October 11, 2011
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded coalition forces in 2009-10 in Afghanistan, caused a stir last week with his suggestion that the U.S. is only just past the 50% mark in terms of achieving its goals – particularly that of “creating a legitimate government that the Afghan people believe in, and therefore providing a counterweight to the Taliban.” “I think that’s going to be a hard last percentage to close,” McChrystal added.
Speaking almost ten years to the day since the conflict began, McChrystal charged that the U.S. had gone into that conflict with a “very superficial understanding of the situation and history,” didn’t speak the language or adequately grasp either the number of “forces at play” or the “players”. To the catalogue of early mistakes McChrystal added the burden of having opened a second front in Iraq, which not only stretched resources but fundamentally “changed the Muslim world’s view of America’s effort… much of the Muslim world now questioned what we were doing…”
Really to understand where the general is coming from, it may be useful to turn back the calendar to the closing months of 2001, when the seeds of the current U.S. predicament were sown.
The way America would react to the Al Qaeda assault on 9/11 had been immediately clear. Evident within forty-five minutes of the first strike on the World Trade Center, when Bush spoke to the nation from the schoolroom in Florida promising to “hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.” Evident two hours later at an Air Force base in Louisiana, away from the microphones, when he told aides, “We’re gonna get the bastards.” By the end of September, when he addressed a joint session of Congress, Bush was referring to the coming fight as the “war on terror”.
The vast majority of the American people agreed that there had to be severe retribution. At a memorial service on September 14th, with four U.S. presidents in the congregation, the National Cathedral had reverberated to the roar of almost a thousand people singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword…the watch fires of a hundred circling camps…the trumpet that shall never call retreat…Let us die to make men free…”
The September 11 onslaught had been judged an act of war, and the response was to be war. Bush made clear from the start that bin Laden and his followers would not be the only targets. In his address to the nation on the night of the attacks, the President had said the U.S. would “make no distinction between those who planned these acts and those who harbor them.” Within an hour of the television appearance, he was discussing what that would mean with the group he was to call his “war council” – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, CIA Director Tenet, Condoleeza Rice, Richard Clarke, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and key generals.
The talk in the Situation Room at the White House was uncompromising. The Taliban were soon to propose trying bin Laden in Afghanistan or handing him over for trial in another Muslim country, but America would turn a deaf ear. “We’re not only going to strike the rattlesnake,” Bush said at this time, “We’re going to strike the rancher.”
The administration never even considered negotiating with the Taliban, Condoleezza Rice said later. Washington was eventually to issue a formal ultimatum – promptly rejected – demanding that Afghanistan hand over the Saudi exile or “share in his fate.”
The weekend following the attacks, after the frenzy of the first fraught days, Bush flew his war council to the calm of the presidential retreat at Camp David. CIA Director Tenet and his Counterterrorism chief Cofer Black briefed Bush’s team on the Agency’s plan for “Destroying International Terrorism.” They described what they called the “Initial Hook,” an operation designed to trap Al Qaida inside Afghanistan and destroy it.
The objective was to be achieved by a numerically small CIA paramilitary component and U.S. Special Forces, working with Afghan forces that had long been fighting the Taliban. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Shelton, outlined the crucial bomb and missile strikes that would precede and support the operation. “When we’re through with them,” Black had assured Bush, the Al Qaeda terrorists would “have flies walking across their eyeballs.”
On September 20, the CIA’s Cofer Black gathered the team that was to spearhead the covert operation in Afghanistan. He dispensed with any notion of taking the terrorist leader alive. “Gentlemen, I want to give you your marching orders and I want to make them very clear. I have discussed this with the President, and he is in full agreement…I don’t want bin Laden and his thugs captured. I want them dead. Alive and in prison here in the United States, they’ll become a symbol, a rallying point…They must be killed. I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want bin Laden’s head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to be able to show bin Laden’s head to the President. I promised him I would do that.”
In the field, three men led the operations that targeted bin Laden, two veteran CIA officers, and a Special Forces officer with the unit popularly known as Delta Force. Their teams in the early months numbered only some seventy men, including a dozen Green Berets, Air Force tacticians, communications experts, and a small group of elite British commandos.
“The mission is straightforward,” Black told a colleague back in Washington,” “We locate the enemy wherever they are across the planet. We find them and we kill them.”
The first CIA team was on the ground in Afghanistan just two weeks after 9/11, armed with not only their weapons but three million dollars in $100 bills. The cash, lugged around in duffel bags, was used mostly to grease the palms of anti-Taliban warlords. For a mission that targeted the Taliban as much as bin Laden, buying their loyalty was essential. Brilliant American management of the warlords and their forces, combined with devastating use of airpower, would defeat and decimate the Taliban soldiers – though they were often valiant fighters – in little more than two months.
Getting Osama bin Laden was to prove another matter altogether.
In a letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar written just before the American attack began, bin Laden forecast that the coming U.S. campaign in Afghanistan would cause “great long-term economic burdens”…force America to resort to the former Soviet Union’s only option: withdrawal from Afghanistan…” Two weeks on, with the bombing continuing, the Taliban’s military commander – a longtime bin Laden ally – claimed his soldiers were holding their ground. Bin Laden was “safe and sound…in good spirits.”
The CIA’s team had only poor intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts. There were attempts to persuade them that he had left the country soon after 9/11. Other reports put him either in the Afghan capital, Kabul, or at Jalalabad, nearer to the border with Pakistan. Bin Laden and a large group of fighters were seen arriving in Jalalabad in a convoy of white Toyota trucks. American bombs were already falling on the city, and their stay was brief.
Bin Laden apparently spoke of wanting to stay and fight. He was dissuaded. The convoy – some 300 vehicles – left soon afterward. At least one of those in the group said they were on their way “to their base at Tora Bora.”
Tora Bora, which translates as “Black Widow,” lies almost sixteen thousand feet above sea level on Towr Ghar – the “Black Dust” – a series of rocky ridges and peaks, ten precipitous miles from the border of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. A legend now, it was at the time a media fantasy. By November 27th a British newspaper was reporting that it was a “purpose-built guerrilla lair…350 yards beneath a solid mountain. There are small rooms and big rooms, and the wall and floor are cemented…It has its own ventilation system and its own power, created by a hydro-electric generator…driven by water from the peaks of the mountains.”
The reality was far more primitive. Bin Laden’s first wife, who had spent time there, remembered a place with no electricity and no running water, where life was hard at the best of times. In the early December of 2001, in the icy Afghan winter, it became a desolate killing ground.
From their base at an abandoned schoolhouse, the pursuing Americans struggled with multiple obstacles. Tora Bora is not one place but a series of natural ramparts and cave complexes, a frustratingly difficult place to attack. Afghan generals, whose troops were key to the mission, were often intransigent, rarely dependable, and partial to negotiating with an Al Qaeda enemy that the Delta Force and CIA commanders wanted only to destroy. The Afghan inhabitants of the mountains were at best uncertain sources of information. The Americans could dole out cash, but these were people who had enjoyed bin Laden’s largesse for years..
Berntsen, heading the CIA detachment, encountered reluctance when he begged for more U.S. military support. The operation to hunt down bin Laden, the team was told, was “flawed,” too high risk. The reluctance to commit American ground forces was only going to get worse. What the United States did deliver was the bludgeon of pulverizing airpower. Often guided by forward observation teams, waves of bombers flew from bases in the U.S and carriers in the Persian Gulf to bombard the Al Qaeda positions. AC-130 Spectre gunships pounded them by night.
Decimated but not yet finally broken, bin Laden’s defenders clung on. Intercepts picked up an Al Qaeda commander giving movement orders, ordering up land mines, exhorting his men to “victory or death.” On the afternoon of December 13th, Delta Force’s Major Fury and his men listened to a voice they were sure was that of bin Laden. “His Arabic prose sounded beautiful, soothing, and peaceful,” Fury recalled, “I paraphrase him…‘Our prayers have not been answered. Times are dire…Things might have been different…I’m sorry for getting you into this battle. If you can no longer resist, you may surrender with my blessing.’”
According to the ex-Marine expert at recognizing the Saudi’s voice, bin Laden then gathered his men around him in prayer. There was the sound of mules, used for transport in the high mountains, and people moving around. Then silence.
By the time the bombing and the shooting stopped, Tora Bora was devastated, a wasteland of shattered rocks and broken trees. The detritus of war: spent ammunition, bloody bandages, torn fragments of documents in Arabic script – and not a trace of Osama bin Laden.
Convinced that their quarry escaped, those who risked their lives to kill him cast bitter blame on those from whom they had taken their orders. The Delta Force operatives, Fury said, had not been allowed to engage in “real war fighting.” Had they been, he thought, things could have turned out differently. Being held back had been like “working in an invisible cage.”
The CIA’s Gary Berntsen had in vain requested a force of eight hundred U.S. troops – to block the “back door”, the mountain escape route to Pakistan. “We need Rangers [special operations combat troops] now!,” he had begged with ever-increasing urgency, “The opportunity to get bin Laden and his men is slipping away!” He had been rebuffed every time.
Why were the troops refused, and who was responsible for the refusal? Military decisions were transmitted by the generals, directly to Berntsen by the officer commanding Joint Special Operations Command, Major General Dell Dailey, who in turn answered to General Tommy Franks, Commander in Chief at U.S. Central Command, the man running the Afghanistan operation.
“We have not said,” Franks remarked at a press briefing just before the fighting at Tora Bora, “that Osama bin Laden is a target of this effort.” It was a strange comment, even taking into account security considerations, given what Fury and Berntsen have said of the explicit orders they had been given. In a 2004 memoir, Franks skirted any discussion of the decision not to use U.S. troops to trap bin Laden. As recently as 2009, the general said he had doubted whether bin Laden was even at Tora Bora. Notwithstanding the certainty expressed by the CIA and Delta Force commanders on the spot, he claimed the intelligence had been “conflicting.”
Delta Force’s Major Fury placed responsibility elsewhere. “The generals,” he said, “were not operating alone. Civilian political figures were also at the control panel….I was not in those air-conditioned rooms with leather chairs when they came up with some of the strangest decisions I have ever encountered…at times, we were micromanaged by higher-ups unknown, even to the point of being ordered to send the exact grid coordinates of our teams back to various folks in Washington.”
The two civilian higher-ups involved with Franks in the decision-making were Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the man ultimately responsible as Commander-in-Chief, President Bush. Bush, who six days after 9/11 had indicated that he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive”.
The President “never took his eye off the ball when it came to bin Laden,” according to General Franks. Through October and into November, Bush had appeared still keen to “get” bin Laden. In late November, at a CIA briefing, he was told Tora Bora had become the focus, that Afghan forces were inadequate to do the job, that U.S. troops were required. “We’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful,” the CIA briefer warned. The President seemed surprised. In Afghanistan in early December, shortly before the massive BLU-82 bomb was unleashed on Tora Bora, those heading the fight in the field were told that POTUS – the acronym for the President – had been personally “asking for details.”
According to CIA sources, Bush would reportedly remain “obsessed” with the hunt for bin Laden even months after Tora Bora. In public though, far from talking of getting him dead or alive, he seemed to downgrade his importance. “Terror’s bigger than one person,” the President said in March, 2002, “he’s a person who has been marginalized…I don’t know where he is. Nor, you know, I just don’t spend that much time on him really, to be honest with you…I truly am not that concerned about him.”
The record, perhaps, explains the sea change in the priority given to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. On November 21st, a couple of weeks before the final battles in the mountains and bin Laden’s disappearance, the President had taken Rumsfeld aside for a conversation that he insisted must remain secret. He wanted a war plan forIraq, and insisted that General Franks get working on it immediately.
Franks, already up to his eyes dealing with the conflict inAfghanistan, could barely believe what he was hearing. “Goddamn!” he exclaimed to a fellow general, “What the fuck are they talking about?” The huge pressure he was under had been ratcheted up another notch. From then on, not least in early December, when there were repeated appeals for U.S. troops to block bin Laden’s escape route, the general was constantly plagued with requests for plans as to how to attack Iraq. At a crucial stage of the Tora Bora episode, Bush’s primary focus had begun to shift – and a shift in the Commander-in-Chief’s focus meant distracting the attention of his overworked general from the fight in Afghanistan.
That’s the bungling with which the saga began.
The 140,000 strong U.S. led coalition combat forces are due to leave Afghanistan in 2014. It looks, however, as though this year may prove to be the costliest yet in terms of civilian lives lost. Some observers, moreover, suggest Afghanistan is again teetering on the brink of all-out civil war. If the U.S. is to meet its goal of presiding over an orderly transition and leaving with the hope of a secure future for ordinary Afghans, the problems of the past must be acknowledged and overcome. The omens, though, are poor.