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
By MELANIE KIRKPATRICK
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.