Cover: Toppling the Taliban

Toppling the Taliban

Air-Ground Operations in Afghanistan, October 2001–June 2002

Published Jan 4, 2016

by Walter L. Perry, David Kassing


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Research Questions

  1. What important insights can be derived from the Army's experience in Operation Enduring Freedom?
  2. What implications do these insights have on future combat operations?

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks caught the United States without a plan for military operations in Afghanistan. In less than 30 days, the Department of Defense created a plan that involved an unprecedented combination of special operations forces (SOF), Afghan fighters, and airpower. Operations were initiated on October 7, and Afghanistan's Taliban government was toppled in less than two months. An interim administration was installed on December 22, and civil-military operations began. This report describes the preparations for Operation Enduring Freedom at CENTCOM and elsewhere, Army operations and support activities, building a coalition, and civil-military operations in Afghanistan through the end of June 2002. The research used contemporary records and interviews with key participants to gain authoritative perspectives on events and issues.

U.S. forces were surprisingly successful in toppling the Taliban. The rigorous preparation of SOF clearly paid off. Air-land operations were decisive. Small-unit soldiers and leaders passed the tests of the harsh Afghan environment. Force protection, logistics operations, and communications each worked well. Nonetheless, several problems emerged. Joint planning and training needed to be pushed to lower levels, underscoring the need for the Army to jointly plan the employment of its fire support assets. Other issues included logistics procedures for small operations and civil-military organization and procedures. Many of these issues were later addressed by Army leaders.

Key Findings

Joint action at the lowest echelons proved effective in Afghanistan

  • Air-land operations were effective both in the initial campaign to destroy the Taliban regime and in the ensuing hunt for the remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The type and scale of operations in Afghanistan were unanticipated and were conducted in a harsh, demanding environment.

  • At the time, existing support locations were far away, and Afghanistan lacked the infrastructure to support the necessary logistics sustainment effort.
  • A flexible information system helped ensure that supply systems supporting operations in Afghanistan were able to adapt quickly and respond to rapid and frequent changes in supply delivery points.

Unmanned aerial vehicles proved their worth in Afghanistan.

  • The success of the Predator and Global Hawk UAVs prompted the services to modify and expand their plans for UAVs.

Coordination of special operations forces (SOF) and conventional forces caused some problems.

  • SOF often depend on air support for their very survival, yet they were not well integrated with tactical air controllers.
  • SOF learned how to call in air support but were not versed in air platforms and weapons. For this, they depended on tactical air control parties, but there were not enough of these at their home stations to meet all requirements, neither were they adequately equipped to support SOF.

The initial focus of the Coalition Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force on humanitarian aid delayed it from providing more traditional civil affairs assistance.

  • Tension existed between its mandate to carry out aid and assistance projects and the desire to limit the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
  • Additionally, it would have been helpful to deploy civil affairs troops in theater early, but the active force has relatively little civil affairs force structure.

Light forces played a dominant role in Afghanistan because of an elusive enemy operating in rugged terrain.

  • The Army's Special Forces played a central role in toppling the Taliban and hunting for al Qaeda.
  • Coalition forces frequently relied on helicopters to negotiate Afghanistan's difficult terrain.
  • The Army's light infantry and air-mobile forces were also well suited to operations in Afghanistan. Ultimately, only dismounted infantry could pursue al Qaeda into its mountainous lairs.
  • The Army could not have accomplished its mission in Afghanistan without light forces, both special operations and conventional forces.


  • The Army, in partnership with the other services, must plan and train for joint operations at the brigade and battalion task force level, with air support being pushed to company level and lower.
  • Due to the distance from existing support locations and the lack of local infrastructure to support the necessary logistics sustainment effort, OEF revealed the Army's need to improve its readiness to deploy and fight in an austere theater.
  • As the Army tailors its support doctrine, it should account for the possibility of supporting a theater where special operations forces mix with conventional forces.
  • The Army should continue to pursue its plans to develop tactical unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • The Army should develop coordination measures to ensure that conventional forces and special operations forces work together more smoothly and train together on a more regular basis.
  • Given its ongoing and likely future role in Afghanistan, the Army should restructure its humanitarian assistance organizations and clarify the Army's humanitarian assistance mission.
  • The Army's operational concepts should assume a continued risk of tactical surprise.

Research conducted by

This research was cosponsored by the Army G-3 and G-8 Deputy Chiefs of Staff and was conducted in the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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