T Nation

The Tora Bora Claim

Kerry brought it up again last night – this is annoying. I wish Bush would say something to correct the record, but I guess he figures it’s better to let the generals speak for themselves:

Tora Bora Baloney

October 14, 2004; Page A18

As John Kerry tells it, Tora Bora is the place where President Bush let Osama bin Laden get away. In the candidate’s oft-repeated formulation, the al Qaeda leader was “surrounded” and escaped only because the president “outsourced” the job of capturing him to Afghan warlords.

Well, that’s not the way the battle’s commanders remember it. The Afghanistan war was led by Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. Central Command, and his deputy, Lt. Gen. Michael “Rifle” DeLong. As it happens, both men, now retired, have books out that tell a different story. Nor are the ex-soldier and ex-Marine bashful about speaking out to correct the former Navy lieutenant. To them, Mr. Kerry’s version of the battle of Tora Bora is revisionist history.

Start with OBL. Gen. Franks, on the campaign trail in Florida for George W. Bush, this week, said it’s wrong to assume that bin Laden was hiding out in Tora Bora. Some intelligence reports put him there, he says, but others placed him in Pakistan, Kashmir or Iran – or at a lake 90 miles northwest of the Afghan city of Kandahar. Gen. DeLong concurs. “Was Osama bin Laden there?” he said in an interview. “I don’t know.”

The battle of Tora Bora took place in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan in late November and early December of 2001. Kabul had just fallen and a thousand or more al Qaeda leaders had fled to Tora Bora, where they holed up in the mountains’ vast network of caves. The cave complex was built in the 1980s as a sanctuary for the mujahedeen fighting the Soviets and was equipped with food, water, weapons, electricity and a ventilation system. Bin Laden used it as his headquarters in the mid-1990s. There were hundreds of tunnels, some many miles long, with exits over the border in Pakistan.

Afghanistan is full of rough country, and the jagged peaks of the Tora Bora area are about as rough as it gets – up to 13,000 feet and covered in snow and ice. “Surrounding” the area – in the sense of sealing it off – was impossible. If the U.S. had sent in a massive force, it would have run the risks of clashing with local tribesmen, killing civilians and alerting al Qaeda to the impending attack. Working with Afghan forces was “essential,” Gen. Franks has been quoted as saying. If U.S. forces had gone in alone, says Gen. DeLong, “arguably today we’d still be fighting in Afghanistan and there couldn’t have been a government.”

The U.S. commanders made the decision to embed a team of U.S. special forces and CIA agents into every Afghan unit. Like the Afghans, the Americans rode horses or, in the higher altitudes, walked. The special forces carried communications equipment that allowed them to talk to their commanders and to call in air power. Which they did with stunning effect – demolishing cave-openings and skipping bombs with delayed fuses deep inside. Hundreds of al Qaeda fighters died. No American life was lost.

No one disputes that some al Qaeda men got away, and it’s possible that bin Laden was among them. In his book, Gen. Franks says that Pakistan rounded up “hundreds” of al Qaeda fighters as they straggled over the border. But Pakistan’s frontier forces were susceptible both to bribes and al Qaeda’s ideology and some of the fighters got through.

Getting the Tora Bora story right is important because Mr. Kerry’s accusation goes to the heart of his broader charge against Mr. Bush – that he bungled the war in Afghanistan. It’s hard to be convincing on this point, when, less than three years later, 10 million Afghans have just gone to the polls in the first free election in their 5,000-year-old history. It’s even harder to see how sending in thousands of U.S. troops to secure Tora Bora would have helped win that war faster – even if it had resulted in bin Laden’s death or capture. Mr. Kerry’s criticism of the Tora Bora campaign also belies his promise to rely more on allies if he were commander in chief.

Meanwhile, if the U.S. has the good fortune to find bin Laden before Nov. 2, watch for Democrats to revive Madeleine Albright’s half-jest that the Bush administration captured him long ago and has been holding onto him for an October Surprise. President Bush has said we’ll get him eventually, dead or alive. As for me, my own hope is that bin Laden is buried somewhere under the rubble of Tora Bora – forever.

Ms. Kirkpatrick is associate editor of the Journal’s editorial page.

In Afghanistan, the number of boots on the ground isn’t what would win the war faster; it’s the quality and caliber of those hunting those cocksuckers down. Believe you me, a few groups of specialized and highly trained troops can do a lot more than a whole batallion in many situations…besides, the Rangers were there. What more could you ask for?? RLTW



I’d always figured Kerry was on relatively strong ground criticizing the “outsourced” approach at Tora Bora because he must have criticized it at the time. But Tom Maguire of JustOneMinute

has come up with a transcript of a “Larry King Live” broadcast on Dec. 14, 2001,
near the end of the battle,

in which (responding to a question about why we weren’t getting up in the caves and using “napalm or flamethrowers”) Kerry appears to actually endorse a play-it-safe approach:

"But for the moment, [b]what we are doing, I think, is having its impact and it is the best way to protect our troops and sort of minimalize the proximity, if you will. I think we have been doing this pretty effectively and we should continue to do it that way[/b]." [Emphasis added]

If anyone has evidence of real-time Kerry criticism of the Tora Bora strategy (which may well exist) I’ll be glad to reference it. … P.S.: In the same interview, Kerry generally praises the U.S.'s military strategy in Afghanistan, which heavily relied on proxies. (“I think we have been smart, I think the administration leadership has done it well and we are on right track.”) He certainly isn’t critical of the “outsourcing.” … Nor was this interview at the beginning of the Tora Bora battle, when its contours were unclear. It was near the end of the battle, more than a week after bin Laden (by some accounts
http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0304/p01s03-wosc.html ) had already escaped, at a time when even Donald Rumsfeld was having public doubts about our likely success. … 1:44 P.M.

One more general who was there sets Kerry straight:

Setting the Record Straight on Tora Bora

November 1, 2004; Page A15

In recent days, John Kerry has repeatedly accused President Bush of having “outsourced the job” in Tora Bora to kill Osama bin Laden. Knight Ridder reporters concluded that in Tora Bora we “relied on three Afghan warlords” to catch bin Laden, “ignored” warnings from our own officers about incorrect methodology, and that we also relied on the Afghan warlords as our blocking forces, thus letting more than 1,000 al Qaeda fighters escape. As the No. 2 general at CentCom in charge of the Afghanistan War, I can say with certainty that all of these allegations are incorrect. And it is past time someone set the record straight on what really happened in Tora Bora.

We strategized Tora Bora in essentially the same way we strategized the rest of the Afghanistan war: by using a combination of our elite Special Forces and CIA Agents, embedded with native Afghan troops. We chose this approach in waging the Afghan war for many reasons: it minimized the number of U.S. troops put in harm’s way; it drew on the strengths of the native Afghans who had been fighting in that terrain for years and who were adept at traversing the mountainous terrain on horseback; and it helped avoid the same mistake the Soviets made in Afghanistan. They had opted for a large troop presence and ended up with thousands of their troops killed.

The fact that we took Afghanistan in a matter of weeks – a feat which tens of thousands of Soviet troops were unable to accomplish in a matter of years – proves that our strategy was exactly the right approach for Afghanistan. This was essentially the same strategy we employed at Tora Bora. Thus, to say that we “outsourced” the job when we relied primarily on American Special Forces and American CIA agents is absurd.

This is especially the case in Tora Bora. I said “essentially” the same strategy because in Tora Bora we did shift tactics. Instead of letting the Afghan warlords have command (as they had for the rest of the Afghan war), we put U.S. Special Forces in command. These Special Forces conceived and executed the attack on Tora Bora, while the Afghan warlords took orders from us. We never “relied” on them: we were 100% in charge. Few people realize that Tora Bora began as a ground war, led by U.S. troops; bombing only followed later. Despite what some have said, no caves were too deep for our reach. We bombed nonstop for three weeks. We received many leads on bin Laden’s whereabouts, and had U.S. troops rush in only to find dry holes.

The Knight Ridder reporters claim that we let 1,200 U.S. Marines sit idly by in an air base 80 miles away from Tora Bora while the Afghans did the fighting for us. This is also not the case. Gen. Tommy Franks, working with the Special Forces commander and consulting with the secretary of defense, all agreed that tactically it would be best not to use those 1,200 troops. It was a deliberate decision, because using them would have meant killing hundreds – if not thousands – of Afghan civilians, hostile to a heavy U.S. presence. A strong Afghan warlord presence was essential. We could have sent more U.S. forces in and killed everybody – but we may very well still not have gotten bin Laden, and we would have definitely forever put the South at odds with us. Indeed, if we pursued such a strategy, the ramifications would be so great that it is quite possible there would be no stable Afghan government today.

The same holds true for the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where bin Laden likely escaped (if indeed he was there to begin with). The Knight Ridder reporters claim that we relied on the Afghan warlords to block the border for us. Again, this is incorrect. We relied on the Pakistani Frontier Forces – once again, because we had to. The U.S. could not go in to the border region with a heavier presence without sparking a war with the locals; indeed, the regular Pakistani army could not even go in there without sparking a war. The border area had to be blocked by Pakistani Frontier Forces if we didn’t want to risk murdering thousands of civilians and making Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s position untenable with his people. Such actions would have meant losing a strong U.S. ally in Gen. Musharraf, an ally who has facilitated the killing or capturing of the largest percentage of al Qaeda in the world since 9/11.

Finally, most people fail to realize that it is quite possible that bin Laden was never in Tora Bora to begin with. There exists no concrete intel to prove that he was there at the time. Most importantly, capturing bin Laden was not our No. 1 priority. Our mission was to topple the Taliban regime and rid Afghanistan of al Qaeda. If we caught bin Laden it would have been a major plus – but it was not our No. 1 objective.

One must remember that Tora Bora was a military operation and its execution was a tactical decision, which means that it was never run by the president, and never should have been – which makes this one less reason to hold the president directly accountable on this issue. If anyone should be accountable, it should be us. And we are more than satisfied with the way we handled the Afghan war – including Tora Bora. If we had to do it again, we’d do it exactly the same way.

Lt. Gen. Michael “Rifle” DeLong, former deputy commander of CentCom, is the author, with Noah Lukeman, of “Inside Centcom: The Unvarnished Truth About the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” just published by Regnery.