War in Afghanistan: Battle of Tora Bora

US airstrikes hit Tora Bora in November/December 2001.
US airstrikes hit Tora Bora in November/December 2001. US Government

The Battle of Tora Bora was fought December 12-17, 2001, during the War in Afghanistan (2001-2014).



  • General Tommy Franks
  • General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi


Battle of Tora Bora Overview

In the weeks following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Coalition forces commenced an invasion of Afghanistan with the goal of toppling the ruling Taliban and capturing Osama bin Laden. The first to enter the country were members of the Central Intelligence Agency's Special Activities Division and a variety of US Special Forces. These operators coordinated with local resistance groups and militia, such as the Northern Alliance, to conduct a ground campaign against the Taliban. By December, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters had been forced to retreat into a cave system known as Tora Bora.

Situated in the White Mountains, southeast of Kabul and near the Pakistani border, Tora Bora was believed to be an elaborate underground base, complete with hydroelectric power, barracks, and storage facilities. To assault this fortress, three militia leaders gathered around 2,500 men and a collection of old Russian tanks near the base of the mountains. Two of these leaders, Hazarat Ali and Hajji Zaman, were veterans of the war against the Soviets (1979-1989), while the third, Hajji Zahir, came from a notable Afghan family.

In addition to facing bitter cold, the militia leaders were plagued by a dislike of one another and the fact that it was the holy month of Ramadan which required fasting from dawn to dusk. As a result, many of their men routinely slipped away in the evening to celebrate iftar, the meal that breaks the fast, with their families. As the Afghans prepared on the ground, an American aerial bombardment of Tora Bora, which had commenced about a month earlier, came to its climax. On December 3, without informing his co-commanders, Hazarat Ali arbitrarily announced that the attack would begin.

Pushing up the slopes towards the first line of Taliban caves, the Afghans were attacked by a number of bin Laden's men. After a brief exchange of fire, they fell back up the ridge. Over the next three days, the militias fell into a pattern of attacking and retreating, with some caves changing hands multiple times within a twenty-four hour period. On the third day, around three dozen Coalition Special Forces, led by an American Delta Force major, arrived on the scene. The unidentified major, who uses the pen name Dalton Fury, had been dispatched with his men as intelligence showed that bin Laden was at Tora Bora.

While Fury assessed the situation, the militias pressed their attacks from the north, west, and east, but to no avail. They did not attack from the south, closest to the border, where the mountains were the highest. Under orders to kill bin Laden and leave the body with the Afghans, Fury devised a plan calling for his Special Forces troops to move over the southern mountains to attack the rear of the al-Qaeda position. Requesting permission from higher headquarters, Fury states that he was denied.

He next asked for GATOR land mines to be dropped in the mountain passes leading to Pakistan in order to prevent bin Laden from escaping. This request was also denied. With no other choice, Fury met with the militias to discuss a frontal attack on Tora Bora. Initially reluctant to guide Fury's men, the major relates that additional financial encouragement from the CIA operatives present convinced the Afghans to move out. Climbing up the slopes, the Special Forces operators and the Afghans fought several skirmishes with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Four days after arriving on the scene, Fury was about to depart to aid three of his men who were pinned down when the CIA informed him that they had a fix on bin Laden's location. Rescuing his men, Fury and a handful of Special Forces advanced to within 2,000 meters of the position. Lacking Afghan support, believing that bin Laden had around 1,000 men with him, and under orders to let the militia take the lead, Fury and his men pulled back with the intention of making a full assault in the morning. The next day, bin Laden was heard on the radio, allowing his position to be confirmed.

Preparing to move out on December 12, Fury's men were stunned when their Afghan allies announced they had negotiated a ceasefire with al-Qaeda. Angered, the Special Forces troops moved forward to attack alone but were stopped when the Afghans drew their weapons. After twelve hours, the standoff ended and the Afghans agreed to rejoin the battle. It is believed that this time allowed bin Laden to shift his position. Renewing the attack, heavy pressure was placed on al-Qaeda and Taliban forces from advancing ground troops and heavy aerial bombardment.

Through the day on December 13, bin Laden's radio messages became increasingly desperate. After one these broadcasts, a Delta Force team observed 50 men moving into a nearby cave. One of the men was tentatively identified as bin Laden. Calling in massive air strikes, the Special Forces troops believed that bin Laden died in the cave as his radio went silent. Pushing through the remainder of Tora Bora, it was found that the cave systems were not as complex as originally thought and the area was largely secured by December 17.

Coalition teams returned to Tora Bora six months after the battle to search for bin Laden's body but to no avail. With the release of a new video in October 2004, it was confirmed that he had survived the battle and remained at large.


While no Coalition troops died at Tora Bora, it is estimated that around 200 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were killed. Intelligence now suggests that bin Laden was able to escape from the Tora Bora area around December 16. Fury believes that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder during the air strikes and received medical attention before being moved over the southern mountains into Pakistan. Other sources indicate that bin Laden traveled south by horseback. Had Fury's request to have the passes mined been granted, this movement may have been prevented. Also, as the battle commenced, Brigadier General James N. Mattis, whose 4,000 Marines had recently arrived in Afghanistan, argued to have his men deployed to Tora Bora to cordon off the area with the goal of preventing the enemy from escaping. As with Fury's requests, Mattis was turned down.

Selected Sources