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Op-Ed

We Really Did Have a Chance at Bin Laden

With terrorism such a central issue in the U.S. presidential race, the issue of whether we had a good chance at arresting or killing Osama bin Laden back in Afghanistan in 2001 has become an important debating point. Of course we can’t go back and get him there now; the question is of historical interest only. But it is relevant in assessing the capabilities and competence of the Bush administration, and therefore in a broader sense is relevant to voters’ decisions on November 2.

Senator Kerry has charged that the Bush administration missed a golden opportunity at bin Laden by relying on Afghan militias to safeguard the passageways out of the Tora Bora mountains when bin Laden was believed to be squirreled up there in December of 2001. According to Kerry, those militias could not be depended upon to get the job done—and indeed, bin Laden did escape, apparently as we bombed his suspected hideouts in the mountains. Bush administration officials, led by retired General Tommy Franks who ran both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and has since stated his support for the president, challenge those claims.

In fact, most of the evidence here is indeed on Kerry’s side. That is not to say his preferred policy would have definitely netted bin Laden and his top aides; manhunts are inherently difficult and uncertain in war. It is also in and of itself no guarantee that Kerry’s future policies on terrorism would be more effective than Bush’s. But on the merits of this particular issue, the Democrat has the facts on his side.

The Bush administration’s Afghanistan strategy in October and November of 2001 was impressive. It worked with Afghan militias, using U.S. CIA teams and special forces and airpower to drive the Taliban and al Qaeda from power. By late November of 2001, the resistance controlled most of the country, and top Taliban/al Qaeda leadership was on the run.

U.S. intelligence then pinpointed much of al Qaeda’s remaining strength near Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. In particular, al Qaeda forces, including Osama bin Laden, were thought to be holed up in the mountain redoubts of Tora Bora. Administration officials have of late been denying they ever knew where bin Laden was. Admittedly, we were never 100 percent sure. But back then, they clearly had considerable confidence he was at Tora Bora. Vice President Cheney confirmed as much, telling Diane Sawyer of ABC News on November 29, 2001 that “I think he’s probably in that general area.”

Traveling with perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 foreign fighters, most of them fellow Arabs, bin Laden could not easily evade detection from curious eyes even if he might elude U.S. overhead reconnaissance. He also probably used satellite telephones during this time, which American intelligence can detect. Thus, once Afghan opposition fighters, together with small numbers of CIA and special operations forces, were deployed in the vicinity, it was thought that U.S. air strikes against the caves could become quite effective. But alas they failed to hit al Qaeda’s top leaders.

Why did bin Laden and other al Qaeda apparently get away? The United States relied almost exclusively on its Afghan allies to close off possible escape routes from the Tora Bora region. It is not clear that these allies had the same incentives as the United States to conduct the effort with dogged persistence. They did not have night vision equipment or cold-weather gear. Nor did they necessarily care if bin Laden was captured or killed; having the Taliban out of power was for them the key issue.

Admittedly, there were reasons not to put many Americans in Afghanistan. First, Washington feared a possible anti-American backlash, as Rumsfeld made clear in public comments. Complicating matters, the United States would have had a hard time getting many tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan, since no neighboring country except Pakistan would have been a viable staging base—and Pakistan was not willing to play that role. Putting several thousand U.S. forces in the mountainous, inland region of Tora Bora would have been especially difficult and dangerous.

Yet given the enormity of the stakes in this war, it still would have been appropriate. Indeed, CENTCOM made preparations for doing so. But in the end, partly because of logistical challenges but perhaps partly because of the Pentagon’s aversion to casualties—and perhaps also because of a certain sloppy overconfidence, who knows?—the idea was dropped.

What would have been needed for the United States to perform this mission? To close off the 100 to 150 escape routes along the 25-mile stretch of the Afghan-Pakistani border closest to Tora Bora would have required perhaps 1,000 to 3,000 American troops. Deploying such a force from the United States would have required several hundred airlift flights, followed by ferrying the troops and supplies to frontline positions via helicopter. According to CENTCOM, a new airfield might have had to be created, largely for delivering fuel. Such an operation would have taken a week or more. But two Marine Corps units with more than 1,000 personnel were already in the country in December and were somewhat idle at that time; and Army forces were in neighboring countries to the north. If redeployed to Tora Bora, they could have helped prevent al Qaeda’s escape themselves. They also could have been reinforced over subsequent days and weeks.

Such an effort would not have assured success. Yet the odds would probably have favored the United States.

The Afghanistan war was, in its early phases, an impressive work of innovation. But the way in which Tora Bora was handled made it, in the end, very much of a flawed masterpiece.

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