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Monday morning generals and the Tora Bora critique

Monday morning generals and the Tora Bora critique

By Peter Feaver

It is not every day that one gets a chance to rattle the cage of the boss, so when I read the contribution from ForeignPolicy.com czarina Susan Glasser to the Washington Post‘s compilation of "worst ideas of the decade" I knew I had to respond — even if it means I can kiss my year-end bonus good-bye.

Glasser’s argument is the conventional wisdom, painstakingly assembled over years of partisan arm-chair generalship: if only the United States had deployed more ground troops into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, we may have killed or captured the al Qaeda leadership at Tora Bora. Grumbling about the Tora Bora mission could be heard within hours of the battle, but got much louder during the 2004 campaign when Senator Kerry made it a standard attack line. The failure to tamp down violence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam served to further fan the flames of this critique — too-light-a-footprint caused us troubles in Iraq and that "proves" we had too light a footprint in Afghanistan. This fall, the critique got revived when Senator Kerry’s committee published a report which purports to validate the argument.  

My problem with the Tora Bora critique — both its generalized form and the particular form advanced by Glasser — is that it conveniently forgets that the reason bin Laden was "trapped" in Tora Bora in the first place is that Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks and CIA Director George Tenet defied both the conventional war plans and the conventional wisdom to mount the very light-footprint campaign that Glasser et al. are complaining about. If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had used the conventional warplan that involved a heavy U.S. ground presence  instead of the rapidly deployable light-footprint that Glasser denounces, the invasion of Afghanistan would have happened some time in 2002, if then.  If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had listened to the conventional wisdom during the early weeks when the light-footprint approach appeared to be faltering, they would have abandoned the Afghan effort long before the battle in Tora Bora.  

The Rumsfeld/Franks/Tenet approach was an innovative gamble that performed much better than anyone, especially bin Laden, expected. For this reason, and for this reason alone, there was a chance to capture/kill bin Laden at Tora Bora.

Pushed to its logical conclusion, the Tora Bora critique reduces to the claim made by Monday morning quarterbacks everywhere. The Tora Bora critics assure us in hindsight that they would have approved every pass that was successful and all the aspects of the game plan that worked, but they also would have known not to throw the pass that got blocked and they would have changed the game plan at exactly the right moment.  

It is unfortunate that bin Laden escaped. It may even be the case that redeploying the U.S. Rangers that were on the ground in a different fashion might have produced a different result. And I am certainly not going to defend every decision made by Rumsfeld or every scintilla of spin advanced by the Pentagon press shop. But before I am going to take seriously the conspiracy theory that we "allowed Osama to escape" just to prove a light-footprint theory of warfare, I want to hear the critics acknowledge that we had bin Laden within reach at Tora Bora precisely because we were willing to try the very light-footprint approach they denounce.