Senate Report: "Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed To Get Bin Laden And Why It Matters Today"
TORA BORA REVISITED: HOW WE FAILED
TO GET BIN LADEN AND WHY
IT MATTERS TODAY
On October 7, 2001, U.S. aircraft began bombing the training
bases and strongholds of Al Qaeda and the ruling Taliban across
Afghanistan. The leaders who sent murderers to attack the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon less than a month earlier and the
rogue government that provided them sanctuary were running for
their lives. President George W. Bush’s expression of America’s desire
to get Osama bin Laden ‘‘dead or alive’’ seemed about to come
Two months later, American civilian and military leaders celebrated
what they viewed as a lasting victory with the selection of
Hamid Karzai as the country’s new hand-picked leader. The war
had been conceived as a swift campaign with a single objective: defeat
the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda by capturing or killing bin
Laden and other key leaders. A unique combination of airpower,
Central Intelligence Agency and special operations forces teams
and indigenous allies had swept the Taliban from power and ousted
Al Qaeda from its safe haven while keeping American deaths to a
minimum. But even in the initial glow, there were concerns: The
mission had failed to capture or kill bin Laden.
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.
This failure and its enormous consequences were not inevitable.
By early December 2001, Bin Laden’s world had shrunk to a complex
of caves and tunnels carved into a mountainous section of eastern Afghanistan known as Tora Bora. Cornered in some of the
most forbidding terrain on earth, he and several hundred of his
men, the largest concentration of Al Qaeda fighters of the war, endured
relentless pounding by American aircraft, as many as 100 air
strikes a day. One 15,000-pound bomb, so huge it had to be rolled
out the back of a C-130 cargo plane, shook the mountains for miles.
It seemed only a matter of time before U.S. troops and their Afghan
allies overran the remnants of Al Qaeda hunkered down in
the thin, cold air at 14,000 feet.
Bin Laden expected to die. His last will and testament, written
on December 14, reflected his fatalism. ‘‘Allah commended to us
that when death approaches any of us that we make a bequest to
parents and next of kin and to Muslims as a whole,’’ he wrote, according
to a copy of the will that surfaced later and is regarded as
authentic. ‘‘Allah bears witness that the love of jihad and death in
the cause of Allah has dominated my life and the verses of the
sword permeated every cell in my heart, ‘and fight the pagans all
together as they fight you all together.’ How many times did I
wake up to find myself reciting this holy verse!’’ He instructed his
wives not to remarry and apologized to his children for devoting
himself to jihad.
But the Al Qaeda leader would live to fight another day. 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.
There were enough U.S. troops in or near Afghanistan to execute
the classic sweep-and-block maneuver required to attack bin Laden
and try to prevent his escape. It would have been a dangerous fight
across treacherous terrain, and the injection of more U.S. troops
and the resulting casualties would have contradicted the risk-averse, ‘‘light footprint’’ model formulated by Rumsfeld and Franks.
But commanders on the scene and elsewhere in Afghanistan argued
that the risks were worth the reward.
After bin Laden’s escape, some military and intelligence analysts
and the press criticized the Pentagon’s failure to mount a full-scale
attack despite the tough rhetoric by President Bush. Franks, Vice
President Dick Cheney and others defended the decision, arguing
that the intelligence was inconclusive about the Al Qaeda leader’s
location. But the review of existing literature, unclassified government
records and interviews with central participants underlying
this report removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that
Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.
For example, the CIA and Delta Force commanders who spent
three weeks at Tora Bora as well as other intelligence and military
sources are certain he was there. Franks’ second-in-command during
the war, retired Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, wrote in his autobiography
that bin Laden was ‘‘definitely there when we hit the
caves’’—a statement he retracted when the failure became a political
issue. Most authoritatively, the official history of the U.S. Special
Operations Command determined that bin Laden was at Tora
Bora. ‘‘All source reporting corroborated his presence on several
days from 9-14 December,’’ said a declassified version of the history,
which was based on accounts of commanders and intelligence
officials and published without fanfare two years ago.
The reasons behind the failure to capture or kill Osama bin
Laden and its lasting consequences are examined over three sections
in this report. The first section traces bin Laden’s path from
southern Afghanistan to the mountains of Tora Bora and lays out
new and previous evidence that he was there. The second explores
new information behind the decision not to launch an assault. The
final section examines the military options that might have led to
his capture or death at Tora Bora and the ongoing impact of the
failure to bring him back ‘‘dead or alive.’’