On Sept. 11, 2001, Lt. Gen. Chuck Wald, from Minot, N.D., was in the Pentagon when the structure was crashed into by an American Airlines airplane that had been hijacked by terrorists.

This was "the boldest hostile act to have been committed on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor." It soon became evident that this attack and the two similar attacks on the twin World Trade Center buildings in New York were carried out by members of al-Qaida and authorized by its leader, Osama bin Laden.

It was decided that most of the initial retaliatory action against this terrorist group would be accomplished through airstrikes, and the person to design, coordinate and implement the air assault would be Lt. Gen. Wald.

On Jan. 12, 2000, Wald was promoted to lieutenant general and assigned to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, where he also was to serve as commander of the 9th Air Force and commander of the U.S. Central Command Air Force (CENTAF). One of CENTAF's responsibilities was for the development and implementation of all major military air operations involving this country. It was also responsible for "developing contingency plans in support of national objectives."

Because of this, Wald and his top deputies were ultimately given the task of developing aerial plans for defeating al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2008, CENTAF was renamed U.S. Air Forces Central.

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Wald was the right person, at the right time, to be given the responsibility of CENTAF commander. For a number of other military actions, he had taken the lead on the planning and development of actual, and contingent, military actions. He was also well-versed in counterterrorism, and had either been at the controls of, or was well-acquainted with, all of the modern military aircraft he would have at his disposal. Wald had more than 3,600 flight hours, "including 430 combat hours over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq and Bosnia."

Besides the military airplanes, Wald also planned on extensive use of another aircraft that he believed would greatly reduce the number of pilots, friendly troops and innocent civilians killed — the MQ-1 Predator drone, which could not only scout out targets, but also launch laser-guided cruise missiles on those identified targets.

Wald was familiar with reconnaissance drones used in Vietnam, and occasional assault drones used in Bosnia and Croatia. Since the CIA would be in control of the drones, Wald's plan was to send a few CIA agents into Afghanistan to launch, manipulate and secure the drones, and provide the videos and images collected by the drones to CENTAF.

After the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, government and military officials decided there needed to be swift and decisive action on the part of the U.S. in punishing al-Qaida and the Taliban for the attacks on U.S. soil. On Sept. 12, chief officials in the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) "began closely reviewing the existing military response options we should take." CENTCOM "had no contingency plan for dealing specifically with the Taliban and al-Qaida's terrorist organization in Afghanistan."

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President George W. Bush wanted the U.S. to pursue a course of action where American citizens could quickly see results. He relayed this to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who then met with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they recommended that it be a "broad air and land campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan."

Rumsfeld then met with Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of CENTCOM, who told the secretary that it would take months "to develop adequate plans for a major operation in Afghanistan." Rumsfeld told the general that he did not have months, and that he needed to come up with a plan that could be implemented in "days or weeks."

In 2005, the RAND Corp. put out a report criticizing Franks for not including Wald "in any of the initial planning decisions when he briefed Secretary Rumsfeld on the air attack plan." When Wald was brought into the planning loop, he quickly met with his chief deputies at Shaw AFB, and they developed a plan of action.

Lt. Gen. Chuck Wald as seen in his 2006 U.S. Air Force official photo. Public Domain / Special to The Forum
Lt. Gen. Chuck Wald as seen in his 2006 U.S. Air Force official photo. Public Domain / Special to The Forum

Once Wald and his advisers drew up their plans, Rumsfeld, Franks and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met to lay out an overall strategy. The goals were "to bring down the Taliban regime, destroy al Qaeda's bases of operations, and hunt down bin Laden and his principal deputies while concurrently eliminating as many other al Qaeda terrorists as possible."

To accomplish this would require heavy use of precision air-delivered bombs and missiles, which would be aided by special forces of the U.S. Department of Defense who would "identify, designate, and validate targets." It was believed that the majority of the ground combat action against the Taliban and al-Qaida supporters would come from "indigenous Afghan opposition groups."

With the heavy emphasis on airstrikes, Wald knew that special care was needed to avoid noncombatant fatalities and to leave intact the nonmilitary infrastructure so that the country would signal that this war was against the Taliban and al-Qaida, and not against Afghanistan or Islam. The main targets were fixed Taliban air defense systems, command-and-control sites, training camps, supply depots and leadership posts.

The air combat goal was to establish "complete control of the air as soon as possible, causing early disorientation and disarray among the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership." Once this was completed, they would then shift to "enemy caves and bunkers, logistical nodes, troop concentrations, and training facilities."

The offensive action in Afghanistan was given the name Operation Enduring Freedom, and Wald knew that he needed to launch this operation quickly, because "snow had already begun falling" in parts of Afghanistan, and blowing snow could affect some of their operations. On Sept. 20, Wald and some of his key deputies departed their headquarters at Shaw, and flew to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia "to lay the foundations for conducting an air war."

OET commenced on the night of Oct. 7, as flights from the Air Force, Navy and Army were made into, and over, Afghanistan targets. Missiles from Navy ships were launched toward intended targets and the jamming of enemy radar and communications transmissions was successful.

"The heaviest bombing that night, by far, was conducted by Air Force B-2s, which rained down hundreds of 500-pound bombs on al Qaeda terrorist training camps."

Bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the supreme commander of the Taliban, were not on the priority list for that night — but by luck, it appeared that the Americans had an opportunity to kill Omar. The drones were also active that night, and after Omar was spotted getting out of a vehicle, a drone was sent to the location armed with a Hellfire missile.

An image of Mullah Mohammed Omar in an October 2006 wanted poster by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
An image of Mullah Mohammed Omar in an October 2006 wanted poster by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

The drone was to lock into the building that Omar had just entered but, for some reason, the command to fire the missile came from Tampa, Fla., at an inappropriate time, and the missile hit an unoccupied truck, and Omar escaped. Despite this setback, the first night of aerial activity proved to be very productive.

We will conclude the story of Chuck Wald next week.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.