Costly Blunder Al-Qaeda head Osama Bin Laden was ‘within grasp’ of US
As President Barack Obama faces his toughtest foreign policy challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US Senate tabled its report on November 30, revealing how the US forces had Osama Bin Laden “within their grasp” at Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001, but the Bush administration rejected the requests from the ground for reinforcements and thus allowed the Al-Qaeda leader to “walk unmolested” into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal areas. Highly critical of officials in former President Bush’s administration and military commanders at the time, the report says that the failure to kill or capture bin Laden has far-reaching consequences and laid the foundation for the protracted Afghan insurgency.
Given the threats India faces from Osama and his followers in Pakistan and Kashmir, we are reproducing here excerpts of the executive summary of the report titled Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed To Get Bin Laden And Why It Matters Today:
On October 7, 2001, US aircraft began bombing the training bases and strongholds of Al-Qaeda and the ruling Taliban across Afghanistan. The leaders who sent murderers to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon less than a month earlier and the rogue government that provided them sanctuary were running for their lives. President George W Bush’s expression of America’s desire to get Osama bin Laden ”dead or alive” seemed about to come true.
Two months later, American civilian and military leaders celebrated what they viewed as a lasting victory with the selection of Hamid Karzai as the country’s new hand-picked leader. The war had been conceived as a swift campaign with a single objective: Defeat the Taliban and destroy Al- Qaeda by capturing or killing bin Laden and other key leaders. A unique combination of airpower, Central Intelligence Agency and special operations forces teams and indigenous allies had swept the Taliban from power and ousted Al-Qaeda from its safe haven while keeping American deaths to a minimum. But even in the initial glow, there were concerns: The mission had failed to capture or kill bin Laden.
Removing the Al-Qaeda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat. But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide. The failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism, leaving the American people more vulnerable to terrorism, laying the foundation for today’s protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda shifted its focus across the border into Pakistan, where it has trained extremist’s linked to numerous plots, including the July 2005 transit bombings in London and two recent aborted attacks involving people living in the United States. The terrorist groups resurgence in Pakistan has coincided with the rising violence orchestrated in Afghanistan by the Taliban, whose leaders also escaped only to re-emerge to direct today’s increasingly lethal Afghan insurgency.
This failure and its enormous consequences were not inevitable. By early December 2001, bin Laden’s world had shrunk to a complex of caves and tunnels carved into a mountainous section of eastern Afghanistan known as Tora Bora. Cornered in some of the most forbidding terrains on earth, he and several hundred of his men, the largest concentration of Al-Qaeda fighters of the war, endured relentless pounding by American aircraft, as many as 100 airstrikes a day. One 15,000-pound bomb, so huge it had to be rolled out of the back of a C-130 cargo plane, shook the mountains for miles. It seemed only a matter of time before US troops and their Afghan allies overran the remnants of Al-Qaeda hunkered down in the thin, cold air at 14,000 feet.
Bin Laden expected to die. His last will and testament, written on December 14, reflected his fatalism. ”Allah commended to us that when death approaches any of us that we make a bequest to parents and next of kin and to Muslims as a whole,” he wrote, according to a copy of the will that surfaced later and is regarded as authentic. ”Allah bears witness that the love of jihad and death in
the cause of Allah has dominated my life and the verses of the sword permeated every cell in my heart, ‘and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together’. How many times did I wake up to find myself reciting this holy verse!” He instructed his wives not to remarry and apologised to his children for devoting himself to jihad.
But the Al-Qaeda leader would live to fight another day. Fewer than 100 American commandos were on the scene with their Afghan allies and calls for reinforcements to launch an assault were rejected. Requests were also turned down for US troops to block the mountain paths leading to the sanctuary a few miles away in Pakistan.
The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines. Instead, the US command chose to rely on airstrikes and untrained Afghan militias to attack bin Laden and on Pakistan’s loosely organised Frontier Corps to seal his escape routes. On or around December 16, two days after writing his will, bin Laden and an entourage of bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area. Most analysts say he is still there today.
The decision not to deploy American forces to go after bin Laden or block his escape was made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, the architects of the unconventional Afghan battle plan known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Rumsfeld said at the time that he was concerned that too many US troops in Afghanistan would create an
anti-American backlash and fuel a widespread insurgency. Reversing the recent American military orthodoxy known as the Powell doctrine, the Afghan model emphasised minimising the US presence by relying on small, highly mobile teams of special operations troops and CIA paramilitary operatives working with the Afghan opposition. Even when his own commanders and senior intelligence officials in Afghanistan and Washington argued for dispatching more US troops, Franks refused to deviate from the plan.
There were enough US troops in or near Afghanistan to execute the classic sweep-and-block manoeuver required to attack bin Laden and try to prevent his escape. It would have been a dangerous fight across treacherous terrain, and the injection of more US troops and the resulting casualties would have contradicted the risk-averse, ”light footprint” model was formulated by Rumsfeld and Franks. But commanders on the scene and elsewhere in Afghanistan argued that the risks were worth the reward.
After bin Laden’s escape, some military and intelligence analysts and the press criticised the Pentagon’s failure to mount a full-scale attack despite the tough rhetoric by President Bush. Franks, Vice President Dick Cheney and others defended the decision, arguing that the intelligence was inconclusive about the Al-Qaeda leader’s location. But the review of existing literature, unclassified government records and interviews with central participants underlying this report remove any lingering doubts and make it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.
For example, the CIA and Delta Force commanders who spent three weeks at Tora Bora as well as other intelligence and military sources are certain he was there. Franks’ second-in-command during the war, retired Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, wrote in his autobiography that bin Laden was ”definitely there when we hit the caves”—a statement he retracted when the failure became a political issue. Most authoritatively, the official history of the US Special Operations Command determined that bin Laden was at Tora Bora. ”All source reportings corroborated his presence on several days from 9 to 14 December,” said a declassified version of the history, which was based on accounts of commanders and intelligence officials and published without fanfare two years ago.