Articles

Oct 21, 2004

Tora Bora: What Really Happened?

The Battle of Tora Bora: What Really Happened?

The question of whether the United Sates missed an opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden during the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001 has become an issue in the razor-close campaign. During the October 8th presidential debate, Sen. John Kerry said of capturing bin Laden, “The right time was Tora Bora, when we had him cornered in the mountains.” Writing in the New York Times this week, General Tommy Franks, a Bush supporter, and the overall commander of the Tora Bora operation, said that this charge “doesn’t square with reality”. Franks also stated, “We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora,” and that the US did not “outsource” the battle to Afghan warlords of questionable competence and loyalty, as Sen. Kerry has repeatedly charged. At a town hall meeting in Ohio on Tuesday, vice president Cheney said Kerry’s criticisms of the Tora Bora campaign are “absolute garbage.”

So: Was al Qeada’s leader at Tora Bora? 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. Moreover, 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. And Palestinian journalist, 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 screw up a golden opportunity to capture bin Laden, during the one moment in the past three years that his location was known? There is no debating the fact that US “outsourced” the Tora Bora operation to local Afghan warlords. According to Commander Muhammad Musa, who commanded six hundred Afghan soldiers on the Tora Bora frontline, 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, overthrew the Taliban 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 hundreds 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, CNN and NBC 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. And in that sense, Sen. Kerry’s charge that Tora Bora was a missed opportunity to bring bin Laden to justice isn’t “garbage”, but an accurate reflection of the historical record.

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