The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has issued a report detailing the incredible bungling at Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December of 2001. It concludes that Osama bin Laden was there, hiding in the mountains, and America’s leaders – George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – ignored vigorous requests for reinforcements from the handful of American Special Forces operatives on the ground. Had those reinforcements been sent, bin Laden and the top al Qaeda leadership very likely would’ve been killed or captured, according to Peter Bergen, CNN’s terrorism analyst.
That, of course, is speculation, but Bergen is one of the few – possibly the only – Western journalist who ever managed to interview bin Laden. Common sense and my own experience covering the battle at Tora Bora for Cox Newspapers tells me he’s probably right.
But we’ll never know. Instead, Bush refused to send a significant force of our own troops and somehow decided that the best way to go after the world’s biggest terrorist was to rely primarily on Afghan warlords. These feudal-style local “big men” dispatched Afghan peasants clad in plastic sandals with rusty weapons as the main ground troops in our attack. While the Afghan irregulars have a well-deserved reputation for ferocity and toughness, they have also been notorious, for centuries, for abruptly shifting their loyalties. Too bad nobody in the Bush administration bothered to read up a bit.
It wasn’t hard for me to find that out. One day at Tora Bora I interviewed an Afghan tank commander and immediately got a bad feeling about our chances of nabbing bin Laden. The bearded, gruff guy told me he had been a loyal Taliban soldier for more than a decade, but had just switched sides two weeks previously when the American operation began. Having guys like him as a backup, a reserve force, or simply buying them off to keep them from fighting against us would’ve been one thing. Unfortunately our leaders decided on a much larger role for them. When rumors started flying that bin Laden was trying to escape out the “back door” through the mountain passes into Pakistan, a force of these men was dispatched to cut him off, we were told. Whether that happened, whether they came across the Saudi terrorist and let him go, is anybody’s guess. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Like many of my colleagues at Tora Bora, I kept asking: “Where’s Rambo?” With the shock of the 9/11 attacks still fresh, with much of world opinion sympathetic to us, with the man who had ordered those attacks holed up in a cave in the rugged mountains filling the horizon, I had no doubt our leaders wouldn’t hesitate to unleash nearly everything they had. I figured a couple of thousand crack American Special Forces troops would do the job, and from what I’ve read from the few of those folks who were there, it probably would’ve. I was mystified as the days passed and no iron-willed, superbly trained force of Rambos appeared. Wasn’t it Dick Cheney who once famously remarked: “What’s the point of having the world’s most powerful military if you never use it?” I still cannot fathom why he and his boss did not use it against the world’s most dangerous terrorist who had just killed thousands of innocent people in one of the bloodiest foreign attacks on U.S. soil in our history. Great judgment, Dick.
Instead, the reporters at Tora Bora watched American jets flying circles in the crystalline sky, occasionally dropping small strings of bombs that cracked like thunder in the canyons and sent up big puffs of smoke and dust. We eventually followed the Afghans up into the mountains and saw al-Qaeda bunkers that had been blown to smithereens. We came on a bombed-out terrorist training camp, complete with an obstacle course of zig-zag balance beams and overhead bars for monkey swings. There was even the incongruous sight of an empty swimming pool up there in that rugged, dry terrain. Our translators told us it was Osama’s swimming pool, the place where he liked to loll and exercise, although it could just as easily have been for training recruits.
We saw a tiny handful of Special Forces or perhaps CIA guys zipping past on the dirt roads up there, trailing clouds of dust in their dark Chevy Suburbans that were outfitted with blacked-out windows and whip antennae mounted on the back bumpers. They were directing the American air strikes and the ground offensive, such as it was. The rumor among the press corps was that they also had a suitcase stuffed with $20 million in cash, which they were doling out to the warlords to buy their assistance and hopefully their loyalty. Some of those guys, it turns out, were also arguing vehemently up the chain for reinforcements, saying they were almost certain they had heard bin Laden’s voice on radio transmissions, confirmed by trusted Afghan allies. But their pleas were ignored or overruled.
The result was that bin Laden and his cadre slipped through the snow-covered mountain passes into Pakistan, living to plot and fight another day, another day that has now turned into nearly a decade.
The whole operation was a miserable, humiliating failure, and I think it added immeasurably to al-Qaeda’s confidence, mystique and appeal to would-be recruits. I believe bin Laden thought he would die at Tora Bora. Imagine his glee as he spurred his horse down the passes into Pakistan, his face flush with the realization that he had outwitted the world’s most powerful nation yet again, and this time in a set-piece battle, if you can believe that. Some have argued that making him a martyr would’ve hurt us just as badly, but I don’t believe that. Wiping out bin Laden and the group’s leadership would’ve dealt the terrorists a terrible blow, eliminating hard-earned expertise, contacts, access to money, decades of experience and a charisma that might never be matched. Had we dispensed with them at Tora Bora, others inevitably would’ve stepped in to do their work, but it would’ve taken them years, even decades, to reach the level of sophistication of their predecessors. More than likely, al Qaeda would’ve been beset by factional in-fighting, disarray and a nasty leadership struggle. It seems extremely unlikely a single terrorist with bin Laden’s stature would’ve emerged to fill the vacuum, at least not for a long time.
Now President Obama is coming under fire for his refusal to abandon the Afghan war and his decision to instead send in more American troops. It’s a tough call, but the stakes are high. In a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Bergen said that a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would quickly lead to a Taliban takeover, and, since the Taliban is closely allied with al-Qaeda, a rapid resumption of the situation that existed in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. The country would again become a safe haven and training ground for al-Qaeda, allowing it to rebuild, regroup and probably eventually attempt fresh attacks on the West. Again, my limited experience on the ground tells me Bergen most likely is right.
Like most Americans I’m tired of the Afghan war and frustrated at how badly it has been waged, although I blame the politicians, not the soldiers. I also question whether we can ever really “win” there.
But the alternative, withdrawal, is in effect an invitation for another major terrorist attack. That attack will probably come anyway, eventually, but withdrawing from Afghanistan and allowing al-Qaeda to flourish there again, unimpeded, would hasten it and possibly multiply its scale, making it far more dramatic and lethal.
All of which makes Bush’s incredible blunder at Tora Bora even more maddening. And for me, it makes the media’s rush to declare that Afghanistan is now “Obama’s war,” even more frustrating. He is faced with a decision dumped in his lap by his predecessor’s mistakes, and I believe any president, of either party or any ideological stripe, would come to the same unpleasant but unavoidable conclusion. To give up and turn Afghanistan over to bin Laden and Mullah Omar is to ignore the very real threat of more death and destruction within our own borders. The difficulties have been multiplied exponentially by Bush’s cascade of errors, primarily his failure to nab or kill bin Laden when he had the chance and his ill-advised or outright deceitful claim that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were a greater threat to us.
As a result, we’ve squandered eight years and countless American and civilian lives in Afghanistan, along with nearly a trillion dollars and countless more lives invading and occupying Iraq, which posed no serious threat. We’ve exhausted the American public’s patience and willingness to back a fight that to me seems necessary, however unpleasant and costly.
The other huge problem, of course, is the lawless territory of the Pakistani Tribal Areas along the Afghan border, another place I got to glimpse as a reporter. It is a sobering, frightful place, a feudal throwback where it seems everyone is armed and brute force rules. Even if we succeed in quelling the Taliban in Afghanistan and help build a credible Afghan government and effective Afghan military (something we should’ve been doing the past eight years), bin Laden and his cronies can simply hide out across the border, as they’ve done for years already. With Pakistan increasingly unstable, with its impoverished masses increasingly under the spell of militant extremists, our challenge there is probably greater than in Afghanistan. Any significant incursion by US ground forces into Pakistan would ignite tumult that might bring down the shaky, questionable government in power now, which at least pays lip service to being our ally. I have no answer for what to do about this problem, but abandoning it to fester unmolested seems a very risky choice.
I come back to the fact that the worsening situation in Pakistan is yet another consequence of Bush’s string of catastrophic misjudgments. Had we ignored the trumped-up “threat” of Iraq and instead focused our efforts and resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the past decade, had we eliminated bin Laden when we had the chance, it seems likely we would be in a much stronger position in those countries today. I’m not saying we would’ve “won,” or transformed those troubled nations into western-style secular democracies. But it’s hard to imagine that we could be any worse off than we are now.
The important point that I think the press and most of the public are ignoring is that the responsibility for the current mess lies squarely and completely at the feet of George W. Bush, not Barack Obama. Criticize Obama, disagree with him, protest his decisions, but don’t deny the fact that he’s doing his best in a cauldron of snakes, alligators and sharks that he inherited, lock, stock and barrel, from his predecessor.
It is and always will be Bush’s war. Like LBJ after JFK, Obama will put his own stamp on it with the decisions he makes, hopefully with better judgment and results. But for at least the next several years, Bush’s impeccably bad judgment will shape and limit every possible option he has to choose from.