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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
NOVEMBER 30, 2009


Writing in Foreign Affairs in the spring of 2002, the military analyst Michael O'Hanlon declared Operation Enduring Freedom "a masterpiece of military creativity and finesse." The operation had been designed on the fly and O'Hanlon praised Rumsfeld, Franks and CIA Director George Tenet for devising a war plan that combined limited American power and the Afghan opposition to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda with only 30 U.S. casualties in the first five months. But O'Hanlon tempered his praise, calling the plan "a flawed masterpiece" because of the failure to capture or kill bin Laden and other enemy leaders. The resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in recent years, and the turmoil they have wrought in Afghanistan and Pakistan, raise the question of whether the plan was a flawed masterpiece-or simply flawed.

The Afghan model required elite teams of American commandos and CIA paramilitary operatives to form alliances with Afghans who opposed the Taliban and had the militias to help topple the religious fundamentalists. Some of these Afghans were legitimate ethnic and tribal leaders who chafed at the restrictions of the Taliban and the sanctuary it provided to Al Qaeda. Others were allies of convenience, Taliban rivals who held power by force and paid their men by collecting tolls and taxes on legitimate commerce and trafficking in heroin. By providing money and weapons, the U.S. forces helped the warlords destroy their rivals and expand their personal power. Many later entered the Afghan government and remain influential figures. The strategy was a short cut to victory that would have consequences for long-term stability in Afghanistan.

When it came to bin Laden, the special operations forces relied on two relatively minor warlords from the Jalalabad area. Haji Hazarat Ali had a fourth-grade education and a reputation as a bully. He had fought the Soviets as a teenager in the 1980s and later joined the Taliban for a time. The other, Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, was a wealthy drug smuggler who had been persuaded by the United States to return from France. Ghamsharik also had fought the Soviets, but when the Taliban came to power, he had gone into exile in France. Together, they fielded a force of about 2,000 men, but there were questions from the outset about the competence and loyalties of the fighters. The two warlords and their men distrusted each other and both groups appeared to distrust their American allies.

The Delta Force commandos had doubts about the willingness and ability of the Afghan militias to wage a genuine assault on Tora Bora almost from the outset. Those concerns were underscored each time the Afghans insisted on retreating from the mountains as darkness fell. But the suspicions were confirmed by events that started on the afternoon of December 11.

Haji Ghamsharik approached Fury and told him that Al Qaeda fighters wanted to surrender. He said all they needed to end the siege was a 12-hour ceasefire to allow the fighters to climb down the mountains and turn in their weapons. Intercepted radio chatter seemed to confirm that the fighters had lost their resolve under the relentless bombing and wanted to give up, but Fury remained suspicious.

“This is the greatest day in the history of Afghanistan,” Ghamsharik told Fury.

“Why is that?” asked the dubious American officer.

“Because al Qaeda is no more,” he said. “Bin Laden is finished.”

The Special Operations Command history records that CentCom refused to back the ceasefire, suspecting a ruse, but it said the special ops forces agreed reluctantly to an overnight pause in the bombing to avoid killing the surrendering Al Qaeda fighters. Ghamsharik negotiated by radio with representatives of Al Qaeda. He initially told Fury that a large number of Algerians wanted to surrender. Then he said that he could turn over the entire Al Qaeda leadership. Fury’s suspicions increased at such a bold promise. By the morning of December 12, no Al Qaeda fighters had appeared and the Delta Force commander concluded that the whole episode was a hoax. Intelligence estimates are that as many as 800 Al Qaeda fighters escaped that night, but bin Laden stuck it out.

Despite the unreliability of his Afghan allies, Fury refused to give up. He plotted ways to use his 40 Delta Force soldiers and the handful of other special ops troops under his command to go after bin Laden on their own. One of the plans was to go at bin Laden from the one direction he would never anticipate, the southern side of the mountains. ”We want to come in on the back door,” Fury explained later, pointing on a map to the side of the Tora Bora enclave facing Pakistan. The peaks there rose to 14,000 feet and the valleys and precipitous mountain passes were already deep in snow. ”The original plan that we sent up through our higher headquarters, Delta Force wants to come in over the mountain with oxygen, coming from the Pakistan side, over the mountains and come in and get a drop on bin Laden from behind.” The audacious assault was nixed somewhere up the chain of command. Undeterred, Fury suggested dropping hundreds of landmines along the passes leading to Pakistan to block bin Laden’s escape. ”First guy blows his leg off, everybody else stops,” he said. ”That allows aircraft overhead to find them. They see all these heat sources out there. Okay, there is a big large group of Al Qaeda moving south. They can engage that.” That proposal was rejected, too.

About the time Fury was desperately concocting scenarios for going after bin Laden and getting rejections from up the chain of command, Franks was well into planning for the next war—the invasion of Iraq.

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