First In – Jawbreaker – 19 years later

Nineteen years ago today, 7 CIA officers entered Afghanistan as the first US response to Osama Bin Laden’s attack on America on Sept 11, 2001. Their mission was to lay the groundwork for what would officially become Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and the Global War On Terror (GWOT) campaigns.  Led by Gary Schroen and with Phil Reilly as his deputy, the CIA team’s mission would become known as Operation Jawbreaker. 

The team, having landed three weeks prior to the well-known infiltration of the US Army’s Special Forces ODAs 555 and 595 on October 19th, was able to prep the Northern Alliance for the introduction of US forces and to gather crucial battlefield intelligence needed for US forces prior to their deployment. Both ODA teams linked up with Jawbreaker advisors and the US response to the 9/11 attacks began in earnest, 39 days after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Another month later, there would be 100 CIA officers and over 300 US Special Operations Forces on the ground in Afghanistan.

Both Schroen and Reilly had served in the Agency for decades, with Schroen, then 59, bringing a depth of experience in Afghanistan as well as other parts of South Asia, while Phil had served as a Special Forces officer and Special Activities Division officer for most of his career. In fact, Gary was on his way out the door heading towards retirement when he was recalled to lead the Northern Alliance Liaison Team.

The US Embassy in Kabul had been closed since January of 1989, so in the aftermath of 9/11, the US needed to strengthen the longstanding, but distant, relationships with Northern Alliance leaders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud. Fortunately, Gary Schroen had previously built a relationship with Massoud and other Northern Alliance commanders, further solidifying his suitability to lead the mission. The rest of the Jawbreaker team brought deep Agency experience (the average age was 48) as well as Russian, Dari and Farsi language capabilities. The team also included a medic and a communications specialist.  

Once the team had been assigned, they spent the next 9 days between the attacks and their departure for Afghanistan focused on gathering supplies, material, money and intelligence to prepare for the mission. They would bring, among other things: $3,000,000 in $100 bills, 40 pounds of onions and 40 pounds of potatoes, knowing that conditions on the ground would be rudimentary at best. Gary Shroen later would affectionately refer to their Mi-17 as a workhorse, “designed to take a punishment.” And she would serve the team well, including getting them through the Anjuman Pass at nearly 15,000 feet, at maximum payload, in the dark of night, and with no back up or CSAR response. 

The helo was painted in the same black and green camo pattern that the Taliban used at the time and bore the tail number 607 in white on the side of the fuselage. Worried about being shot down by American forces confusing her for a Taliban helicopter, the flight crew repainted her in a more muted camo and added the tail number 91101 on the tail boom, in a muted black.

And 91101? She would go on to fly 310 missions in Afghanistan, and last year took a place of honor on the CIA compound. I make a point to visit, and express my gratitude for the team, every time I visit Headquarters.

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