Best Defense

Glasser vs. Feaver on Tora Bora: Who is right?

Susan Glasser, who was there, says that one of the biggest mistakes of the last 10 years was letting Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora: The disaster flowed from one bad idea: that the United States could win in Afghanistan without a "big footprint," using locals who wouldn’t trigger the renowned Afghan hostility to ...

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Susan Glasser, who was there, says that one of the biggest mistakes of the last 10 years was letting Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora:

The disaster flowed from one bad idea: that the United States could win in Afghanistan without a "big footprint," using locals who wouldn’t trigger the renowned Afghan hostility to foreign invaders. Not to mention that deploying a small contingent of special forces armed with cash would prove Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s ideological point about the need to transform the U.S. armed services from a lumbering Cold War conventional force into a leaner, meaner, high-tech military capable of lightning strikes.

Rumsfeld may have been right about the need for transformation. But Tora Bora was a case study not in innovation but in the arrogance of a superpower that made bad decisions in the face of overwhelming evidence that they wouldn’t work.

Peter Feaver, who was on the staff of the National Security Council, responds that she is wrong wrong wrong. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan succeeded, he says, because of the "light" approach used. Losing OBL at Tora Bora was the price of that light approach, he concludes. "We had bin Laden within reach at Tora Bora precisely because we were willing to try the very light-footprint approach they denounce," he writes.

Interesting argument, made all the more so because both Ms. Glasser and Prof. Feaver are friends of mine. Also, both are crackerjack smart.

So who is right: the White House aide turned professor or the foreign correspondent turned bigtime editor? I think Susan is, and not only because she is my boss. My reasoning is that the CIA’s Bernsten asked for a battalion of Army Rangers (a light force, Prof. Feaver) to be deployed and was turned down.

But I decided to ask someone who was in the middle of this operation. His bottom line, I think, is that this 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. 

Here is his response:

A boy runs to his father and breathlessly shouts, "Paw, come quick. The hired man and sis are up in the haymow, and he’s a-pullin’ down his pants and she’s a-liftin’ up her skirt. Paw, they’re getting ready to pee all over our hay!."

To which the father replies, "Son, you’ve got your facts absolutely right, but you’ve drawn a completely wrong conclusion." That is, both authors do have some facts correct, though not necessarily their conclusions.

With respect to Susan Glasser:  Yes, Bin Laden escaped. To make the leap from that fact to the many other tidbits offered, such as it was a bad idea to think that we could win without a big footprint and that this was about proving Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s ideological points tells more than a little about her perspective (from amongst the many journalists who outnumbered the U.S. Forces). Full disclosure, I was not there at Tora Bora. But I was down the road a little at the intersection where the collection of senior leaders from varying organizations collided with modern technology (which as I recall were predominately venerable LST-D’s … forgive me if a wax nostalgic for a moment). As such my recollection of "what really happened" differs some from hers.  I would also argue that she misses the mark with the comment that we are still suffering the consequences of the decision not to fight at Tora Bora. I for one would not be willing to bet that much would be different today regardless of a different outcome there.

With respect to Peter Feaver:  I happen to agree with his assessment of the options available, either deploy now with a light ‘more unconventional’ force or wait until 2002 with a more conventionally footprint. I also personally believe that we had multiple chances under this construct to capture/kill Bin Laden.

Where I tend to differ from many is that I believe most critical observations to be symptomatic of the command relationships at the time and not the ends unto themselves.  I think that our proverbial Achilles heel was, and perhaps still is, unity of effort. Gary Bernsten and BG Dailey "arguing" describes to a tee what I see as the Achilles heel of the entire war at that point — unity of effort.  While Gary was the commander on the ground the vast preponderance of resources being utilized at the time were obviously military. When his request for additional resources was denied (Rangers and others) I vaguely recall Gary offering to the military leadership to take over the operation (at that time it wasn’t just BG Dailey on deck, but also BG Harrell and RAdm Calland – which no doubt helped simplify the situation immensely). What has forever stuck in my mind was the collective response: "Conditions had not been met for the military to assume responsibility for the operation."

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola