“Who the fuck did that?” The words greeting the first-ever combat strike by a remotely piloted aircraft were uttered not in praise but in anger. A botched Hellfire-missile attack by a CIA Predator had just cost the United States a likely chance to kill Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Mohammed Omar. In response, the U.S. Air Force general in charge of airstrikes in Afghanistan was about to threaten to call off the entire opening campaign of the War on Terror, unless he was given control of the CIA’s secret weapon.
It was the night of October 7, 2001, less than a month after 9/11, and from the United States’ new Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Saudi Arabia, it was the job of Lieutenant General Chuck Wald and his deputy Dave Deptula to coordinate every aspect of the unfolding Afghan air war. Operation Enduring Freedom—the campaign to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts—was the first offensive of a global conflict that would eventually consume many tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and see more than two and a half million U.S. personnel sent into battle.
In the autumn of 2001, however, the United States was unwilling to launch a full-scale land invasion in a region 7,000 miles from home. Instead, a plan evolved to send into Afghanistan a small number of CIA agents and Special Forces in support of anti-Taliban militias, with the aid of the U.S. Air Force. That first October night was a powerful display of coordination involving laser-guided munitions dropped from the air and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the sea. General Tommy Franks, who then led the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the military command overseeing operations in Afghanistan, wrote in his memoir American Soldier that the assault involved in total some 40,000 personnel, 393 aircraft, and 32 ships.