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Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed To Get Bin Laden And Why It Matters Today

A Report To Members Of The Committee On Foreign Relations United States Senate

John F. Kerry, Chairman
ONE HUNDRED ELEVENTH CONGRESS
FIRST SESSION
NOVEMBER 30, 2009




COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN RELATIONS
JOHN F. KERRY, Massachusetts, Chairman
CHRISTOPHER J. DODD, Connecticut
RUSSELL D. FEINGOLD, Wisconsin
BARBARA BOXER, California
ROBERT MENENDEZ, New Jersey
BENJAMIN L. CARDIN, Maryland
ROBERT P. CASEY, JR., Pennsylvania
JIM WEBB, Virginia
JEANNE SHAHEEN, New Hampshire
EDWARD E. KAUFMAN, Delaware
KIRSTEN E. GILLIBRAND, New York
RICHARD G. LUGAR, Indiana
BOB CORKER, Tennessee
JOHNNY ISAKSON, Georgia
JAMES E. RISCH, Idaho
JIM DEMINT, South Carolina
JOHN BARRASSO, Wyoming
ROGER F. WICKER, Mississippi
JAMES M. INHOF, Oklahoma
DAVID MCKean, Staff Director
KENNETH A. MYERS, JR., Republican Staff Director

CONTENTS


  Letter of Transmittal
Executive Summary
1. Flight to Tora Bora The Sheikh Arrives Other Voices, Same Conclusion "A Controversial Fight"
2. The Afghan Model: A Flawed Masterpiece or Just Flawed? A Shift in Attention and Resources "We’re Going to Lose Our Prey" Flight from Tora Bora
3. An Alternative Plan Troops Were Ready to Go The Price of Failure
Endnotes
APPENDIXES Appendix I.—"A Flawed Masterpiece," Michael E. O’Hanlon, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2002 Appendix II.—United States Special Operations Command History, 6th Edition


LETTER OF TRANSMITTAL

UNITED STATES SENATE , COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN RELATIONS ,

Washington, DC, November 30, 2009.

DEAR COLLEAGUE: This report by the Committee majority staff is part of our continuing examination of the conflict in Afghanistan. When we went to war less than a month after the attacks of September 11, the objective was to destroy Al Qaeda and kill or capture its leader, Osama bin Laden, and other senior figures in the terrorist group and the Taliban, which had hosted them. Today, more than eight years later, we find ourselves fighting an increasingly lethal insurgency in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan that is led by many of those same extremists. Our inability to finish the job in late 2001 has contributed to a conflict today that endangers not just our troops and those of our allies, but the stability of a volatile and vital region. This report relies on new and existing information to explore the consequences of the failure to eliminate bin Laden and other extremist leaders in the hope that we can learn from the mistakes of the past.

Sincerely,

JOHN F. KERRY,
Chairman.


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

On October 7, 2001, U.S. 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 not 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 locus across the border into Pakistan, where it has trained extremists 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 group’s 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 terrain 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 air strikes a day. One 15,000-pound bomb, so huge it had to be rolled out the back of a C-130 cargo plane, shook the mountains for miles. It seemed only a matter of time before U.S. 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 apologized 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 U.S. troops to block the mountain paths leading to 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 U.S. command chose to rely on airstrikes and untrained Afghan militias to attack bin Laden and on Pakistan’s loosely organized 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 U.S. 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 emphasized minimizing the U.S. 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 U.S. troops, Franks refused to deviate from the plan.

There were enough U.S. troops in or near Afghanistan to execute the classic sweep-and-block maneuver 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 U.S. troops and the resulting casualties would have contradicted the risk-averse, “light footprint” model 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 criticized 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 removes any lingering doubts and makes 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 U.S. Special Operations Command determined that bin Laden was at Tora Bora. “All source reporting corroborated his presence on several days from 9-14 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.

The reasons behind the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and its lasting consequences are examined over three sections in this report. The first section traces bin Laden’s path from southern Afghanistan to the mountains of Tora Bora and lays out new and previous evidence that he was there. The second explores new information behind the decision not to launch an assault. The final section examines the military options that might have led to his capture or death at Tora Bora and the ongoing impact of the failure to bring him back “dead or alive.”


Full Report [PDF 3.09MB]



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