Now that I’ve read a lot of emails on Tora Bora (I’ll say it again: the people who read this happy Corner are astonishingly well-informed), this much seems clear:
1. No one is able to make any sense at all of the Kerry/Edwards claim that the administration “outsourced” the job of capturing Osama bin Laden to Afghan warlords. Afghan forces participated in the action. But they were there to cut off certain escape routes, not to seize or kill Osama.
2. There is indeed some evidence that Americans permitted Osama to slip through their fingers—but not, be it noted, the president or secretary of defense, and not the forces on the ground. Instead, it was American commanders who failed, hesitating for fear casualties.
You’ll find this account in a 2002 article in the London Spectator. Registration is required, so I won’t bother posting the link, but here are the crucial few sentences:
By the end of the battle, the SAS [the elite British force] was certain that it knew where bin Laden was: in a mountain valley, where he could have been trapped. The men of the SAS would have been happy to move in for the kill….
It did not get the chance. The SAS was under overall US command, and the American generals faltered. Understandably enough, they wanted Delta Force [an elite American unit] to be in at the death….
It seems unlikely that bin Laden could have been bagged without casualties. The men on the ground did not quail at that prospect; the generals on the radio did. They wanted Delta Force to kill bin Laden; they were not prepared to allow their men to be killed in the process. They would not even allow USAF ground-attack aircraft to operate below 12,000 feet.
For what it’s worth, this view seems to be widely accepted in Britain. From my friend Clive Davis, London correspondent of the Washington Times:
[In] David Hare’s dreary documentary-play “Stuff Happens”, which just opened at the National Theatre….Tony Blair is shown pleading with Bush over the phone to allow British special forces to go into the cave to slip on the handcuffs. I’ve been waiting for some authoritative Westminster figure to stomp all over this, but to the best of my knowledge nobody has, so no doubt it will soon become the conventional wisdom.
3. Maybe the American commanders made some mistakes—but maybe they didn’t. Every knowledgeable correspondent has insisted that the operation proved fraught with difficulties and imponderables in any event. From an officer in the Canadian armed forces, on Operation Anaconda, which took place at Shak-i-kot a few months after the assault on Tora Bora:
Like Tora Bora, the concept of Op Anaconda was to catch AQ [al Qaeda] as they were retreating into Pakistan. There were a couple of problems with the op that resulted in a number of AQ being able to escape.
Item: the op was launched prematurely, having been triggered by a Chinook being downed. This meant that not all of the cut-off teams were in place on all of the known escape routes at h-hour. They were generally replaced by massive air bombing, but in the mountainous terrain of the region this was much less effective.
Item: the Afghan allies used as clearing force were not as effective as desired, coming in slower than anticipated in the plan.
Item: being subjected to effective enemy fire limited the ability of the cut-off teams to call in indirect fire and air/ aviation….
Something that people forget, particularly because the US army is so good, is that the other side does fight back, and that plans often do not go off without a hitch because the enemy invariably reacts to what you’re doing. This is particularly true when dealing with an experienced enemy working on his turf, and amplified by the fact that the terrain in question is complex.
Just how hard is it, exactly, to catch someone in difficult terrain? From another correspondent, a note that Mssrs. Kerry and Edwards ought to ponder:
[R]emember that Eric Rudolph [who was being sought for the murder of an abortionist] hid in the back woods of North Carolina for nine years [emphasis mine] despite massive searches by government officers. He was caught only when he ran out of food.