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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Mon. Nov 01, 2004

More on Tora Bora

I doubt there’s anyone left who is unconvinced yet has a mind open to further evidence. But just the same, primarily because I’m a relentlessly ornery and stubborn cuss, and since both candidates have made it an issue (plus reading this stuff shortly after fresh video from bin Laden makes me angry) ... here’s more on Tora Bora.

Knight Ridder reporters Barry Schlachter of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Jonathan S. Landay and photographers Carl Juste and Peter Andrew Bosch of The Miami Herald were at Tora Bora during the battle, and photographer David Gilkey of the Detroit Free Press and reporter Drew Brown traveled there a year later, interviewed Afghan fighters, retraced al-Qaida escape routes and talked to Pakistani intelligence officers who were tracking al Qaida.

Their reporting found that Franks and other top officials ignored warnings from their own and allied military and intelligence officers that the combination of precision bombing, special operations forces and Afghan forces that had driven the Taliban from northern Afghanistan might not work in the heartland of the country’s dominant Pashtun tribe.

While more than 1,200 U.S. Marines sat at an abandoned air base in the desert 80 miles away, Franks and other commanders relied on three Afghan warlords and a small number of American, British and Australian special forces to stop al-Qaida and Taliban fighters from escaping across the mountains into Pakistan.

“We did rely heavily on Afghans because they knew Tora Bora… ,” Franks wrote.

Military and intelligence officials had warned Franks and others that the two main Afghan commanders, Hazrat Ali and Haji Zaman, couldn’t be trusted, and they proved to be correct. They were slow to move their troops into place and didn’t attack until four days after American planes began bombing – leaving time for al-Qaida leaders to escape and leaving behind a rear guard of Arab, Chechen and Uzbek fighters.

“Ali and Zaman both assured our people that they had forces in blocking positions on the Spin Ghar (mountains) when there were, in fact, no people there,” said a U.S. military official who played a key role in the campaign. “So besides taking Afghans at their word, we had no plans to bring up sufficient forces to make up for perfidy.”

U.S. reconnaissance photos showed what appeared to be campfires at high altitudes along the trails across the mountains into Pakistan. The Afghans said the fires belonged to sheep herders. Instead, “they were exfiltrators, pure and simple,” said an American military official.

KnightRidder: “Did U.S. mistakes let bin Laden escape from Afghanistan 3 years ago?”

And then there’s this from Peter Bergen, whom I consider to be perhaps the foremost freelance expert on bin Laden and Al Qaeda (and who also has some interesting things to say about bin Laden’s new tape).

According to a widely-reported background briefing by Pentagon officials in mid-December 2001 there was “reasonable certainty” that bin Laden was indeed at Tora Bora, a judgment based on intercepted radio transmissions. Indeed, General Tommy Franks, the overall commander of the Tora Bora operation, recounts in his autobiography, American Soldier, that in Waco, Texas in December 2001 he briefed President Bush saying, “Unconfirmed reports that Osama has been seen in the White Mountains, Sir. The Tora Bora area.” Writing in the New York Times last week, General Tommy Franks, a Bush supporter, now says, “We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora,”. However, Luftullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry, told me that based on conversations he had with a Saudi al Qaeda financier and bin Laden’s chef, both of whom were at the battle, bin Laden was at Tora Bora. In June, 2003 I met with several US counterterrorism officials who explained, “We are confident that he [bin Laden] was at Tora Bora and disappeared with a small group.” And the editor of Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, Abdel Bari Atwan, a consistently accurate source of information about al Qaeda, has reported that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder at Tora Bora. Indeed, in an audiotape released on al Jazeera television last year bin Laden himself recounted his own memories of the battle. “We were about three hundred holy warriors. We dug one hundred trenches over an area of one square mile, so as to avoid the huge human losses from the bombardment.” In short, there is plenty of evidence that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, and no evidence indicating that he was anywhere else at the time.

That being the case: Did the U.S. military throw away a golden opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden, during the one moment in the past three years that his location was known? All the contemporaneous media accounts of the battle demonstrate that US “outsourced” the Tora Bora operation to local Afghan warlords. Commander Muhammad Musa, who commanded six hundred Afghan soldiers on the Tora Bora frontline, explained to me that while the American bombing campaign was very effective, US forces on the ground were small in number and ineffective: “There were six American soldiers with us. My personal view is if they had blocked the way out to Pakistan, al Qaeda would not have had a way to escape.” And that’s the key problem. There were only a relatively few American “boots on the ground” at Tora Bora, enabling bin Laden and hundreds of other members of al Qaeda to melt away and fight another day.

Why did the United States military — the most powerful armed force in history — not seal off the Tora Bora region, instead relying only on a handful of US Special Forces on the ground? Historians will no doubt be debating that question for many years, but part of the answer is that the US military was a victim of its own success. Scores of US Special Forces soldiers calling in air-strikes, in combination with thousands of Afghans on the ground, destroyed the Taliban army in a few weeks of fighting; a textbook case of unconventional warfare. However, this approach was a failure at Tora Bora where large numbers of Americans on the ground were needed to throw up an effective cordon around al Qaeda?s leaders.

Apologists for the US military failure at Tora Bora will no doubt provide several compelling reasons why this was the case, including a lack of airlift capabilities from the US base in neighboring Uzbekistan. However, such explanations are hard to square with the fact that scores of journalists managed to find their way to Tora Bora, a battle covered on live television by the world’s leading news organizations. If Fox News and CNN could arrange for their crews to cover Tora Bora it is puzzling that the US military could not put more boots on the ground to find the man who was the intellectual author of the 9/11 attacks. Sadly, there were probably more American journalists at the battle of Tora Bora than there were US troops.

Peter Bergen: “The new bin Laden tape”

I will be most happy when we move past the election results (Wednesday … pretty please?), and can maybe once again talk about historical fact without it facing partisan spin.


Peanut Gallery

1  Scott Chaffin wrote:

However, this approach was a failure at Tora Bora where large numbers of Americans on the ground were needed to throw up an effective cordon around al Qaeda?s leaders.

But we can only really know this in hindsight. I don’t think it’s partisan to point that out, or is it?

This is definitely something worth studying, though, for the military lessons that a guy like me would enjoy reading. I don’t believe there’s any political points that can be made, but hell, why not give it a try and see?

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