Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed To Get Bin Laden

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 11 months ago

The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has published a report entitled Tora Bora: How We Failed To Get Bin Laden and Why it Matters Today.  I didn’t read much of it, but let’s rehearse a bit of the executive summary.

Bin Laden expected to die. His last will and testament, written on December 14, reflected his fatalism. ‘‘Allah commended to us that when death approaches any of us that we make a bequest to parents and next of kin and to Muslims as a whole,’’ he wrote, according to a copy of the will that surfaced later and is regarded as authentic. ‘‘Allah bears witness that the love of jihad and death in the cause of Allah has dominated my life and the verses of the sword permeated every cell in my heart, ‘and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together.’ How many times did I wake up to find myself reciting this holy verse!’’ He instructed his wives not to remarry and apologized to his children for devoting himself to jihad.

But the Al Qaeda leader would live to fight another day. Fewer than 100 American commandos were on the scene with their Afghan allies and calls for reinforcements to launch an assault were rejected. Requests were also turned down for U.S. troops to block the mountain paths leading to sanctuary a few miles away in Pakistan. The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines. Instead, the U.S. command chose to rely on airstrikes and untrained Afghan militias to attack bin Laden and on Pakistan’s loosely organized Frontier Corps to seal his escape routes. On or around December 16, two days after writing his will, bin Laden and an entourage of bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area. Most analysts say he is still there today.

The decision not to deploy American forces to go after bin Laden or block his escape was made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, the architects of the unconventional Afghan battle plan known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Rumsfeld said at the time that he was concerned that too many U.S. troops in Afghanistan would create an anti-American backlash and fuel a widespread insurgency. Reversing the recent American military orthodoxy known as the Powell doctrine, the Afghan model emphasized minimizing the U.S. presence by relying on small, highly mobile teams of special operations troops and CIA paramilitary operatives working with the Afghan opposition. Even when his own commanders and senior intelligence officials in Afghanistan and Washington argued for dispatching more U.S. troops, Franks refused to deviate from the plan. There were enough U.S. troops in or near Afghanistan to execute the classic sweep-and-block maneuver required to attack bin Laden and try to prevent his escape. It would have been a dangerous fight across treacherous terrain, and the injection of more U.S. troops and the resulting casualties would have contradicted the risk-averse, ‘‘light footprint’’ model formulated by Rumsfeld and Franks.

But commanders on the scene and elsewhere in Afghanistan argued that the risks were worth the reward. After bin Laden’s escape, some military and intelligence analysts and the press criticized the Pentagon’s failure to mount a full-scale attack despite the tough rhetoric by President Bush. Franks, Vice President Dick Cheney and others defended the decision, arguing that the intelligence was inconclusive about the Al Qaeda leader’s location. But the review of existing literature, unclassified government records and interviews with central participants underlying this report removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.

This has limited usefulness because I already said it.

Air Force special operators with satellite uplinks guiding JDAMS to target, CIA operatives making shady deals with halfway reliable (or all the way unreliable) allies, Delta Force operators in the background, gizmos, gadgets and thingamajigs, tribal elements in the foreground, minute-by-minute radio communications on the whereabouts of UBL, and cloak-and-dagger secrecy after the fact … it all makes for interesting television, civilian amazement, and even more honest books about the abject failure of the Rumsfeld strategy in Afghanistan.

Marines are always in ready reserve, and if their forces needed supplementing, the 82nd or 101st Airborne should have been able to respond to the need of the moment. There is absolutely no replacement for infantry, and in this case, terrain control, interdiction and authority over transit was the solution to the problem. Infantry could have provided this, special forces could not. We let UBL escape, and it was not the fault of special forces. It was Rumsfeld’s fault. It was a strategic blunder.

It isn’t a reflection on their specialized billets, their capabilities or their commitment. It’s a function of force projection. Special forces cannot supply the force projection necessary to win counterinsurgencies. Only infantry can do this. This is what we learn when we put aside the sophomoric posturing over who’s special and who isn’t.

To be sure, the capture or killing of Bin Laden wouldn’t even have come close to ending the transnational insurgency called Islamic Jihad, but at least as regards Bin Laden, to the extent to which the Senate findings comport with our own, they are correct.

  • DesertPete45

    How do you know he is alive??????????

  • Herschel Smith

    Great question! I don’t, and don’t claim to. But we did during the fight at Tora Bora. That’s the issue. If we had wanted to get UBL, then that would have been the time to do it.

    BTW, I know that a number of other bloggers have weighed in today on this same issue, and see it (the Senate report) as yet another attempt to blame the Bush administration. I think that this is an irrelevant point, and while Senator Kerry is certainly is a less than serious thinker about anything at all, my problems with Rumsfeld are well known:

    Also as I might point out about this post, it isn’t any different than anything else I have advocated here: more Marines, more force projection, unrestrictive ROE, and less reliance on the perceived super-Ninjas (SOF) to do the job only infantry can do.

    Finally, I would point out the duplicity in this Senate report. The Dems are always the ones demanding larger and larger SOF along with more reliance on them to do the job of infantry.

    Now that it’s convenient to claim otherwise they do. But hackishness and duplicity doesn’t mean that they didn’t get it right, even if their motives were wrong. It also doesn’t mean that the rest of the report is worth anything. I don’t claim this as I didn’t read the rest of the report.

You are currently reading "Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed To Get Bin Laden", entry #4256 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Special Forces,UBL and was published November 29th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

26th MEU (10)
Abu Muqawama (12)
ACOG (2)
ACOGs (1)
Afghan National Army (36)
Afghan National Police (17)
Afghanistan (677)
Afghanistan SOFA (4)
Agriculture in COIN (3)
AGW (1)
Air Force (31)
Air Power (9)
al Qaeda (83)
Ali al-Sistani (1)
America (7)
Ammunition (23)
Animals in War (4)
Ansar al Sunna (15)
Anthropology (3)
Antonin Scalia (1)
AR-15s (71)
Arghandab River Valley (1)
Arlington Cemetery (2)
Army (44)
Assassinations (2)
Assault Weapon Ban (26)
Australian Army (5)
Azerbaijan (4)
Backpacking (2)
Badr Organization (8)
Baitullah Mehsud (21)
Basra (17)
BATFE (51)
Battle of Bari Alai (2)
Battle of Wanat (17)
Battle Space Weight (3)
Bin Laden (7)
Blogroll (2)
Blogs (6)
Body Armor (17)
Books (2)
Border War (7)
Brady Campaign (1)
Britain (27)
British Army (35)
Camping (4)
Canada (2)
Castle Doctrine (1)
Caucasus (6)
Center For a New American Security (8)
Charity (3)
China (10)
Christmas (8)
CIA (12)
Civilian National Security Force (3)
Col. Gian Gentile (9)
Combat Outposts (3)
Combat Video (2)
Concerned Citizens (6)
Constabulary Actions (3)
Coolness Factor (2)
COP Keating (4)
Corruption in COIN (4)
Council on Foreign Relations (1)
Counterinsurgency (215)
DADT (2)
David Rohde (1)
Defense Contractors (2)
Department of Defense (124)
Department of Homeland Security (13)
Disaster Preparedness (2)
Distributed Operations (5)
Dogs (6)
Drone Campaign (3)
EFV (3)
Egypt (12)
El Salvador (1)
Embassy Security (1)
Enemy Spotters (1)
Expeditionary Warfare (17)
F-22 (2)
F-35 (1)
Fallujah (17)
Far East (3)
Fathers and Sons (1)
Favorite (1)
Fazlullah (3)
FBI (3)
Featured (176)
Federal Firearms Laws (17)
Financing the Taliban (2)
Firearms (486)
Football (1)
Force Projection (35)
Force Protection (4)
Force Transformation (1)
Foreign Policy (27)
Fukushima Reactor Accident (6)
Ganjgal (1)
Garmsir (1)
general (14)
General Amos (1)
General James Mattis (1)
General McChrystal (40)
General McKiernan (6)
General Rodriguez (3)
General Suleimani (7)
Georgia (19)
Google (1)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1)
Gun Control (417)
Guns (981)
Guns In National Parks (3)
Haditha Roundup (10)
Haiti (2)
Haqqani Network (9)
Hate Mail (7)
Hekmatyar (1)
Heroism (4)
Hezbollah (12)
High Capacity Magazines (11)
High Value Targets (9)
Homecoming (1)
Homeland Security (1)
Horses (1)
Humor (13)
ICOS (1)
IEDs (7)
Immigration (46)
India (10)
Infantry (3)
Information Warfare (2)
Infrastructure (2)
Intelligence (22)
Intelligence Bulletin (6)
Iran (169)
Iraq (378)
Iraq SOFA (23)
Islamic Facism (39)
Islamists (64)
Israel (18)
Jaish al Mahdi (21)
Jalalabad (1)
Japan (2)
Jihadists (80)
John Nagl (5)
Joint Intelligence Centers (1)
JRTN (1)
Kabul (1)
Kajaki Dam (1)
Kamdesh (9)
Kandahar (12)
Karachi (7)
Kashmir (2)
Khost Province (1)
Khyber (11)
Knife Blogging (2)
Korea (4)
Korengal Valley (3)
Kunar Province (20)
Kurdistan (3)
Language in COIN (5)
Language in Statecraft (1)
Language Interpreters (2)
Lashkar-e-Taiba (2)
Law Enforcement (3)
Lawfare (6)
Leadership (5)
Lebanon (6)
Leon Panetta (2)
Let Them Fight (2)
Libya (14)
Lines of Effort (3)
Littoral Combat (8)
Logistics (49)
Long Guns (1)
Lt. Col. Allen West (2)
Marine Corps (240)
Marines in Bakwa (1)
Marines in Helmand (67)
Marjah (4)
Media (23)
Memorial Day (2)
Mexican Cartels (23)
Mexico (30)
Michael Yon (5)
Micromanaging the Military (7)
Middle East (1)
Military Blogging (26)
Military Contractors (3)
Military Equipment (24)
Militia (3)
Mitt Romney (3)
Monetary Policy (1)
Moqtada al Sadr (2)
Mosul (4)
Mountains (14)
MRAPs (1)
Mullah Baradar (1)
Mullah Fazlullah (1)
Mullah Omar (3)
Musa Qala (4)
Music (16)
Muslim Brotherhood (6)
Nation Building (2)
National Internet IDs (1)
National Rifle Association (17)
NATO (15)
Navy (21)
Navy Corpsman (1)
NCOs (3)
News (1)
NGOs (2)
Nicholas Schmidle (2)
Now Zad (19)
NSA (1)
NSA James L. Jones (6)
Nuclear (53)
Nuristan (8)
Obama Administration (216)
Offshore Balancing (1)
Operation Alljah (7)
Operation Khanjar (14)
Ossetia (7)
Pakistan (165)
Paktya Province (1)
Palestine (5)
Patriotism (6)
Patrolling (1)
Pech River Valley (11)
Personal (31)
Petraeus (14)
Pictures (1)
Piracy (13)
Pistol (2)
Police (217)
Police in COIN (3)
Policy (15)
Politics (249)
Poppy (2)
PPEs (1)
Prisons in Counterinsurgency (12)
Project Gunrunner (20)
PRTs (1)
Qatar (1)
Quadrennial Defense Review (2)
Quds Force (13)
Quetta Shura (1)
RAND (3)
Recommended Reading (14)
Refueling Tanker (1)
Religion (108)
Religion and Insurgency (19)
Reuters (1)
Rick Perry (4)
Rifles (1)
Roads (4)
Rolling Stone (1)
Ron Paul (1)
ROTC (1)
Rules of Engagement (74)
Rumsfeld (1)
Russia (28)
Sabbatical (1)
Sangin (1)
Saqlawiyah (1)
Satellite Patrols (2)
Saudi Arabia (4)
Scenes from Iraq (1)
Second Amendment (161)
Second Amendment Quick Hits (2)
Secretary Gates (9)
Sharia Law (3)
Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahiden (1)
SIIC (2)
Sirajuddin Haqqani (1)
Small Wars (72)
Snipers (9)
Sniveling Lackeys (2)
Soft Power (4)
Somalia (8)
Sons of Afghanistan (1)
Sons of Iraq (2)
Special Forces (24)
Squad Rushes (1)
State Department (17)
Statistics (1)
Sunni Insurgency (10)
Support to Infantry Ratio (1)
Supreme Court (2)
Survival (12)
SWAT Raids (53)
Syria (38)
Tactical Drills (1)
Tactical Gear (1)
Taliban (167)
Taliban Massing of Forces (4)
Tarmiyah (1)
TBI (1)
Technology (16)
Tehrik-i-Taliban (78)
Terrain in Combat (1)
Terrorism (92)
Thanksgiving (5)
The Anbar Narrative (23)
The Art of War (5)
The Fallen (1)
The Long War (20)
The Surge (3)
The Wounded (13)
Thomas Barnett (1)
Transnational Insurgencies (5)
Tribes (5)
TSA (13)
TSA Ineptitude (11)
TTPs (1)
U.S. Border Patrol (5)
U.S. Border Security (13)
U.S. Sovereignty (15)
UAVs (2)
UBL (4)
Ukraine (3)
Uncategorized (42)
Universal Background Check (3)
Unrestricted Warfare (4)
USS Iwo Jima (2)
USS San Antonio (1)
Uzbekistan (1)
V-22 Osprey (4)
Veterans (2)
Vietnam (1)
War & Warfare (210)
War & Warfare (40)
War Movies (3)
War Reporting (18)
Wardak Province (1)
Warriors (6)
Waziristan (1)
Weapons and Tactics (57)
West Point (1)
Winter Operations (1)
Women in Combat (17)
WTF? (1)
Yemen (1)

October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006

about · archives · contact · register

Copyright © 2006-2016 Captain's Journal. All rights reserved.