In December, 2001, a small group of U.S. special operations forces had al Qaeda's main man cornered in Tora Bora. Days later, he crossed the border into Pakistan unnoticed. Here is the story of the White House policy that let him get away.
- By Annie LowreyAnnie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.
On Oct. 7, 2001, U.S. aircraft began bombing the training bases and strongholds of al Qaeda and the ruling Taliban across Afghanistan. The leaders who sent murderers to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon less than a month earlier and the rogue government that provided them sanctuary were running for their lives. President George W. Bush’s expression of America’s desire to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" seemed about to come true.
Three months later, American civilian and military leaders celebrated what they viewed as a lasting victory with the selection of Hamid Karzai as the country’s new leader. The war had been conceived as a swift campaign with a single objective: defeat the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda by capturing or killing bin Laden and other key leaders. A unique combination of airpower, Central Intelligence Agency and special operations forces teams, and indigenous allies had swept the Taliban from power and ousted al Qaeda from its safe haven, keeping American deaths to a minimum. But even in the initial glow, there were concerns: The mission had failed to capture or kill bin Laden.
Removing the al Qaeda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat. But the failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism, leaving the American people more vulnerable to terrorism, laying the foundation for today’s protracted Afghan insurgency, and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan.
This failure and its enormous consequences were not inevitable. By early December, bin Laden’s world had shrunk to a complex of caves and tunnels carved into a mountainous section of eastern Afghanistan known as Tora Bora. Cornered in some of the most forbidding terrain on Earth, he and several hundred of his men, the largest concentration of al Qaeda fighters, endured as many as 100 airstrikes a day. One 15,000-pound bomb, so huge it had to be rolled out the back of a C-130 cargo plane, shook the mountains for miles. Even bin Laden himself expected to die. He wrote his last will and testament on Dec. 14, instructing his wives not to remarry and apologizing to his children for devoting himself to jihad. But the al Qaeda leader would live to fight another day. On or around Dec. 16, 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.
What happened in Tora Bora? A major with the Army’s Delta Force, now retired and writing under the pen name Dalton Fury, was the senior U.S. military officer there, commanding about 90 special operations troops and support personnel charged with hunting down and capturing or killing bin Laden.
In interviews with committee staff, Fury explained that al Qaeda fighters arrayed in the mountains used unsecure radios, allowing U.S. forces to eavesdrop on al Qaeda, tracking their movements and gauging the effectiveness of the bombing. Even more valuable, a few days after arriving, one of the CIA operatives picked up a radio from a dead al Qaeda fighter. It gave the Americans a clear channel into the group’s communications on the mountain. Bin Laden’s voice was often picked up, along with frequent comments about the presence of the man referred to by his followers as "the sheikh."
For several days in early December, Fury’s special ops troops moved up the mountains in pairs with fighters from the Afghan militias. The Americans used GPS devices and laser range finders to pinpoint caves and pockets of enemy fighters for the bombers. It was clear from what they could see and what they were hearing in the intercepted conversations that relentless bombing was taking its toll.
On December 9, a C-130 cargo plane dropped the 15,000-pound bomb, known as a Daisy Cutter, on the Tora Bora complex. The weapon had not been used since Vietnam and there were early fears that its impact had not been as great as expected. But later reports confirmed that the bomb struck with massive force. A captured al Qaeda fighter who was there later told American interrogators that men deep in caves had been vaporized in what he called "a hideous explosion." That day and others, Fury described intercepting radio communications in which al Qaeda fighters called for the "red truck to move wounded" and frantic pleas from a fighter to his commander.
Given the radio signals, Fury hoped his special operations forces were getting close to capture. They were not. The United States was relying on two relatively minor warlords from the Jalalabad area for Afghan support. Haji Hazarat Ali had a fourth-grade education and a reputation as a bully. He had fought the Soviets as a teenager in the 1980s and later joined the Taliban for a time. The other, Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, was a wealthy drug smuggler who had been persuaded by the United States to return from France. Together, they fielded a force of about 2,000 men, and there were questions from the outset about the competence and loyalties of the fighters. The two warlords and their men distrusted each other and both groups appeared to distrust their American allies.
Those concerns were underscored each time the Afghans insisted on retreating from the mountains as darkness fell. But the suspicions were confirmed by events that started on the afternoon of Dec. 11, a day U.S. forces heard bin Laden tell his men it was OK to surrender. Ghamsharik approached Fury and told him that al Qaeda fighters wanted to give up. He said all they needed to end the siege was a 12-hour ceasefire to allow the fighters to climb down the mountains and turn in their weapons. Intercepted radio chatter seemed to confirm that the fighters had lost their resolve under the relentless bombing, but Fury remained suspicious.
The U.S. Special Operations Command official history records that Centcom refused to back the ceasefire, suspecting a ruse, but it said the special ops forces agreed reluctantly to an overnight pause in the bombing to avoid killing any surrendering fighters. Ghamsharik negotiated by radio with representatives of al Qaeda. He initially told Fury that a large number of Algerians wanted to surrender. Then he said that he could turn over the entire al Qaeda leadership. Fury’s suspicions increased with each bold promise. By the morning of Dec. 12, no al Qaeda fighters had appeared and the Delta Force commander concluded that the whole episode was a hoax. Intelligence estimates are that as many as 800 al Qaeda fighters escaped that night — but not bin Laden.
Despite the unreliability of his Afghan allies, Fury refused to give up and started plotting ways his forces could go at bin Laden on their own. One plan was to corner bin Laden from a direction he wouldn’t anticipate — through the back door. The peaks to the south rose to 14,000 feet and the valleys and precipitous mountain passes were already deep in snow. "The original plan that we sent up through our higher headquarters, Delta Force wants to come in over the mountain with oxygen, coming from the Pakistan side," he explained. "Over the mountains and come in and get a drop on bin Laden from behind."
The audacious assault was nixed somewhere up the chain of command. Undeterred, Fury suggested dropping hundreds of landmines along the passes leading to Pakistan to block bin Laden’s escape. "First guy blows his leg off, everybody else stops," he said. "That allows aircraft overhead to find them. They see all these heat sources out there. OK, there is a big large group of al Qaeda moving south. They can engage that." That proposal was rejected, too.
From the outset of the invasion and bin Laden operation, according to former CIA Director George Tenet, it was evident that aerial bombing would not be enough to get bin Laden at Tora Bora. Henry Crumpton, the head of special operations for the CIA’s counterterrorism operation, for instance, had made entreaties for more troops to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks long before December. Crumpton even urged Franks to move 1,000 Marines from Kandahar to the "back door" into Tora Bora and briefed Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on the need for a greater presence on the ground. But Centcom rejected these ideas, saying it would take too long to get a large enough U.S. contingent on the scene.
On Dec. 14, the day bin Laden finished his will, Dalton Fury finally convinced Ali and his men to stay overnight in one of the canyons that they had captured during daylight. Over the next three days, the Afghan militia and their American advisers moved steadily through the canyons, calling in airstrikes and taking out lingering pockets of fighters. The resistance seemed to have vanished, prompting Ali to declare victory on Dec. 17. Most of the Tora Bora complex was abandoned and many of the caves and tunnels were buried in debris. Only about 20 stragglers were taken prisoner. The consensus was that al Qaeda fighters who had survived the fierce bombing had escaped into Pakistan or melted into the local population. Bin Laden was nowhere to be found. Two days later, Fury and his Delta Force colleagues left Tora Bora, hoping that someone would eventually find bin Laden buried in one of the caves.
There was no body because bin Laden did not die at Tora Bora. Later U.S. intelligence reports and accounts by journalists and others said that he and a contingent of bodyguards departed Tora Bora on Dec. 16. With help from Afghans and Pakistanis who had been paid in advance, the group made its way on foot and horseback across the mountain passes and into Pakistan without encountering any resistance.
The ultimate fault for the failure to capture bin Laden lies not in the U.S. effort, but in the U.S. strategy. Franks and Rumsfeld decided to attempt to deliver a swift and economical knockout blow to the Taliban through airpower and the limited application of troops on the ground. Instead of employing the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force, the Afghan model for Operation Enduring Freedom depended on airpower and on highly mobile paramilitary teams, working in concert with opposition warlords and tribal leaders. Franks capped the number of boots on the ground at 10,000.
For this reason — the relative scarcity of U.S. soldiers — Franks and Rumsfeld refused to send more troops to Tora Bora to block, capture, or kill bin Laden. But soldiers and scholars alike have since argued that there were sufficient troops available in Afghanistan and nearby Uzbekistan to mount a genuine assault on bin Laden’s position at Tora Bora. And they could have been augmented within about a week by reinforcements from the Persian Gulf and the United States.
Peter Krause provides the most detailed description of this untaken option — a "block and sweep" — in an article in Security Studies, "The Last Good Chance: A Reassessment of U.S. Operations at Tora Bora." The plan is simple enough: One group of American forces would have blocked the likely exit avenues to Pakistan on the south side of Tora Bora. A second contingent would have moved against al Qaeda’s positions from the north. The assault would not have required thousands of conventional forces; in fact, a large number of troops would have taken too long to deploy and alerted al Qaeda to the approaching attack. The preferred choice would have been a small, agile force capable of deploying quickly and quietly and trained to operate in difficult terrain against unconventional enemies. The U.S. military has large numbers of soldiers and Marines who meet those criteria: Delta Forces, Green Berets, Navy Seals, Marine special operations units, Army Rangers, and paratroopers.
In all, an initial force of roughly 2,000 to 3,000 troops would have been sufficient to begin the block-and-sweep mission, with reinforcements following as time and circumstances allowed. Franks had set the ceiling of 10,000 U.S. troops to maintain a light footprint. Still, within that number there were enough ready and willing to go after bin Laden. In late November, about the time U.S. intelligence placed bin Laden squarely at Tora Bora, more than 1,000 members of the 15th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units, among the military’s most mobile arms, established a base southwest of Kandahar, only a few hours flight away. They were primarily interdicting traffic and supporting the special operations teams working with Afghan militias. Another 1,000 troops from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division were split between a base in southern Uzbekistan and Bagram Air Base, a short helicopter flight from Tora Bora. The Army troops were engaged mainly in military police functions, according to reports at the time.
Ironically, one of the guiding principles of the Afghan model was to avoid immersing the United States in a protracted insurgency by sending in too many troops and stirring up anti-American sentiment. In the end, the unwillingness to bend the operational plan to deploy the troops required to take advantage of solid intelligence and unique circumstances to kill or capture bin Laden paved the way for exactly what we had hoped to avoid: a protracted insurgency that has cost more lives than anyone estimates would have been lost in a full-blown assault on Tora Bora.
Bin Laden’s demise would not have erased the worldwide threat from extremists. But the failure to kill or capture him has allowed bin Laden to exert a malign influence over events in the region and nearly 60 countries where his followers have established extremist groups. History shows that terrorist groups are invariably much stronger with their charismatic leaders than without them, and the ability of bin Laden and his terrorist organization to recover from the loss of their Afghan sanctuary reinforces the lesson.
Eight years after its expulsion from Afghanistan, al Qaeda has reconstituted itself and bin Laden has survived to inspire a new generation of extremists who have adopted and adapted the al Qaeda doctrine and are now capable of attacking from any number of places. The impact of this threat is greatest in Pakistan, the United States’ nuclear-armed ally, where al Qaeda’s continued presence and resources have emboldened domestic extremists waging an increasingly bloody insurrection. Closer to home, the Federal Bureau of Investigation says two recent suspected plots disrupted by U.S. authorities involved long-time residents of the United States who had traveled to Pakistan and trained at bases affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Plus, the costs to the United States — human and financial — have been staggering. The first eight years cost an estimated $243 billion and about $70 billion has been appropriated for the current fiscal year, not including President Barack Obama’s 30,000 troop increase. But the highest price is being paid on a daily basis in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where 68,000 American troops and hundreds of U.S. civilians are engaged in the ninth year of a protracted conflict and the Afghan people endure a third decade of violence. So far, about 950 U.S. troops and nearly 600 allied soldiers have lost their lives in Operation Enduring Freedom, a conflict in which the outcome remains in grave doubt in large part because the extremists behind the violence were not eliminated in 2001.