Northern Alliance troops under General Dostum’s command in Mazar-e Sharif, December 2001. Photo SSGT Cecilo Ricardo, US Air Force

Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.” George W. Bush.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Operation JAWBREAKER was the first covert mission to enter Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. The team consisted of seven CIA paramilitary operatives from the Special Operations Group, who flew in a CIA-modified Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter piloted by CIA officers. Their objective was to establish contact with the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance and coordinate their actions with the upcoming US military intervention. The team was instrumental in paving the way for the arrival of US Special Forces and initiating the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

The team was led by Gary Schroen. He was a veteran CIA officer who had served as the station chief for both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s. He spoke fluent Persian and Dari and became the agency’s top expert on Afghanistan. He had been involved in several attempts to target Bin Laden before 9/11 and had re-established contact with Afghan commanders whom he had known from his time in the region. He later wrote a book about his experience in Operation JAWBREAKER, titled “First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan.

The Northern Alliance was a coalition of various ethnic and political groups that opposed the Taliban regime and supported the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. One of their leaders was Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legendary guerrilla commander who fought against the Soviet invasion and later against the Taliban. He was assassinated by al-Qa’ida two days before 9/11. Two suicide bombers, posing as journalists, detonated explosives hidden in their camera and microphone during an interview with Massoud in his base in Takhar province. The attack was ordered by Osama bin Laden himself, who wanted to eliminate Massoud as a potential ally for the US.

One of the key allies of the CIA in Operation JAWBREAKER was General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord and leader of the Northern Alliance. Dostum provided intelligence, troops, and access to his territory in northern Afghanistan. He also participated in several battles against the Taliban, such as the siege of Mazar-i-Sharif and the battle of Qala-i-Jangi.

Territorial control of Northern Alliance before the US invasion of Afghanistan. Author: Syed Aashir, Nederlandse Leeuw, Nicolas Eynaud. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The team landed in the Panjshir Valley on September 26, 2001, within 15 days of the attacks on US soil, and met with Ahmad Shah Massoud’s successor, Mohammad Qasim Fahim. Fahim was a former mujahideen commander and a close associate of Massoud, who had fought alongside him against the Soviets and the Taliban. He was also a prominent member of Jamiat-e Islami, an Islamist political party led by Burhanuddin Rabbani. He later became the first Vice President of Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai.

Jamiat-e Islami had a communitarian ideology based on Islamic law and was one of the main factions of the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet–Afghan War and the subsequent civil wars. It was led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, who became the president of Afghanistan from 1992 to 2001.

They provided Khan with money, weapons, satellite phones, and intelligence, and helped him plan his offensive against the Taliban. The team also directed US air strikes against Taliban targets and gathered information on al-Qa’ida‘s whereabouts. Team leader Schroen was given the order use all means to target al-Qa’ida. The team was instrumental in paving the way for the arrival of US Special Forces and initiating the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

The CIA-modified Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter used to insert the CIA team in Operation JAWBREAKER is now nestled In a wooded park area to the northeast of CIA’s Original Headquarters Building. It is adorned with the tail number 9-11-01. Photo: Central Intelligence Agency.


The success of Operation JAWBREAKER can be evaluated from different perspectives. On one hand, it can be considered a remarkable achievement that demonstrated the CIA’s agility, adaptability, and effectiveness in responding to a national security crisis. The operation enabled the US to gain a foothold in Afghanistan within weeks after 9/11, establish a strong alliance with local forces, disrupt Al Qaeda’s operations, weaken the Taliban’s hold on power, and pave the way for a larger military intervention that toppled their regime by December 2001. The operation also showcased the CIA’s cultural awareness and sensitivity, as they forged partnerships with diverse Afghan groups based on mutual respect and trust. The operation received praise from many officials and experts as an example of successful covert action that advanced US interests without causing excessive collateral damage or backlash (Anderson 2015; Bailey and Immerman 2015; Schroen 2005).

On the other hand, it can be argued that Operation JAWBREAKER failed to achieve its primary goal of killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, who managed to escape from his hideout in Tora Bora in December 2001 and remained at large until May 2011 when he was killed by US Navy SEALs in Pakistan (Bergen 2012). The operation also faced some challenges and limitations, such as dependence on unreliable or corrupt Afghan partners, lack of coordination with other US agencies or allies, insufficient resources or support from Washington, difficulty in verifying intelligence or targets, risk of exposure or compromise by hostile forces or media, and uncertainty about the long-term consequences or implications of the operation for Afghanistan’s stability or security (Anderson 2015; Bailey and Immerman 2015; Schroen 2005). Therefore, the success of Operation JAWBREAKER can be seen as partial, mixed, or contingent, depending on the criteria, perspective, or context used to assess it.

The fall of Afghanistan and return of Taliban to power in 2021 can be seen as a major reversal of the achievements of Operation JAWBREAKER and the subsequent US-led intervention in the country. After two decades of war, the US and its allies decided to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, following a deal with the Taliban in February 2020. The deal stipulated that the Taliban would stop attacking foreign forces, cut ties with Al Qaeda, and engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. However, the Taliban did not honor their commitments and instead launched a massive offensive across the country, taking advantage of the vacuum left by the departing foreign forces. Within weeks, they captured most of the provincial capitals and rural areas, facing little resistance from the demoralized and under-equipped Afghan security forces.

US Marines with SP-MAGTF-CR-CC at an evacuation checkpoint at Kabul Airport on 21 August. Photo: SSgt Victor Mancilla, US Marine Corps.

On 15, August 2021, the Taliban entered Kabul, the capital city, without a fight, as President Ashraf Ghani and other officials fled the country. The Taliban declared the end of the war and the establishment of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, similar to their previous regime that was ousted by Operation JAWBREAKER in 2001. The fall of Kabul triggered a humanitarian crisis, as thousands of Afghans tried to flee the country, fearing reprisals or repression from the Taliban. Many of them had worked with or supported the US and its allies during their presence in Afghanistan and felt betrayed or abandoned by their withdrawal. The US and other countries scrambled to evacuate their citizens and allies from Kabul airport, amid chaos and violence.

On 26 August 2021, a suicide bombing claimed by an Islamic State affiliate killed at least 170 people, including 13 US service members, near the airport gates. The US completed its withdrawal on August 30, 2021, ending its longest war in history. The fall of Afghanistan and return of Taliban to power raised many questions and concerns about the future of the country and its people, especially women and minorities who had gained some rights and freedoms under the previous government. It also cast doubt on the effectiveness and sustainability of Operation JAWBREAKER and other US-led efforts to combat terrorism and promote democracy in Afghanistan.


Anderson, Jon Lee. “The Fall Of Kabul.” The New Yorker. September 6-13, 2021.

Bailey, Christopher J., and Richard H. Immerman. “Operation Jawbreaker: The CIA’s First Post-9/11 Covert Action.” Intelligence and National Security 30 (2015): 57-76.

Bergen, Peter L. Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden–from 9/11 to Abbottabad. New York: Broadway Books, 2012.

Schroen, Gary C. First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan. New York: Presidio Press/Ballantine Books, 2005.

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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