In the first Presidential debate Sen. John Kerry made a comment
about the battle in Tora Bora, Afghanistan that did not sit well
with me. Kerry’s claim was that the President let bin Laden get
away in this battle by not using U.S. forces but instead relying on
Afghan warlords. This is a complicated issue that I believe was
over-simplified by Kerry.
The initial war in Afghanistan was won predominantly by using
special forces, mostly Green Berets. The mission of these teams of
operatives is to ally with local resistance and use U.S. air power
and logistical support to fight a campaign against an enemy, in
this case Al-Qaida and the Taliban. This strategy allowed the
opening phase of this war to be won in just six months. By
conservative estimates 31,000 enemy fighters met their maker in
this initial phase of the war. This was done by less than 100 U.S.
fighters on the ground when the city of Kabul fell.
Tora Bora is a cave complex in the mountains of Afghanistan near
the Pakistani border. More than 50 U.S. Green Berets and 60 British
Special Air Service commandos were involved in this battle. The
Taliban and Al-Qaida forces had made a rapid retreat to this
mountain hideout after the fall of the nation’s cities to U.S.
allies. These enemy forces were well entrenched and supplied as
they had emptied the nation’s treasury before evacuating the
According to Robin Moore, author of “The Hunt For Bin Laden,”
who researched this battle extensively, unlike in most situations
with Green Berets, the Afghan fighters allied with the U.S. were
very dissatisfied with their role in this battle. The Green Beret
team in Tora Bora was not as close with its Afghan allies as others
were in other battles during the war. They were using the Afghans
as couriers, guards and in security roles instead of using them as
main assault troops. Meanwhile, the U.S. forces called in air
strikes and cleared caves, killing the enemy hand-to-hand in many
This information flies right in the face of Kerry’s comments
about the use of U.S. forces in the battle. The Afghan men of the
Northern Alliance did a great job of taking out our enemies with
the help of our special forces, and in this case our men fought
right alongside the Afghans.
So what happened at Tora Bora and who is to blame for the escape
of Osama if not George W. Bush? According to interviews with the
men in the battle the problem was the lack of intelligence, our
military’s unwillingness to take risks and the incredibly rough
terrain of the mountains of Afghanistan.
The CIA was using unmanned aerial vehicles to gather information
rather than operatives on the ground. This can be blamed on eight
years of the former President Bill Clinton administration that left
our military capabilities reduced by 40 percent and cut back the
funding drastically for our intelligence services. The CIA was also
hampered by rules concerning the type of contacts their operatives
could make. The U.S. did not want any connections to unsavory
people. The fact is, though, you have to get in bed with the devil
so to speak if you want to catch the bad guys.
Three times, visual or electronic intelligence pointed our
forces at bin Laden, but all three times the units involved were
ordered to stand down because of the extreme risks involved in the
circumstances. On the final sighting of the target an unmanned
aerial vehicle fired a missile at an image that may have been bin
Laden, but missed. It was later discovered that bin Laden had been
wounded in the fight at Tora Bora but lived to tell about it. This
unwillingness by our commanders to take casualties is an issue to
be debated in and of itself, but keeping our men safe did not allow
us to capture or kill bin Laden in these three instances.
The terrain of the Tora Bora region is extremely mountainous.
One commander stated that two whole divisions would have been
swallowed up by the mountains in the area. Meaning, bin Laden could
have been a mile away from our men, but weather and ridges would
have made it impossible to get from the one point to the next.
It is true that we may have relied too heavily on our supposed
allies, the Pakistanis, to secure their side of the border. It is
also true that even if we had wanted to, the massive amounts of
conventional military forces needed to fight the Tora Bora battle,
without help from “warlords,” were not available in the area at the
time. In light of this, the blame for the failure to capture or
kill our most desired target cannot be placed on the president. The
president’s role as commander and chief of the armed forces does
not include making decisions about specific details of military
activity. In fact, every case I can think of where a president has
tried to micromanage his military has ended in failure. It was a
mixture of circumstance that allowed bin Laden to escape, and it
was irresponsible of Kerry to throw around blame and accusations
the way that he did.