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John Kerry Releases “I Was Right About Bin Laden And Tora Bora In 2004” Report

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report entitled “Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed To Get Bin Laden And Why It Matters Today.” I support any effort to explain the history of Bush Administration blunders, and this report does an excellent job in that regard. I’m a little less clear, even after reading the report, on the “why it matters today” part.

To be sure, the report paints a pretty definitive picture of the fight in Tora Bora in late 2001, and how Osama bin Laden was really boxed in and unable to escape, taking a pounding from US aircraft. Bin Laden even wrote out a last will and testament in December of that year, accepting his fate. But the lack of US troops and multiple rejections of requests that would have blocked his escape led to the final outcome. And Kerry’s report points the finger directly at Donald Rumsfeld:

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.

Basically, it would have taken more troops to finish off bin Laden and al Qaeda than the “light footprint” favored by Rumsfeld and Franks warranted. The irony of a larger occupying force fueling an insurgency should not be lost on anyone.

The failure to catch bin Laden at Tora Bora has been an image used by Kerry since his Presidential campaign in 2004, and the report gives him a full vindication. Kerry unearths convincing evidence that bin Laden was in the mountains at that time along with hundreds of other al Qaeda fighters. The fact that the report includes interviews with Tommy Franks from during the 2004 campaign doubting that bin Laden was present at Tora Bora shows how this is a “Ahab catching the white whale” kind of document for Kerry.

And no doubt he should be vindicated. It’s incredible that Bush and his neocon cohorts have pretty much not been held accountable for letting the biggest mass murderer in American history escape when they had him cornered. You would almost have to believe it was deliberate, to keep in place a climate of fear used to push us into war in Iraq and generally aggrandize executive power in the name of defending the nation in the “war on terror.”

It’s where this data point moves to a conclusion that we would somehow not be in Afghanistan if that mission were successful that leaves me wondering. Kerry argues that “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.”

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.

Actually, we have learned in recent weeks that al Qaeda is significantly diminished for a variety of reasons, arguably the biggest being rejection from the Muslim world. Their power and funding are both shrinking and core al Qaeda is thought to be no more than 300 and as few as 100 fighters. I don’t think we can call this a “reconstituted force,” at least not now. And while letting bin Laden escape was a monstrous failure in 2001, that doesn’t apply to the state of things in 2009 Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, the Taliban is more of a force in the region than Al Qaeda these days. You can argue that Mullah Omar’s escape, also detailed in the report, was a bigger blow than bin Laden’s, given the outcome eight years later.

Given all this, I don’t know how Carl Levin can say that a successful capture of bin Laden would have led the US to have withdrawn from Afghanistan. I don’t think the two logically follow. The report admits that the death of bin Laden would not have ended violent extremism globally. Indeed, it’s arguable that more would have been drawn to the area to avenge bin Laden’s martyrdom. As long as Afghanistan continued in civil war, there would have been the same arguments made about denying safe havens to extremists, the basis for continuing the occupation. Bin Laden’s presence or absence isn’t crucial to that argument.

In this sense, the report is not just vindication for John Kerry, but a kind of argument for escalating forces in Afghanistan, to “finish the job,” as it were. To believe that, you have to believe that a desiccated, under-funded, besieged and desperate force still represents some threat to American security.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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