DELTA CHASES BIN LADEN IN TORA BORA
Dalton Fury (a nom de guerre) fit the profile of a man hunter. He made no apologies for joining the Army to fulfill his lust “for the lure of the risks involved, the possibility of going into harm’s way.” To attain his goals, he eventually made it through the grueling selection process of admission to the clandestine Delta Force, the Army’s primary counter terrorist unit. He describes the Delta warrior as a “super soldier” who shoots 50,000 rounds of ammunition a year. He rehearses attacking trains, planes and automobiles. He trains in tunnels, in sewers, on high wires, and even in trees. He runs with 60 to 100 pounds on his back, and jumps from airplanes carrying more than 500 pounds. Humility was not a listed trait.
As the senior ranking Delta officer in the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, Dalton was chosen to lead a group of 40 U.S. Delta Force and twelve British Special Boat Service (SBS) commandos in the hunt for the most wanted man in the world.
Six CIA operatives, convinced that bin Laden was hiding in the caves of Tora Bora, were on hand to brief and provide logistical support to the Delta team. They provided cash, guns, ammo, intelligence and interrogation skills to Delta. A dozen each of the British Special Boat Service commandos (SBS) and Army Green Berets joined the Delta Team.
A frustrated Fury wrote the account of the battle of Tora Bora to explain how disastrous political decisions, a misplaced reliance on the United States’ Pakistani allies, and a highly paid ragtag army of non-committed Afghanis sold the mission down the river and allowed bin Laden to slip through the Delta team’s hands.
We spoke with Fury about the account he wrote in his book, Kill bin Laden.
Soldier of Fortune’s publisher, Robert K. Brown, remembered well trekking through the Afghan mountains during the Afghan–Soviet War.
SOF: Did you not have intelligence documents or Soviet after action reports from the Soviet Afghan war or from the Green Berets who were in Afghanistan previous to the hunt for bin Laden?
FURY: “No standard documents. The Bear Went Over the Mountain by Lester Grau. We knew that the mujahideen are creatures of habit. We could foresee that they would return to the same successful ambush positions they used with the Soviets in Tora Bora. Shahi Khot and Anaconda are other examples of that.
“When the Soviets left, the USA washed its hands clean and closed its embassy. The CIA had no human sources since that war ended and was forgotten. No after action reports existed of U.S. or Western allies that had operated with the mujahideen.
“The Green Berets are different than Delta.We don’t do foreign internal defense (FID). We do direct action. Therefore, the mission fell into Delta’s lap.
NO MAN’S LAND
“In late November 2001, after Kabul fell to the Allies and the Northern Alliance, we kicked off across the Arabian Sea to Bagram and into northern Afghanistan. In December, we started moving toward Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where bin Laden and company had operated from a cave sanctuary burrowed deep inside the Spin Ghar mountain range.
“Tora Bora is a vertical no-man’s land, a hellish place of massive, rocky, jagged, unforgiving snow-covered ridgelines and high peaks separated by deep ravines and valleys studded with mines.”
SOF: You mention in your book that higher headquarters were pulling out troops in a weird ploy to trick Usama bin Laden as your group was arriving in December 2001.
FURY: “It was very frustrating for us, the crazy idea that because the Joint Special Operations Task Force was leaving the theater, it would force bin Laden to let down his guard. The notion is incredibly naïve.”
“We were waiting for operations that never panned out intel-wise; then it was time to rotate according to Special Operations Command (SOCOM). It’s somewhat ridiculous when you’re talking time of war.
“We were dumb founded; we thought everyone of us should go in. Everybody was chomping at the bit to be a part of it; it isn’t like we were tired. Delta squadron B outreached us, told us what they learned, which took about 30 minutes because we had been communicating before we left Fort Bragg. They got on airplanes and left after an hour, the air assets and gunships left. It was like playing firehouse on ourselves, misunderstanding what the enemy was like, but this had no effect on guys like bin Laden
AK-47 TOTING LAWLESS BANDITS
“A couple hundred Rangers that could form a potential quick-reaction force in case we were in trouble were scheduled to arrive, but they were replaced with Afghani tribal opposition forces instead—the Eastern Alliance Afghan Opposition Group. It was a fractious bunch of AK-47 toting lawless bandits and tribal thugs who were not bound by any recognized rules of warfare or subject to any code of military justice short of random executions or firing squads.”
“The problem we had with the mujahideen, who were supposed to be doing the bulk of the fighting and were sucking up the glory, is that they liked to go home when it got dark and often left our small teams in the mountains.
THE BACK DOOR WIDE OPEN TO THE ENEMY
SOF: Any other significant lessons learned. What are they?
FURY: “One lesson was for higher ups to listen to the guy on the ground. We were denied that for reasons I do not know, except that the administration was going to rely on the Pakistanis to secure the borders. It’s egregious because Spec Ops by definition somewhat plays underneath those political agreements and sensitivities.
“Our first Delta plan was to go after bin Laden by coming into Afghanistan across the 14,000-foot mountains on the Pakistan–Afghan border. Several teams could insert safely by helicopter into Pakistan on the far side of the highest Tora Bora peaks. They would have bottled oxygen and acclimate themselves as they ascended even higher, and once they crested the peaks and found any signs of al Qaeda, they would be in business. The commandos would own the high ground. They could target bunkers or cave openings with lasers for U.S. warplanes to strike. That would have given us the ability to come in from his back door. We knew from the anti-Soviet jihad that the fortifications from Tora Bora are all oriented to the north, where they expected an attack from the foothills, just as the Soviets did.
“Higher headquarters said ‘No Way.’”
“Here we are talking about 15 operators walking up the mountain. In the big picture, that would have been nothing but a small bleep on the screen. The Pakis could have sealed their border and no one would have known that we were there. To use the excuse that if we had come in from the Pakistan side, that the Pakis could not have secured their borders, was ridiculous. They could have secured their borders so bin Laden and his company did not cross into Pakistan, and we could have done our thing. We had helicopters that were quiet. It would have been simple tactically and operationally. Could we have gotten bin Laden? Who knows?
“He was up in the Tora Bora area. They got radio transmissions of him they were monitoring.
WE BOMBED RELIGIOUSLY . . . UNTIL
SOF: You said there was a location where he was detected, but you didn’t bomb it?
FURY: “Any location we got on him we bombed religiously, except one night when three Americans had been left behind. Without knowing where they are, you can’t bomb. On 3 December, the Americans went as part of a formal assault against an al Qaeda transit point with a major trench and bunker system. It started in late afternoon and, as was the usual practice for the mujahideen, when they became scared, they left without warning while the three Americans were still fighting. Having been abandoned by the mujahideen, they escaped and evaded behind enemy lines.
NO “GATOR” MINES
SOF: You mentioned you were denied the use of hi tech mines?
FURY: “Our request for surface-laid land mines that are pre-programmed to self-detonate at a given time was denied. We requested those to shape the battlefield to our liking. What that leads to is when al Qaeda fighters and bin Laden are moving in the valleys to escape, when they come across these land mines, one of them gets his leg blown off. They all stop, allowing us to bomb them from the air, or they stop and go back the other way.
“It requires them to make a decision. It stops them cold in their tracks and we can target them. Those mines were denied. This is not a humanitarian issue. We are not talking about what the Soviets did, where they land-mined everywhere where women and children could be maimed or killed 30 years later. The mines can be pre-programmed to self-detonate, a few hours, five days, fifteen days later. I told them it was not a ridiculous request.
“I asked them, ’Gator mines, delivered from an aircraft, are these things off the table, why aren’t we using these things? These mines are not considered in international treaty laws.’ I was told the reason was that the British would pull out if we used these mines. It hamstrings us because we follow some sort of law and the muj follow no laws. We never discussed with the SBS commandos whether it frustrated them as well.
“I wanted mortars from the Rangers and the requests were denied.
SOF: Don’t you have mortars in your table of organization and equipment (TOE)?
FURY: “No. Delta doesn’t. The Rangers typically come in and set up security. A platoon of Rangers was available, with indigenous clothing ready to come, but their commander did not want to send his troops to risk assault. It didn’t help matters that the three Americans were left behind on frontal assault when it got dark. Headquarters at Bagram thought this could fall apart pretty quick, and it was not safe to send operators out there.
“It amazes me to this day because we needed all-weather capability.
“Picture yourself on a mountain top with a global positioning system (GPS). You are trying to tell an F-15 to put a bomb on a certain location, and your GPS is reading military grid coordinates, but the aircraft systems only accept latitude and longitude. So the guy that is doing the converting is that Delta operator in the snow in 5-degree weather. With gloves on his hand, fingering his GPS, a very imprecise process that requires another operator next to him to be checking his work so you don’t give an incorrect location to the F-15, or worse, target yourself. It is almost as bad as to miss your target, specifically if it was bin Laden.
“These requests were denied, with no explanation at all, not because we were preoccupied sitting on our rears in Bagram in the tents. In that community, when you ask for something and you are told ‘no,’ you ask again and again. But you are already hunting the next guy before the first battle is over, so the questions were rarely answered.
GREEN BERETS’ HANDS TIED
SOF: Who decided to shut down two observation posts and why? You wrote that the Green Berets were out of a job.
FURY: “It came down from Task Force Dagger HQ, which was 5th Special Forces Group. In my opinion, I think it was a risk-averse decision because they had been told by their HQ, the Green Berets with us would not go into the mountains. They had been ordered: ‘Do not get in direct firefights with the enemy; stay in the foothills and drop bombs.’
“The second reason is that there has been a long-standing animosity between black and white special operations forces. There are only so many targets out there, and certainly those 12 Green Berets sent to help the CIA drop bombs thought they could do the job. I’m sure they could have, but the mission was given to Delta. That pissed off Task Force Dagger. Once they confirmed that bin Laden was there, they called Delta, and the Green Berets were given to my operational control. But they still had those same orders—they could only do terminal guidance operations. They worked for me, but my boss overrode me.
“The bottom line was that the Green Berets manning the two observation posts guided in the bombs and they were good for a while, but they outlived their usefulness because Delta operators went into the mountains with the mujahideen. But I still needed bodies. These Green Berets were very valuable and very talented. They were out of a job because we had pushed so far back into the mountains and they couldn’t see the targets. We had all kinds of mujahideen groups with warlords of all shapes and sizes and various levels of trustworthiness and agendas, so we needed US forces to reel them in and let me know where they were on the battlefield so we don’t bomb them thinking they were the enemy. I sent up a request to the Green Beret command, which I should not have had to do, but did as a courtesy, and the Green Berets were told that they were to return to Jalalabad.
SOF: Did that piss off the Green Berets?
FURY: “Absolutely, but they made career decisions. Of course they were frustrated with the command decision to pull them out when the battle was barely beginning.
“It was important that the appearance of US support was hidden from the neighborhood or the press. General Ali was under a lot of pressure from the local war council and the local Shura. To give all the credit to the mujahideen was easy for us, but the Shura told Gen Ali to do it on his own. No Americans were welcome to go up there and fight al Qaeda or bin Laden. The fact that we were there was hidden. Ali was our big ally and the CIA was paying him millions. Without Ali’s leadership, the whole thing could have fallen apart. Had the international press corps been able to confirm that American operators were there, surely the Shura would have known that in a local minute.
THE SACRED AFGHANI ROBIN HOOD
SOF: What was the Shura’s problem with it?
SOF: How much of that was because the Shura did not want to take bin Laden out?
“I don’t think anyone there wanted to be the one that had a hand in offing him, particularly in Jalalabad and Tora Bora. He was dishing out hundred-dollar bills. They were naming their kids after him. The cultural point of that is the different dynamics of that area compared to the Northern Alliance, who were Tadjiks and Uzbeks. They were fighting against the oppressive Pashtun Taliban. It was easy to get the Northern Alliance to fight, but they didn’t have the funds to tip like the Pashtuns.
SOF: How many mujahideen were involved and what were the mujahideen casualties – KIA– over the 10-day period.
FURY: “We were told by Gen Ali that we had 2000, but that was Afghan math, and you can usually chop off that last 0. The most I saw at any one time was 200. The general would tell you he had to maintain the security of Jalalabad with the rest.
“Here’s the point: had one of those bombs killed bin Laden, Bush would have been a hero. It just didn’t work out. If you take him out of the picture, the number of al Qaeda killed would have been a success. Arabs, Chechens, Pakis, Egyptians, Algerians, Moroccans all trained in al Qaeda training camps.
SOF: What was the estimate as far as enemy strength?
FURY: “We were told there were 1500–3000 al Qaeda. I’d say probably more realistically1000. Before we got there, several hundred got away. We counted 222 dead; many of them were buried in rocks and trenches.”
OUR BIGGEST ACHILLES HEEL
SOF : I remember one time the mujahideen at night were literally throwing land mines into the bed of a pickup truck; they had a total disregard for safety.
FURY: “It is still that way; kids learn from their fathers. What explains this is that the Inshallah [God willing] attitude makes lack of respect for what ordnance can do.
“It is our biggest Achilles heel. They view this life and the aftermath so much differently than we do. On 8 December, I was on leaders recon in Tora Bora before the rest of my squadron arrived and we came under a heavy attack. The Pashtun commander of the mujahideen, General Azret Ali, the self-proclaimed general with the Eastern Alliance Opposition Group who was paid by the CIA, just stood there as the mortar rounds exploded, staring at me while impacts were knocking us off our feet. He knew that whatever happened, it was God’s will. It was the craziest thing, because you heard about that, but to see it was crazy.
PIRATE AFGHAN WARRIORS
SOF: “Was it simply a matter of money that got the mujahideen to participate at all?”
FURY: “Sure. US money and US hardware, cold weather clothing, ammo, tennis shoes, etc., were stored in warehouses in Jalalabad for future tribal fighters. General Ali and his team looted the caves after the battle was over and stripped the bodies of their goods. The mujahideen had lost any interest in searching for bin Laden, and Ali was anxious to count the loot.
When Fury asked Ali what the urgency was, he responded, “It was critical to divvy up the goods fairly….it was custom.”
“Ali knew that once we left, he had to survive the next fight while we were gone.
WE DIDN’T TURN OUR BACK AND WE NEVER FLINCHED
“The battle must be viewed as a strategic failure, and the fight as being partially successful operationally and a tremendous tactical victory.”
SOF: Why was it successful operationally?
FURY: “Technology. The ability to lase bunker openings and trench lines. The Soviets were using fast-moving helicopters that were not accurate with their rockets.
“1,100 precision-guided bombs and more than 550 dumb bombs were detonated. In one 24-hour period, 135 JDAMs [joint direct attack munition—laser-guided bombs] were dropped. Then there were the 40mm chain guns and thousands of rounds from the 105mm cannons of the AC-130 gunships.
COURAGE AND COWARDICE
SOF: Summarize the outcome of the operation.
“The fact is that we went into a hellish land that was considered impregnable and controlled by al Qaeda fighters who had helped defeat the Soviet Union on that same turf. They had stalled the attempts of Afghan military forces to get rid of them. We killed them by the dozen. Many more surrendered. The vaunted complex of caves and bunkers was crushed and destroyed, one by one. And we heard the demoralized Usama bin Laden speak on the radio, pleading for women and children to fight for him. Then he abandoned them all and ran from the battlefield. Yes. He ran away.
“We eventually had to leave that game preserve without the main trophy, but we didn’t turn our back to the fight and we never flinched.”
DECADES OF RISK AVERSION
SOF: What about allegations that the Clinton administration had chances to get him?
FURY: “Guys that were pro-kill Bin Laden at any cost wanted to pull the trigger on any 6’4” guy, but there were no Americans on the ground looking through a binoculars to say ‘that is him.’ The Clinton administration would have taken a great risk. Until you have boots on the ground, you don’t have anything.”
Later, a suited Ali, in an interview with Johnny on the spot—Geraldo Rivera, accused his arch rival, Haji Zaman Ghamshareek, who was a Pashtun mujahideen commander during the Soviet–Afghan war, of betraying the cause. He charged Zaman, who was hired by the CIA to work with Ali in the battle of Tora Bora, with orchestrating the cease-fire fiasco during the fight and cutting a deal with al Qaeda fighters to buy time for bin Laden to escape.
Bin Laden appeared in a taped video in October 2004. Fury was sure from the speaker’s profile, voice, and movements that he indeed was the most wanted man in the world.
In January 2007, Gulbidden Hekmatyar, a CIA favorite son during the Afghan war with the Soviets and later turned terrorist, bragged on Pakistan TV that his men had escorted bin Laden, his main man al Zawahiri and two of bin Laden’s sons out of the cave complex to a “safe place.”
They had slipped through the mountains into Pakistan through the back door that had been left wide open.