As Pentagon burned, plans for war took shape
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- By the time hijackers slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on September 11, it was clear the United States was at war. But few people realized how quickly the U.S. military was ready to retaliate.
From the start, the U.S. intelligence community singled out Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network as the only group with the organization and cunning the carry out the hijackings.
That put Afghanistan -- where the ruling Taliban regime had given bin Laden and al Qaeda sanctuary -- directly in the crosshairs of the Pentagon.
"Within an hour, we started our broad planning to respond in some way," said Lt. Gen. Charles Wald, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.
Wald was at the Pentagon for meetings on September 11. He knew U.S. forces could be in the air quickly, attacking Afghanistan with long-range B-2, B-1 and B-52 bombers and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from ships.
Everything was ready to go, if the attack on the United States had continued.
Dealing al Qaeda a deathblow
Many Americans never knew that U.S. military forces around the world were ordered to an immediate wartime footing on September 11, so they could defend themselves and launch immediate counterattacks.
But the Bush administration wanted to make sure that this time al Qaeda would be dealt a deathblow.
"One of the problems the Clinton administration had faced is that there really weren't good targets in Afghanistan," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "Nobody wanted to just go in with cruise missiles again and pound sand.
"But the president was very clear in his mind that airpower was probably not going to be enough."
So, as flames and smoke poured from a gaping hole in the Pentagon, the planning began.
"The first thing we had to do was understand that we were going to war in a landlocked country in central Asia, halfway around the world," said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, who took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff three weeks after the September 11 attacks.
"That's where the adversary initially was, and we had to go after them. How you do that was a big question mark. If we could have put a very good plan together in 10 minutes and executed it in 15, we'd have done that, probably," Myers said.
Putting together a target list
Wald and his boss at U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, knew that this war would have to be a coalition operation.
The United States would need to use air bases and command centers throughout the Persian Gulf to launch attacks against Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan.
But before any of that could happen, Wald had to find a way back to his South Carolina headquarters. He flew on an F-16 from Washington -- a chilling trip through skies empty of air traffic that had been grounded in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
"It was one of the most eerie things I've ever seen in my life," Wald said. "The only radio calls we heard that day from the air traffic controllers were, 'All aircraft in the United States, land immediately or you will be shot down.'"
Allies across the Persian Gulf were contacted that afternoon, and the move toward retaliation began.
As the target list began to take shape, Taliban forces -- never before contemplated at the Pentagon -- came into focus.
"They had tanks. They had fighter aircraft. They had an integrated air defense system, which we never thought they would," Wald said.
"We think of the Taliban as very rudimentary, almost backward. And in most ways, they are - except they did have the military assets to actually defend against an air attack."
A very personal war
The U.S. military launched its counterattack 26 days later, on October 7, with shattering airstrikes and bombing runs.
U.S. forces would control the skies over Afghanistan within days, allowing U.S. Special Forces to move in on the ground. Working with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces, the Special Forces teams coordinated airstrikes against Taliban armor and troop positions.
Under a punishing air attack and ground assaults from the Northern Alliance and Special Forces, the Taliban rapidly fell apart, quicker than anyone expected.
The collapse of the Taliban was a satisfying victory for the U.S. military, which saw its headquarters attacked on September 11.
But, Wald said, the men and women of the armed forces will never forget or forgive what happened that day. For him, it is very personal.
"These are murderers. They're cold-blooded murderers," he said. "We need to take care of people like that in the world."
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