Tora Bora, who to blame

Oct 072004
Authors: Ken Zetye

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.

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