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Friday, October 22, 2004

Throw Back the Little Ones 

Via Josh Marshall: Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc., evaluates the latest round of ass-covering gymnastics from revisionist historians Tommy Franks and Dick Cheney:
The question of whether the United Sates missed an opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden during the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001 has become an issue in the razor-close campaign. During the October 8th presidential debate, Sen. John Kerry said of capturing bin Laden, "The right time was Tora Bora, when we had him cornered in the mountains." Writing in the New York Times this week, General Tommy Franks, a Bush supporter, and the overall commander of the Tora Bora operation, said that this charge "doesn't square with reality". Franks also stated, "We don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora," and that the US did not "outsource" the battle to Afghan warlords of questionable competence and loyalty, as Sen. Kerry has repeatedly charged. At a town hall meeting in Ohio on Tuesday, vice president Cheney said Kerry's criticisms of the Tora Bora campaign are "absolute garbage."

So: Was al Qaeda's leader at Tora Bora? According to a widely-reported background briefing by Pentagon officials in mid-December 2001 there was "reasonable certainty" that bin Laden was indeed at Tora Bora, a judgment based on intercepted radio transmissions. Moreover, Luftullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, told me that based on conversations he had with a Saudi al Qaeda financier and bin Laden's chef, both of whom were at the battle, bin Laden was at Tora Bora. And Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, a consistently accurate source of information about al Qaeda, has reported that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder at Tora Bora. Indeed, in an audiotape released on al Jazeera television last year bin Laden himself recounted his own memories of the battle. "We were about three hundred holy warriors. We dug one hundred trenches over an area of one square mile, so as to avoid the huge human losses from the bombardment." In short, there is plenty of evidence that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, and no evidence indicating that he was anywhere else at the time.

That being the case: Did the U.S. military screw up a golden opportunity to capture bin Laden, during the one moment in the past three years that his location was known? There is no debating the fact that US "outsourced" the Tora Bora operation to local Afghan warlords. According to Commander Muhammad Musa, who commanded six hundred Afghan soldiers on the Tora Bora frontline, while the American bombing campaign was very effective, US forces on the ground were small in number and ineffective: "There were six American soldiers with us. My personal view is if they had blocked the way out to Pakistan, al Qaeda would not have had a way to escape."
From the Washington Post comes further evidence that to the Bush administration, bin Laden was not so much a target as a means to an end:
In the second half of March 2002, as the Bush administration mapped its next steps against al Qaeda, Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin brought an unexpected message to the White House Situation Room. According to two people with firsthand knowledge, he told senior members of the president's national security team that the CIA was scaling back operations in Afghanistan.

That announcement marked a year-long drawdown of specialized military and intelligence resources from the geographic center of combat with Osama bin Laden. As jihadist enemies reorganized, slipping back and forth from Pakistan and Iran, the CIA closed forward bases in the cities of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar. The agency put off an $80 million plan to train and equip a friendly intelligence service for the new U.S.-installed Afghan government. Replacements did not keep pace with departures as case officers finished six-week tours. And Task Force 5 -- a covert commando team that led the hunt for bin Laden and his lieutenants in the border region -- lost more than two-thirds of its fighting strength.

The commandos, their high-tech surveillance equipment and other assets would instead surge toward Iraq through 2002 and early 2003, as President Bush prepared for the March invasion that would extend the field of battle in the nation's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks . . . .

The contention that the Iraq invasion was an unwise diversion in confronting terrorism has been central to Kerry's critique of Bush's performance. But this account -- drawn largely from interviews with those who have helped manage Bush's offensive -- shows how the debate over that question has echoed within the ranks of the administration as well, even among those who support much of the president's agenda.

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