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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


Flight from Tora Bora

On December 14, the day bin Laden finished his will, Dalton Fury finally convinced Ali and his men to stay overnight in one of the canyons that they had captured during daylight. Over the next three days, the Afghan militia and their American advisers moved steadily through the canyons, calling in airstrikes and taking out lingering pockets of fighters. The resistance seemed to have vanished, prompting Ali to declare victory on December 17. Most of the Tora Bora complex was abandoned and many of the caves and tunnels were buried in debris. Only about 20 stragglers were taken prisoner. The consensus was that Al Qaeda fighters who had sur­vived the fierce bombing had escaped into Pakistan or melted into the local population. Bin Laden was nowhere to be found. Two days later, Fury and his Delta Force colleagues left Tora Bora, hoping that someone would eventually find bin Laden buried in one of the caves.

There was no body because bin Laden did not die at Tora Bora. Later U.S. intelligence reports and accounts by journalists and others said that he and a contingent of bodyguards departed Tora Bora on December 16. With help from Afghans and Pakistanis who had been paid in advance, the group made its way on foot and horseback across the mountain passes and into Pakistan without encountering any resistance.

The Special Operations Command history noted that there were not enough U.S. troops to prevent the escape, acknowledging that the failure to capture or killing bin Laden made Tora Bora a controversial battle. But Franks argued that Tora was a success and he praised both the Afghan militias and the Pakistanis who were supposed to have protected the border. “I think it was a good operation,” he said in an interview for the PBS show Frontline on the first anniversary of the Afghan war. “Many people have said, ‘Well, gosh, you know bin Laden got away.’ I have yet to see anything that proves bin Laden or whomever was there. That’s not to say they weren’t, but I’ve not seen proof that they were there.”

Bin Laden himself later acknowledged that he was at Tora Bora, boasting about how he and Zawahiri survived the heavy bombing along with 300 fighters before escaping. “The bombardment was round-the-clock and the warplanes continued to fly over us day and night,” he said in an audio tape released on February 11, 2003. “Planes poured their lava on us, particularly after accomplishing their main missions in Afghanistan.”

In the aftermath of bin Laden’s escape, there were accusations that militiamen working for the two warlords hired by the CIA to get him had helped the Al Qaeda leader cross into Pakistan. Michael Scheuer, who spent 15 years working on Afghanistan at the CIA and at one point headed the agency’s bin Laden task force, was sharply critical of the war plan from the start because of its reliance on Afghan allies of dubious loyalty. “Everyone who was cognizant of how Afghan operations worked would have told Mr. Tenet that he was nuts,” Scheuer said later. “And as it turned out, he was. ... The people we bought, the people Mr. Tenet said we would own, let Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan into Pakistan.”

The American forces never had a clear idea how many Al Qaeda fighters were arrayed against them. Estimates ranged as high as 3,000 and as low as 500, but the consensus put the figure around 1,000—at least until so many escaped during the fake surrender.

Regardless of the exact number of enemy fighters, assaulting Tora Bora would have been difficult and probably would have cost many American and Afghan lives. The Special Operations Command’s history offered this tightly worded assessment: “With large numbers of well-supplied, fanatical AQ troops dug into extensive fortified positions, Tora Bora appeared to be an extremely tough tar­get.”

For Dalton Fury, the reward would have been worth the risk. “In general, I definitely think it was worth the risk to the force to assault Tora Bora for Osama bin Laden,” he told the Committee staff. “What other target out there, then or now, could be more important to our nation’s struggle in the global war on terror?”

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