I read with enormous interest an article published by The Independent UK, entitled "Pakistan Stares Into the Abyss." As one may infer from the title, it was a very disturbing article. The scary part of the article is that this nation in chaos is a nuclear-tipped nation. Then the thought occurred to me that this didn't need to happen. My mind returned to a different place and time.
In the background is a very young civilian government under the leadership of President Asif Ali Zardari which followed the nine-year military rule of General Pervez Musharraf. Zardari is the widower of the murdered Benazir Bhutto who returned to Pakistan to challenge the military dictatorship of Musharraf. In addition, there is the formation over the past few years of the Pakistani Taliban, an organization that serves primarily two purposes. First, to preserve the tribal areas of Pakistan's northwest frontier, an area Pakistan has never been able to control even under Musharraf, by countering the efforts of the Pakistani army and its paramilitary forces. Second, to serve the interests of the Afghan Taliban and al Qa'ida.
The turmoil in Pakistan is an unintended consequence of the war in Afghanistan, a work still in progress after seven years, and a military endeavor plagued with strategic and tactical miscues, some that boggle the mind. Obviously, I will be returning to that thought in one particular sense. With tongue in cheek I will not be referencing the massive redistribution of forces from a righteous war in Afghanistan to an unrighteous one in Iraq.
The Independent's screaming subtitle in bold print said it all, "A spiraling conflict, economic collapse and blackouts threaten anarchy with far-reaching implications." The Independent reported that "... a major military offensive to root out Taliban militants has created a flood of up to 200,000 refugees and pitched Pakistani against Pakistani, Muslim against Muslim, in a conflict some are beginning to regard as a civil war." The paper added, "A new US intelligence estimate meanwhile has warned that the renewed insurgency, coupled with energy shortages and political infighting, means that Pakistan, which is the only Muslim nation with nuclear weapons, is 'on the edge.' Suicide bombs have become a near-daily occurrence. There have been more than 100 since July 2007, killing around 1,200 people. In 2006, there were just six such attacks. A report by the Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency suggested that in the first eight months of the year, more people were killed by suicide bombers in Pakistan than in Iraq or Afghanistan."
The article made vital use of quotes by one Imran Khan. The article explained that Khan leads the marginal Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, and his views carry weight because of the strong moral stand he has taken in support of an independent judiciary and against endemic corruption, according to Pakistani analysts. Khan's statements provides a snapshot of Pakistan's woes. For the sake of a reader-friendly format, I will group them together.
"How does a country collapse?" the former cricketer asked. "There's increasing uncertainty, economic meltdown, more people on the street, inflation rising between 25 and 30 per cent. Then there's the rupee falling. The awful thing is there's no solution in sight - neither in the war on terror nor on the economic side." Mr. Khan claimed that the US-led "war on terror" had led to "approximately one million" men taking up arms in the tribal areas. "The total al-Qa'ida who were supposed to be in Pakistan were 800 to 1,200 people. This is the biggest gift of George Bush to al-Qa'ida, what he's done there," said Mr. Khan. "It's like a factory of terror, it's producing terrorists, radicalizing our society, pushing those people who had nothing to do with al-Qa'ida or Taliban into the arms of militancy and opposing the Americans and the Pakistan army," he said. Lt Col Haider Baseer, a military spokesman, explained that the mountainous northwest frontier had developed into a culture of the gun. "Everybody carries a gun. It's the culture."
Which brings me to another place, another time. The place, Tora Bora. The time, December, 2001. Tora Bora (Pashto for black dust) is a cave complex located in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan, near the legendary Khyber Pass, a supply route that goes back for centuries. Tora Bora was used as a base of operations by the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980's. Intelligence determined in December 2001 that it was the hideout for Osama bin Laden and the al-Qa'ida leadership.
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Up this point, the war in Afghanistan had gone exceedingly well for the NATO forces. The Taliban regime had been pushed from the northern half of the country, and Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan were about to fall. The most crucial battle, however, was yet to come. The results of the Battle of Tora Bora would be felt for years to come. Indeed, the U.S., other members of the NATO force, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are still reeling from the aftermath of this engagement.
When Kabul fell on Nov. 12, bin Laden and his forces were located at Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, a long-time base of his operations. He marshaled his forces together and set out for Tora Bora, 30 miles to the southeast of Jalalabad. NATO forces were behind him and bombs were falling on his forces and in front of him. On Nov.16, al-Qa'ida and Taliban forces invested the trenches, caves, and dugouts of Tora Bora, and the bombing of the base intensified. At some point, bin Laden apologized to his followers for causing their doom. It did not appear that they would be able to escape from their fortress, and they would die there.
Incredibly, the NATO forces who had accomplished so much in such a short period of time were called off. The only exception being special forces who were tasked with calling in air strikes. Army Col. Rick Thomas of the US Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, Fla., explained it in this way to bewildered commanders in Afghanistan. "We looked at the entire spectrum of options that we had available to us and decided that the use of small liaison elements were the most appropriate." He added, "We chose to fight using the Afghans who were fighting to regain their own country. Our aims of eliminating al-Qa'ida were similar." So it would seem to a colonel ensconced in Florida. One of the worst mistakes a military force can make is to remove tactical decisions from the commander on the battlefield. The enormous firepower of the ground troops of NATO would not be used at Tora Bora.
Subsequently, the U.S. began enlisting the aid of the local warlords, two of whom were Hazret Ali and Haji Zaman Ghamsharik. From the very start, these two warlords did not like each other, and the rifts between them would seriously hinder efforts to capture or annihilate the al-Qa'ida leadership. Ghamsharik referred to the near illiterate Ali as a peasant and resented sharing power with him. Afghan leaders talked about asking the Arabs to leave, not fight them. Strategy on how to take Tora Bora was left up to the warlords, and they rarely agreed on anything. Perhaps, the shouting and fierce arguments during "tactical discussions" had something to do with this.
To put a merciful end to this tale of a military debacle with catastrophic results, as everyone knows bin Laden and the al-Qa'ida leadership were not captured or killed at Tora Bora. Eventually, Tora Bora was taken largely because the bulk of the defenders had left the place, leaving behind only a rear guard to fight a delaying action to enable others to escape. They searched the caves, bunkers, and outposts, and, of course, no sign of bin Laden and his cohorts. He had escaped to the east, to Pakistan. Thus began the downfall of Pakistan and its current woes as described above.
"Maybe the only lesson that is applicable is: whenever you use local forces, they have local agendas," stated one senior Western diplomat. "You had better know what those are so that if it is not a reasonable match - at least it is not a contradiction."
Was there one man who made the decision not to deploy NATO forces led by the U.S. to take down Tora Bora? If so, in light of subsequent events his name should be spoken only in hell. Was it General Tommy Franks, CENCOM commander and commanding general in Afghanistan? Perhaps, but I have my doubts, and why in the world was a tactical decision for Afghanistan made in Tampa? Was the decision made by those over Franks, civilian leaders, perhaps, men like SecDef Rumsfeld or President Bush?
Years later, Gareth Porter presents a different interpretation on the events at Tora Bora. Not surprisingly, he blames Bush. "New evidence from former U.S. officials reveals that the George W. Bush administration failed to adopt any plan to block the retreat of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the first weeks after 9/11." Not unlike Franks, I have my doubts, but there are collateral statements by Porter that offer more insight into what actually happened at Tora Bora. Porter continues, "During the summer of 2001, Rumsfeld had refused to develop contingency plans for military action against al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan despite a National Security Presidential Directive." Porter then states, "Even after Sep. 11, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney continued to resist any military engagement in Afghanistan, because they were hoping for war against Iraq instead." He then adds, "Cheney and Rumsfeld pushed for a quick victory in Afghanistan in NSC meetings in October, as recounted by both Woodward and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. Lost in the eagerness to wrap up the Taliban and get on with the Iraq War was any possibility of preventing bin Laden's escape to Pakistan."
Again I ask, who was that one man who made the calamitous decision to call off the U.S.-led NATO forces at Tora Bora? It is easy to blame Bush - he has been blamed for just about everything else, perhaps justifiably in some cases - however, ordinarily, Presidents do not involve themselves in tactical decisions, only strategic ones. I am forced to conclude the disastrous decisions at Tora Bora were made by committee.
Here is what is known. In late Nov. to early Dec. 2001, bin Laden, al-Qa'ida leadership and fighters, and remnants of the Taliban forces were entrenched at Tora Bora. There were over 40,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, and Tora Bora was essentially the last battle. Put a different way, this force could have been massed around this fortress. Combined with unrestricted air power, such a force of ground troops and close air support would have been overwhelming. Escape seemed remote. Something bin Laden knew, prompting his apology to his followers.
On the other hand, a frontal assault on the Tora Bora citadel would have resulted in hundreds of NATO casualties, a prospect that Franks, aware of plans for an imminent attack on Iraq, would like to avoid. The same could be said for Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and, ultimately, Bush. The enemy was vanquished and retreating. In the face of the looming invasion of Iraq, why suffer such casualties? The American public would not be pleased. We are not even asked to sacrifice. Bush launched two wars and we get tax cuts. Lately, in war, it seems American soldiers are not supposed to die for their country. The other fella is, for his country. Thus, send in the Afghans, even if they are a totally ineffectual bunch. After all, it's their country. So went the logic of defeat. In the background, American troops were engaged in one war while Washington was contemplating another, more serious, war. That's is pure folly, and a recipe for defeat. As a consequence, no sane commander, military or civilian, wanted American troops to attack a near impregnable fortress.
History provides countless examples of such assaults. Such examples, each from WWII, may include Monte Cassino in Italy, Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, and Normandy, France. In each case, the Allies were victorious. In each case, in terms of casualties, there was a grim price to pay for the victors. A prudent commander weighs the immediate versus the future. A prudent commander weighs the immediate loss of his beloved troops with the failure of even trying due to unacceptable losses in his mind's eye. He must weigh unimaginable consequences for failure to even try. As an example, try to imagine the consequences of not trying to storm the beaches at Normandy in June 1944 due to anticipated losses of such an endeavor. Put a different way, had NATO assaulted Tora Bora and eliminated the al-Qa'ida force, to include bin Laden and his inner circle, along with the remnants of the Taliban forces, NATO losses would have been miniscule as compared to the losses the region has suffered over the past seven years of endless war because those forces were allowed to escape. Al-Qa'ida of Mesopotamia, an organization that did not exist prior to Bush's invasion of Iraq, is a case in point. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan seem to have no end. Much of this is attributable to the events at Tora Bora.
Today, we now live with consequences of the decisions made at Tora Bora. By all estimates, al-Qa'ida is as strong as ever, more diverse and infinitely smarter. The Taliban is resurgent, ruling much of Afghanistan in the face of an extremely weak U.S.-sponsored central government under President Hamid Karzai, who controls nothing outside of his capital of Kabul. Arguably, he does not even control events inside of Kabul.
Worse, far worse, al-Qa'ida and Taliban forces now infest Pakistan, a nation equipped with nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. Imagine the horror of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, who care nothing about anyone or anything outside of their closed ideology, gaining control of such weapons. That is a strong possibility considering the chaos in Pakistan today. President Obama faces many difficult challenges with a depleted treasury and a staggering National Debt. At the forefront, however, should be Pakistan and working with this vital and troubled nation. We might begin by not attacking Pakistan again.
As I researched for this article I became troubled. My feeling of betrayal concerning this engagement was reinforced. More succinctly, America was betrayed by our civilian and military leaders in a battle that truly represents an ignominious defeat and a broken promise. "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him." President George W. Bush, Sept. 13, 2001.
The crisis in Pakistan today began with the decisions made at a place called Tora Bora. "The total al-Qa'ida who were supposed to be in Pakistan were 800 to 1,200 people. This is the biggest gift of George Bush to al-Qa'ida, what he's done there. It's like a factory of terror, it's producing terrorists, radicalizing our society, pushing those people who had nothing to do with al-Qa'ida or Taliban into the arms of militancy and opposing the Americans and the Pakistan army."
According to a recent BBC poll, a mere 19% of Pakistanis had negative views regarding al-Qa'ida. In a word, that is frightening.