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Report: U.S. missed chance for bin Laden at Tora Bora

©Washington Post
April 17, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has concluded that Osama bin Laden was present during the battle for Tora Bora late last year and that failure to commit U.S. ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against al-Qaida, the Washington Post reported, citing civilian and military officials with first-hand knowledge.

Intelligence officials have assembled what they believe to be decisive evidence, from contemporary and subsequent interrogations and intercepted communications, that bin Laden began the battle of Tora Bora inside the cave complex along Afghanistan's mountainous eastern border. Though there remains a remote chance that he died there, the intelligence community is convinced that bin Laden slipped away in the first 10 days of December.

After-action reviews, conducted privately inside and outside the military chain of command, describe the episode as a significant defeat for the United States, the Post said. A common view among those interviewed outside the U.S. Central Command is that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's operational commander, misjudged the interests of putative Afghan allies and let pass the best chance to capture or kill al-Qaida's leader. Without professing second thoughts about Tora Bora, Franks has changed his approach fundamentally in subsequent battles, using Americans on the ground as first-line combat units.

In the fight for Tora Bora, corrupt local militias did not live up to promises to seal off the mountain redoubt, and some colluded in the escape of fleeing al-Qaida fighters. Franks did not perceive the setbacks soon enough, the Post reported, because he ran the war from Tampa with no commander on the scene above the rank of lieutenant colonel. The first Americans did not arrive until three days into the fighting.

The Bush administration has never acknowledged that bin Laden slipped through the cordon ostensibly placed around Tora Bora as U.S. aircraft began bombing on Nov. 30. Until now it was not known publicly whether the al-Qaida leader was present on the battlefield.

But inside government there is little controversy on the subject. Captured al-Qaida fighters, interviewed separately, gave consistent accounts describing an address by bin Laden around Dec. 3 to mujahedeen, or holy warriors, dug into the warren of caves and tunnels built as a redoubt against Soviet invaders in the 1980s.

Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, Franks' chief spokesman, acknowledged the dominant view outside Tampa but said the general is unconvinced.

"We have never seen anything that was convincing to us at all that Osama bin Laden was present at any stage of Tora Bora, before, during or after," Quigley said. "I know you've got voices in the intelligence community that are taking a different view, but I just wanted you to know our view as well."

"Truth is hard to come by in Afghanistan," Quigley said, and for confidence on bin Laden's whereabouts "you need to see some sort of physical concrete proof."

Franks has told subordinates that it was vital at the Tora Bora battle, among the first to include allies from Afghanistan's Pashtun majority, to take a supporting role and "not just push them aside and take over because we were America," Quigley said.

"Our relationship with the Afghans in the south and east was entirely different at that point in the war," he said. "It's no secret that we had a much more mature relationship with the Northern Alliance fighters." Franks, he added, "still thinks that the process he followed of helping the anti-Taliban forces around Tora Bora, to make sure it was crystal clear to them that we were not there to conquer their country . . . was absolutely the right thing to do."

With the collapse of the Afghan cordon around Tora Bora, and the decision to hold back U.S. troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division, Pakistan stepped in. The government of President Pervez Musharraf moved thousands of troops to his border with Afghanistan and intercepted about 300 of the estimated 1,000 al-Qaida fighters who escaped Tora Bora. U.S. officials said close to half of the detainees now held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were turned over by the Pakistani government.

Those successes included none of the top al-Qaida leaders at Tora Bora, officials acknowledged. Of the dozen senior leaders identified by the U.S. government, two are now accounted for -- Muhammad Atef, believed dead in a Hellfire missile attack, and Abu Zubaida, taken into custody late last month.

The predominant view among the analysts is that bin Laden is alive, but knowledgeable officials said they cannot rule out the possibility that he died at Tora Bora or afterward. Some analysts believe bin Laden is seriously ill and under the medical care of his second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian-trained physician.

The minority of U.S. officials who argue that bin Laden is probably dead note that four months have passed since any credible trace of him has surfaced in intelligence collection. Those who argue that he is probably alive note that monitoring of a proven network of bin Laden contacts has turned up no evidence of reaction to his death. If he had died, surely there would have been some detectable echo within this network, these officials argue.

In public, the Bush administration acknowledges no regret about its prosecution of Tora Bora.

But another change since Tora Bora, with no immediate prospect of finding bin Laden, is that President Bush has stopped proclaiming the goal of taking him "dead or alive" and now avoids previous references to the al-Qaida founder as public enemy No. 1.

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