CIA Veteran Who Led First Post-9/11 Op in Afghanistan Dies

gary schroen spearheaded operation enduring freedom in september 2001

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Gary Schroen, a long-time CIA operative, has died at 80. Schroen was best recognized for leading Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan shortly after the September 11 terrorist attack. The CIA response to September 11 was historic for several reasons.

US Army patrol in Afghanistan
Operation Enduring Freedom began October 7, 2001, when American and British bombing strikes were launched against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Photo by Ben Mitchell / Shutterstock

Gary Schroen, who came out of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) retirement transition program to lead Operation Enduring Freedom, has died. According to his wife, Schroen, 80, died of complications from a fall on August 1. Enduring Freedom was the first CIA operation in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States. Schroen was recruited from retirement by Cofer Black, the agency’s counterterrorism director, to lead the mission.

In his video series The Agency: A History of the CIA, Dr. Hugh Wilford, Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach, delves into the creation and execution of this landmark move against Obama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

An Immediately Post-9/11 World

Immediately after 9/11, former President George W. Bush secretly gave the Agency sweeping powers and financing to combat terrorism.

“The counterterrorist center, which, prior to 9/11, had struggled to capture White House attention about the threat of al-Qaeda, now experienced a surge of funding,” Dr. Wilford said. “The center’s ranks grew rapidly from 300 personnel to 2,000.”

Cofer Black, who headed the Agency at the time, was a former station chief in Sudan. His aggressive attitude was effective in the Agency’s Africa division. On September 13, he and CIA Director George Tenet briefed former President George W. Bush on the CIA’s plan of response.

“The idea was for a small force of not more than 100 agency officers to venture into Afghanistan to track down al-Qaeda elements sheltered under the protection of the Taliban government,” Dr. Wilford said. “The CIA operatives would use laser-targeting equipment to guide U.S. missiles against Taliban and terrorist targets.

“They would also link up with anti-Taliban tribal warlords, who would provide the manpower required to engage government and terrorist forces on the ground.”

This formula was tried and true in the Agency, and it appealed to President Bush’s concerns about conventional military forces becoming bogged down in Afghanistan like the Soviet experience of the 1980s. All it needed was a leader.

Creating the Northern Alliance

“The resulting operation, Enduring Freedom, was a stunning success,” Dr. Wilford said. “In late September, a seven-man CIA team—code-named ‘Jawbreaker’—landed in northern Afghanistan. Led by veteran covert operative Gary Schroen, Jawbreaker purchased the support of Afghan tribal leaders with millions of dollars in boxed cash.”

The United States got plenty for its money. Before long, a group of northern militia forces calling themselves the Northern Alliance fought Taliban forces in the mountains, near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Meanwhile, the CIA team itself navigated the mountains on horseback. The mountains were so steep that they rode with one foot out of the stirrup for a quick dismounting if any horses fell.

“Joined by other CIA teams and small units of elite Special Forces fighters, Gary Schroen’s men guided the Northern Alliance to victory at the Battle of Mazar-i-Sharif,” Dr. Wilford said. “Other Taliban defeats followed in short order. The capital of Kabul fell in November, and the government stronghold of Kandahar, in the south, submitted in early December.”

In light of the sweeping new powers given to the CIA, this period became notable for two reasons. First, it marked the first successful use of armed Predator drones in a targeted killing. Second, it was the beginning of the Agency’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program, which involved capturing terrorists and using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on them at black sites.

The Agency: A History of the CIA is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily