Politics & Policy

The Legend of Tora Bora

John Kerry runs with a lie.

In a semi-coherent videotaped message, Osama bin Laden is trying to influence the Tuesday election by castigating President George W. Bush for everything from oppression of Muslims to passage of the Patriot Act. The message reads as if al Qaeda has become a nightmarish version of a “527″ group. But it is very bad news for John Kerry. As the Daily Telegraph reported on Saturday, bin Laden, “…did not endorse Mr Kerry for election but did effectively campaign against Mr Bush, saying: ‘Despite entering the fourth year after September 11, Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you and therefore the reasons are still there to repeat what happened.’”

Kerry was quick to use bin Laden’s statement as a reason to reiterate his claim that by bungling the Tora Bora campaign in December 2001, Bush allowed bin Laden to escape. In the September 30 presidential debate, Kerry said, “…when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, [he had] 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn’t use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world’s number one criminal and terrorist. They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other.” He repeated this almost verbatim on Saturday.

Kerry’s searing indictment of President Bush should be enough to reverse the public’s confidence in President Bush. It would be, but for the fact that, just like his claim that America is suffering 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq and paying 90 percent of the costs, it just isn’t true. Ever since the facts on the “90 percent” claim were proved false here, Kerry has abandoned that argument. If he has any interest in the truth, he’d abandon the Tora Bora Baloney as well.

Kerry’s position is spun off an April 17, 2002, Washington Post article that makes several highly critical statements about the Afghanistan war and–relying on anonymous sources–reports that the Bush administration has itself concluded that it blew its chances and made the gravest of errors in failing to catch or kill OBL. But the Post’s story–according to Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, deputy commander of CENTCOM during the Afghanistan war–is simply wrong. As far as Kerry’s argument goes, it’s garbage in, garbage out.

The Post story begins, “The Bush administration has concluded that Osama bin Laden was present during the battle for Tora Bora…and that failure to commit U.S. ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against al Qaeda, according to civilian and military officials with first-hand knowledge…After-action reviews, conducted privately inside and outside the military chain of command, describe the episode as a significant defeat for the United States. A common view among those interviewed outside the U.S. Central Command is that Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the war’s operational commander, misjudged the interests of putative Afghan allies and let pass the best chance to capture or kill al Qaeda’s leader.”

In a short op-ed in the October 19 New York Times, Gen. Franks stated firmly that: (1) We didn’t know then and still don’t know now if OBL was even in Tora Bora in December 2001; and (2) We didn’t “outsource” military action, though we did rely heavily on Afghan forces because it was their turf. But even after Franks’s piece was published, Kerry persevered in his claim. It’s time to clear up the remaining details.

Tora Bora Bottom Line

Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong (USMC, ret.) was Franks’s deputy CENTCOM commander throughout the Afghan conflict and afterward. DeLong, 59, is a native of Kinston, North Carolina, a graduate of the Naval Academy, and a Vietnam combat vet. He’s known as “Rifle” DeLong, and not just because he was a crack shot with a rifle (and other common Marine Corps fashion accessories such as pistols and helo-mounted rockets.) The nickname stuck because, as DeLong rose in rank, and he and his subordinates had to make life and death decisions, DeLong learned to be a tough grader. He gave his people just one shot to get it right. Accroding to what “Rifle” DeLong said, the Washington Post story has to get a failing grade because it’s fiction, not fact.

I asked Gen. DeLong to bottom line it: Had the Bush administration concluded that OBL was present in Tora Bora? Was it the gravest error of the war to not commit enough U.S. ground troops? “Rifle” DeLong said, “Somebody could have made that statement, but it sure as hell wasn’t the people who fought the war.” No one in the military chain of command–or in the Pentagon in any position of authority–has reached this phantom “conclusion” that we blew it at Tora Bora.

DeLong and Franks didn’t fail in Tora Bora. Moreover, there was neither a failure of the Afghan forces nor any “outsourcing.” Instead, there was careful planning and the use of Afghan forces to great effect, in places and in ways our own forces couldn’t function.

The plan for Tora Bora employed the same methods that had worked elsewhere in Afghanistan. DeLong said, “It goes back to the beginning of the war.” In the north of Afghanistan, “We used the Northern Alliance–which was in fact then the rebel force–to act as Gen. Franks’s army on the ground and using their generals as Gen. Franks’s ground generals. We would embed with each of their medium size ground forces a rather large special forces team with the capability of calling in air [strikes] and the CIA came because they knew the terrain and they knew the people, they knew the languages and it forced the Department of Defense and the CIA to work closer together, so it was a perfect fit.”

Did it actually work that way? “It worked like a champ…. We did our first battle up there at Mazar-e-Sharif. Mazar-e-Sharif fell and [after that northern Afghanistan] was like a bowling alley. All the other places–with a couple of exceptions–all we had to do is show up and [the Taliban] just folded.”

After the north fell and then Kabul, “…we got word that Osama bin Laden with his leadership–what was left of it–could possibly be up in the Tora Bora mountains. We also got word the same day that he could be in Egypt.” Reports poured in, some appeared reliable, that OBL could also be in Dubai or in Pakistan. Franks and DeLong concluded, based on the preponderance of the intelligence that OBL was in Tora Bora. U.S. forces couldn’t invade Egypt, Pakistan, or Dubai, but they could take a shot at Tora Bora where a substantial number of al Qaeda–with or without bin Laden–were hiding. Once again, the Afghanis were integrated with the American and Coalition forces. Nobody “outsourced” the job to them.


DeLong said, “There were so many tunnels up there, that we knew that no matter how many people we put up there, we could put millions, you wouldn’t find all the tunnel entrances and openings.” (The Soviet Union, in its decade-long war against Afghanistan in the 1980s, shattered its army by throwing masses of troops into the Afghan mountains trying to trap the mujahideen. They failed, and retreated with tens of thousands of dead. Fortunately, Franks and DeLong studied the lessons of that war.)

One of the biggest challenges to attacking al Qaeda in Tora Bora was the tribal villages throughout the region. The people in these villages had no allegiance to either Afghanistan or Pakistan. No government could claim their allegiance. They were the same ones (or descendants of those) who had defeated the Soviets. We couldn’t send a large Western force into Tora Bora without going to war against them. So what did we do?

DeLong said, “We got with an Afghan general called Hasrat Ali and embedded much larger-sized special forces and CIA teams with him knowing that Hasrat Ali and his people would lead the way. These were high mountains. The Afghanis knew how to get there without being seen from some positions, so going with them was by far the best way to go.”

“We also put on the “border”–if you could tell where the border was–Pakistani frontier troops,” DeLong said. “The reason we couldn’t put Pakistani troops up in the mountains was [that] the…villagers would have killed them. We blocked the area up there the best way we could without having a civil war in the area.”

The plan to attack the al Qaeda in Tora Bora was vetted up through the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Another part of the Post report said that there was a disagreement between Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers and Franks over the “blocking force” that would cover the area near Pakistan to prevent al Qaeda members from escaping. That reported disagreement–like the other parts of the Post story–is fiction, not fact. DeLong said there was no real disagreement, only the usual debate between professionals. Sometimes, “Dick [Gen. Myers] said we don’t think that’s the right way to do it. So we said, ok, let’s walk through it. Or we said, ‘you’re not there, tough sh**. And this is the way we’re going to do it. If you don’t like it, relieve us. Now this wasn’t one of [those times.]“

Delong also debunked the notion that the civilian leadership in the Pentagon was overriding the recommendations of the military commanders on the scene: “…We had these discussions with [the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and we also had them with the Secretary [Rumsfeld] and the Secretary agreed with us.” (So much for Kerry’s argument that Messrs. Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush weren’t following the recommendations of the military commanders.) The attack proceeded in December 2001.

DeLong said, “We moved up with this Eastern Alliance army with large embedded special forces and CIA, and they called in air [strikes] to support our positions, closed tunnel openings.” Some of the al Qaeda in Tora Bora escaped. How do we know? According to DeLong, more al Qaeda–including some who were believed to have been in Tora Bora–were captured or killed later in Operation Anaconda.

So did OBL get away? Maybe, and maybe he wasn’t even there. No one but the bad guys know. Did we blow it in Tora Bora because we outsourced the war to untrustworthy Afghans? Not hardly, Senator Kerry. We planned smart, operated with indigenous allies, and kicked butt. Gen. DeLong wouldn’t say how many al Qaeda he thought were killed there, but it’s pretty clear that while some escaped, most did not. We hurt them badly. Did the Tora Bora operation fail? DeLong says no. Why? Twenty-two days later, Hamid Karzai was elected the interim president of Afghanistan, and the many Afghanis who fought with our forces remember us as friends, not enemies.

Two things are pretty clear from Gen. DeLong’s comments. First is that Kerry is–yet again–taking a position about the war that is based on fiction, not fact. Second is that when you have a president who is smart enough to turn Tommy Franks and Rifle DeLong loose on the bad guys, you have a president who can win the war. QED.

NRO contributor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.


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