As 9/11 and the subsequent wars move from our present to our past we’re seeing a battle over how those various interests want those events to be passed to history. Case in point is the battle of Tora Bora.
The argument centers around the question of whether the decision to deploy a ‘small footprint’ in Afghanistan allowed bin Laden to escape or allowed U.S. forces to advance as far and as fast as they did, pushing bin Laden out of the country quicker than anyone would have imagined.
Ricks asks someone who was involved in the operation who weighs in on the argument thus:
[Tora Bora] was indeed a terribly screwed up operation, but that Rumsfeld’s philosophy was the least of its problems. So he thinks Glasser’s facts are correct but not her conclusion, and Feaver’s analysis is correct but it misses what was really the lesson of this operation.
Adding a bit of light to the discussion is Peter Bergen‘s new piece in the pretentiously named ‘definitive account’. As in all these questions, the issue isn’t open to a simple either/or answer. It is clear however, that Tora Bora could have been run much better.
On the evening of December 3, one member of his team, a former Delta Force operator who had gone deep into Tora Bora, came to the Afghan capital to brief Berntsen about the lay of the land. He told Berntsen that taking out Al Qaeda’s hard core would require 800 Rangers… That night, Berntsen sent a lengthy message to CIA headquarters asking for 800 Rangers to assault the complex of caves where bin Laden and his lieutenants were believed to be hiding, and to block their escape routes. Crumpton says, “I remember the message. I remember talking not only to Gary every day, but to some of his men who were at Tora Bora. Directly. And their request could not have been more direct, more clear, more certain: that we needed U.S. troops there. More men on the ground.”
Yet, when Crumpton called General Tommy Franks to ask for more troops, Franks pushed back. The general, who had overall control of the Tora Bora operation, pointed out that the light-footprint approach…had already succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban, and he argued that it would take time to get more U.S. troops to Tora Bora.
It should be noted that bin Laden remained in Tora Bora for at least a further week, which should have been sufficient to get additional reinforcements to the area. We aren’t talking about a striker brigade here and there were forces nearby which could have been used which Bergen runs through.
But beyond that it may have been an overstretched CENTCOM and clueless Pentagon that may have contributed to taking the eye off the prize:
In late November, Donald Rumsfeld told Franks that Bush “wants us to look for options in Iraq.” Rumsfeld instructed the general to “dust off” the Pentagon’s blueprint for an Iraq invasion and brief him in a week’s time. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers would later write, “I realized that one week was not giving Tom and his staff much time to sharpen” the plan. Franks points out in his autobiography that his staff was already working seven days a week, 16-plus hours a day, as the Tora Bora battle was reaching its climax. Although Franks doesn’t say so, it is impossible not to wonder if the labor-intensive planning ordered by his boss for another major war was a distraction from the one he was already fighting.Franks briefed Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon officials about the war plan for Iraq on December 4. But both men agreed that the plan needed work. Rumsfeld gave Franks and his staff eight days to revise it. “Well, General,” he told Franks, “you have a lot of work ahead of you. Today is Tuesday. Let’s get together again next Wednesday.”
Demanding that your staff stay on top of one war and while planning the invasion and occupation (well, ok, we’ve established there wasn’t a whole lot occupation planning going on) and to have it done in a week or two while you’re closing in on the guy who was responsible for 9/11 seems a bit…reckless? Were we so shorthanded of capable military staff that we couldn’t have split some of that work?
Practically, I’m not sure bin Laden’s capture in November/December 2001 would have made much of a difference in how things have played out since then. Bush was intent on invading Iraq in any case and so Afghanistan was going to get neglected in any case. The Taliban didn’t need bin Laden to justify their existence so they’d still be around. I’m not sure if a bin Laden who died in the mountains of Tora Bora flush with his 9/11 triumph would have been more of a rallying cry for Islamic terrorists than the guy is now, becoming increasingly irrelevant as he impotently hides in the AfPak border region, reduced to sending out taped messages every once in a while that fewer and fewer people are listening to.
A captured bin Laden would have been a very different story but also highly unlikely.