using Special Forces as forward air controllers. (5)

The Pentagon was skeptical of providing direct support to the Northern Alliance. (6) This amalgam of forces controlled only a small portion of Afghanistan's northeast corner and was little more than a collection of about 30,000 poorly armed militia-men. …

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