What really happened at Tora Bora?

At TNR Peter Bergen, author of The Osama bin Laden I Know, recounts the history of Bin Laden’s escape from Tora. In brief, the American commander, Tommy Franks, refused to authorize the 800 Rangers requested by the CIA and Delta Force commanders at Tora Bora. By insisting that the 80-odd US and British commandos use only the local bandits, Franks gave Bin Laden a free ticket to Pakistan:

(…) The real history of Tora Bora is far more disturbing. Having reconstructed the battle—based on interviews with the top American ground commander, three Afghan commanders, and three CIA officials; accounts by Al Qaeda eyewitnesses that were subsequently published on jihadist websites; recollections of captured survivors who were later questioned by interrogators or reporters; an official history of the Afghan war by the U.S. Special Operations Command; an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and visits to the battle sites themselves—I am convinced that Tora Bora constitutes one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history. It is worth revisiting now not just in the interest of historical accuracy, but also because the story contains valuable lessons as we renew our push against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(…) On the evening of December 3, one member of his team, a former Delta Force operator who had gone deep into Tora Bora, came to the Afghan capital to brief Berntsen about the lay of the land. He told Berntsen that taking out Al Qaeda’s hard core would require 800 Rangers, elite soldiers who had gone through the Army’s most rigorous physical training. That night, Berntsen sent a lengthy message to CIA headquarters asking for 800 Rangers to assault the complex of caves where bin Laden and his lieutenants were believed to be hiding, and to block their escape routes. Crumpton says, “I remember the message. I remember talking not only to Gary every day, but to some of his men who were at Tora Bora. Directly. And their request could not have been more direct, more clear, more certain: that we needed U.S. troops there. More men on the ground.”

(…) In the end, there were more journalists—about 100, according to Nic Robertson of CNN and Susan Glasser of The Washington Post, who both covered the battle—in and around Tora Bora than there were Western soldiers.

Yet, when Crumpton called General Tommy Franks to ask for more troops, Franks pushed back. The general, who had overall control of the Tora Bora operation, pointed out that the light-footprint approach—U.S. reliance on local proxies—had already succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban, and he argued that it would take time to get more U.S. troops to Tora Bora.

The U.S. force was to remain tiny throughout the battle. On December 7, on-the-ground responsibility for Tora Bora passed from Berntsen to a 37-year-old major in the elite and secretive Delta Force, who would later write a memoir using the pen name Dalton Fury. Under Fury’s command during the battle were 40 Delta operators from the “black” Special Forces, 14 Green Berets from the less secretive “white” Special Forces, six CIA operatives, a few Air Force specialists, including signals operators, and a dozen British commandos from the elite Special Boat Service. They were joined by three main Afghan commanders: Hajji Zaman Gamsharik, who had been living in exile in the comfortable environs of Dijon, France, before he returned to Afghanistan as the Taliban fell; Hajji Zahir, the 27-year-old son of a Jalalabad warlord; and Ali, the commander who had been helping Berntsen. The Afghan commanders disliked each other more than they did Al Qaeda. “For the most important mission to date in the global war on terror,” Fury later wrote, “our nation was relying on a fractious bunch of AK-47-toting lawless bandits and tribal thugs who were not bound by any recognized rules of warfare.”

(…) The major participants in the battle of Tora Bora have long since moved on with their lives—Fury and Berntsen both retired and wrote books; Crumpton left the CIA and became the Bush State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism—yet the sense that something went very wrong in late 2001 has not left them. Fury is haunted by the moment on December 10 when bin Laden may have been less than 2,000 meters away. In his memoir, he wrote that the incident “still bothers me. In some ways, I can’t suppress the feeling of somehow letting down our nation at a critical time.” Earlier this month, he elaborated: “It’s a tough stigma to live with and one I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

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