Not going after Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora has cost the US tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of US lives and will cost hundreds of billions more before the US sees an end to our involvement. Based on declassified reports and the Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee findings, there seems little doubt it was a colossal "mistake." A mistake created by changing the focus from Afghanistan to Iraq from the start. The US took its eye off its primary target to pursue a different and unnecessary objective. The target escaped, and no one at the top cared. The contradictions, the misinformation, and the refusal to provide information by the Bush Administration appear driven by the political impetus to avoid accountability or responsibility. Evidence indicates a lack of good leadership skills as the principle culprit for this disaster.
The recent Senate Foreign relations report (http://foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Tora_Bora_Report.pdf) finds the US did have Osama bin Laden pinned down at Tora Bora from late November possibly up to December 15, 2001. A standard military maneuver when dealing with small armed groups is to "block and sweep," block their escape and sweep out the area by killing or capturing the enemy. So why would a standard military maneuver not be followed with regard to Osama bin Laden and Tora Bora? General Tommy Franks repeatedly stated as late as October 19, 2004 in a New York Times op-ed that "We don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Some intelligence sources said he was; others indicated he was in Pakistan at the time; still others suggested he was in Kashmir. Tora Bora was teeming with Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, many of whom were killed or captured, but Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp." That comes after a Washington Post April 7, 2002 piece that reported the Administration had concluded the failure to commit combat troops to Tora Bora was a mistake. It was after bin Laden himself confirmed his own presence in Tora Bora in February 11, 2003. It was after the Special Operations Command review of the Tora Bora battle concluded that bin Laden was in Tora Bora in December 2001 (Tora Bora Report, p.16).
The recent Senate Foreign relations report shows there was highly credible evidence from the Delta Force Commander code-named "Dalton Fury" on the ground that bin Laden was in Tora Bora. From on the ground CIA paramilitary commander Gary Bernstein, bin Laden was in Tora Bora. From Henry Crumpton, the CIA counter-terrorism operations chief, bin Laden was in Tora Bora. Even General Franks' own second in command General DeLong stated he believed from available intelligence at the time bin Laden was in Tora Bora. General DeLong stated that when the bombing campaign of Tora Bora started in late November, Secretary Rumsfeld called DeLong every day to ask "did we get him?" Cheney stated on November 29, 2001 and again on Meet the Press on December 9, 2001 that he believed bin Laden to be in the Tora Bora area. Thus, why would General Franks restrict the Tora Bora battle to about 90 Special Forces troops to go after an estimated 1,000 heavily armed and fortified al Qaeda troops and "leave the back door to Pakistan wide open" in the words of Henry Crumpton? The Afghan militia was known to be unreliable and not committed to the battle to get al Qaeda.
Rumsfeld said that "deploying too many American troops could jeopardize the mission by creating an anti-US backlash among the local populace." Before the end of November Rumsfeld had already decided that bin Laden was not a critical target for the US to take out at all costs. In a November 27, 2001 media update with General Franks, Rumsfeld stated "the war in Afghanistan is essentially won." Only 6 days earlier he had contacted General Franks to begin plans to invade Iraq. They took their eye off the target because they had a far bigger target in mind and would need all the troops they could muster for that effort. Why waste the manpower on a rat running for the hills and caves? Rumsfeld rejected calls for reinforcements for the region, and Bush, Cheney and Franks would all state later the "evidence was inconclusive about bin Laden's location." Yet they all knew that assessment was incorrect, as Henry Crumpton had briefed all of them personally by the end of November of the facts and about the need for extra troops to get bin Laden.
Their statements were a typical "cover your rear and admit nothing."
The political pressure is evident in how General DeLong changed his assessment of the Tora Bora campaign after his own book was published in September of 2004, where he described his belief bin Laden was in Tora Bora at the time. Two months later (November 1, 2004) he stated, "It was possible bin Laden was never in Tora Bora to begin with." Later, in front of the Senate Foreign Intelligence Committee DeLong stated "we didn't go after bin Laden because we didn't have an election yet to install Harmid Karzai. We didn't want to have US forces fighting before Karzai was in power." Note the similarity to the political excuse Rumsfeld provided about not creating an anti-US backlash among the local populace.
The inconsistency in the explanations for why troops were not provided to "block and sweep" Tora Bora when bin Laden was there is typical when excuses are made for mistakes no one wants to admit. The inconsistency was because no one wanted to admit making the obvious error --believing bin Laden was not a serious threat. Almost from the beginning, Bush believed Iraq was the true threat. Bush searched for possible links between Saddam and al Qaeda to justify going into Iraq. Bush requested Tenet provide him information about any Iraq-al Qaeda connection shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Tenet responded with his Presidential Briefing on September 21, 2001 that stated there was no known connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. This was only five days after Vice President Cheney was asked by Tim Russert on Meet the Press (September 16, 2001) about an Iraq-al Qaeda connection and Cheney stated, "I didn't think there was one."
On October 7, 2001 the war in Afghanistan began, and things were going so well with the Taliban and al Qaeda in full retreat that on November 21, 2001 (just 1.5 months into that war) Bush told Rumsfeld he wanted a war plan for Iraq. Rumsfeld called General Franks and requested he get together a war plan for Iraq. Thereafter, Franks saw Omar and bin Laden as an afterthought and Iraq as the primary military target. Later that same day Bush stated: "Afghanistan is just the beginning on the war against terror. There are other terrorists who threaten America and our friends, and there are other nations willing to sponsor them. We will not be secure as a nation until all these threats are defeated. Across the world and across the years, we will fight these evil ones and we will win."
Rumsfeld asked Franks on December 1, 2001 how he was going to choke off Hussein's support of terrorism. The focus was no longer on bin Laden but squarely on a new source of terrorism -- Saddam Hussein. During Cheney's Meet the Press interview with Tim Russert on December 9, 2001 Cheney acknowledged bin Laden was in the Tora Bora area and stated, "They (Omar and bin Laden) send young men into battle but they appear to be holding up in caves." "In the final analysis they are running and hiding." "" The Afghan people blame Omar and bin Laden for the outrage." By this point in time the Administration clearly felt the Afghanistan war was wrapping up, bin Laden was not really the issue, Afghans wouldn't want the Taliban or al Qaeda back and the need was to go after other sources of terror. In that same Meet the Press interview Cheney stated cryptically, "we have some other mission to accomplish."
The plans for the Iraq war were kept under tight wraps until Senator Graham spoke with General Franks about bin Laden and Omar on February 9, 2002 and Franks told a shocked Senator Graham that they aren't interested in trying to track bin Laden or Omar but are focusing on Iraq. A month later on March 13, 2002 Bush makes the statement about bin Laden, "I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat I truly am not that concerned about him." That was the truth, almost from the start. Bush was not that interested in bin Laden other than for the political cover he provided him for the wars.
Even when Henry Crumpton briefed President Bush and Cheney in late November of 2001 on the immediate and essential need for added troops to capture or kill bin Laden in Tora Bora, the President did not act. By December 9, 2001, Vice President Cheney had changed his tune about an al Qaeda-Iraq connection and on Meet the Press began to lay the foundation for an Iraq-al Qaeda link. He stated Atta met with Iraqi intelligence in the Czech Republic before the September 11th bombing . He went further, saying Iraq harbored terrorists and was actively pursuing development of weapons of mass destruction. Even after the Atta and Iraqi intelligence were proven weak, Cheney was still saying it was "never proved Atta met Iraqi intelligence but never disproved." Since it is impossible to prove a negative, Cheney would use the same faulty logic for the Iraq war that Saddam never proved he didn't have Weapons of Mass Destruction.
With the Administration setting its sights on Iraq, efforts began in earnest to seek an al Qaeda-Iraq connection. The following year al-Libi (the highest ranking al Qaeda member in US custody) was transferred to Egypt where, under torture, he claimed an Iraq-al Qaeda connection in January 2002, although by February 2002 the Defense Intelligence questioned al-Libi's claims and could not corroborate anything. Even the CIA withdrew his remarks as unreliable by 2004. His admissions were simply to justify the Iraq invasion. Conflicting intelligence was "noise" to be filtered out so the message was consistent -- Iraq is a threat. October 2, 2002 Bush was in Cincinnati, OH, claiming Saddam Hussein had links to international terrorist groups and high level contacts with al Qaeda. Rumsfeld was making similar claims in September 2002 as was Cheney.
After the 9/11 panel found no link between Iraq and al Qaeda, Bush claimed in March 20, 2006 that he never linked September 11 and Iraq. In fact, Vice President Cheney as late as April 5, 2007 stated on the Rush Limbaugh show that al Qaeda operated inside Iraq before we ever launched a war. It wouldn't have mattered whether bin Laden died at Tora Bora or not; the plan was to push for an invasion of Iraq based on whatever could be used to justify that war, and any intelligence that contradicted that goal was simply irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the Bush Administration covered their rears from growing incriminating evidence to the contrary. When asked by Congress for specific documents related to the run up to the Iraq war, they refused to provide them. Specifically, they refused to provide the Presidential Brief of September 21, 2001 where Tenet told President Bush there was no Iraq-al Qaeda connection. They refused to provide the Special Operations Command report on Tora Bora operation, which was not declassified until April 6, 2007 and provided clear evidence of bin Laden in Tora Bora. They did not release the Department of Defense Intelligence questioning al-Libi's reliability. They released information supporting an al Qaeda-Iraq connection and nothing questioning the veracity of that evidence.
The misstatements and misinformation that followed were not "honest mistakes" made by people with a lapse of good judgment. Their misstatements and misinformation were deliberate efforts to cover stupid, colossal mistakes. The sound military plan to "block and sweep" at Tora Bora was rejected for a simple reason -- by the time bin Laden was located in Tora Bora they simply didn't care about him. He was an afterthought and his existence was of insignificance relative to far bigger plans brewing at the Pentagon, for which they would need every man they could spare. When the military blunder was exposed, the political response was to deny a mistake ever occurred and provide excuses. Classify documents that stated otherwise and refuse to release them for reasons of National Security. It worked because the oversight and accountability that should have existed in Congress to address these issues was deemed less relevant or important than party politics. Too many congressional members were far less interested in their obligations and responsibilities to the public than their commitment to their party.