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IN THEIR OWN WORDS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE 9/11 BATTLE IN THE SKY  

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

 Back in 2011, with the cooperation of 9/11 Commission Senior Counsel John Farmer and his Commission staff colleague Miles Kara, we had first access to a Commission working paper that incorporated actual audio from the aircraft hijacked on September 11, 2001, and the FAA and military personnel who scrambled to meet the threat.

For this 15th anniversary, we have put the full story of that fateful day together – with the revealing and emotionally charged audio-taped voices of the participants.                                                           

Part 1

Late in 2004, almost three years after the attacks of September 11, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission – then in the final weeks of its work – dictated a memo. It was addressed to the inquiry’s chairman and vice-chairman, and posed a very sensitive question. “How,” Philip Zelikow wanted to know, “should the Commission handle evidence of possible false statements by U.S. officials?”

“Team 8,” he reported, “has found evidence suggesting that one or more USAF officers – and possibly FAA officials – must have known their version was false, before and after it was briefed to and relied upon by the White House, presented to the nation, and presented to us…The argument is not over details; it is about the fundamental way the story was presented. It is the most serious issue of truth/falsity in accounts to us that we have encountered so far…”

The “story” that so provoked the Commission was the military and FAA version of their response to the 9/11 attacks, a response that failed utterly to thwart the terrorists’ operation. The Commission’s belief that it had been deceived would be lost in the diplomatic language of its final Report. Zelikow’s memo on the subject would be withheld until 2009.

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The Commission’s chairman, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, and the vice-chairman, former congressman Lee Hamilton, however, gave a sense of their frustration in their later memoir. The military’s statements, they declared, were “not forthright or accurate.” To another commissioner, former congressman Tim Roemer, they were, quite simply, “false”. Former New Jersey attorney general John Farmer, the Commission’s senior counsel who led Team 8’s probe of the military’s performance, has said that he was shocked by the “deception”.

Farmer questions not only how the military and the FAA had functioned on 9/11, but also the actions of the President and the Vice President. In his view, “The perpetuation of the untrue official version remains a betrayal of every citizen who demanded a truthful answer to the simple question: What happened?”

 


 

Two days after the attacks, Air Force general Richard Myers testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Though the hearing had been scheduled before 9/11, questioning turned naturally to the crisis of the moment. For an officer of distinction, about to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Myers seemed confused as to when fighters had gone up to attempt to intercept the hijacked planes. Memory, he said in an oddly vague way, told him that fighters had been launched to intercept Flight 93, the plane that crashed before reaching a target. “I mean,” he said, “we had gotten somebody close to it, as I recall. I’ll have to check it out.”

Within days, another senior officer flatly contradicted Myers. Major-General Paul Weaver, commander of the Air National Guard, gave reporters a detailed timeline of the military’s reaction. According to him, no airplanes had been scrambled to chase Flight 93. “There was no notification for us to launch airplanes…We weren’t even close.”

What, moreover, asked Weaver, could a fighter pilot have done had he intercepted one of the hijacked airliners? “You’re not going to get an American pilot shooting down an American airliner. We don’t have permission to do that. The only person who could grant such permission was the President, the General pointed out, leaving the impression that Bush had not done so.

By week’s end, however, that notion was turned on its head. Vice President Cheney, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that George W. Bush had indeed made the “toughest decision” – to shoot down a civilian airliner if necessary. Fighter pilots, he asserted, had been authorized to “take out” any plane that failed to obey instructions to move away from Washington.

In spite of denials by General Myers and others, there were people who thought United 93 might in fact have been shot down. Bush himself had asked Cheney, “Did we shoot it down, or did it crash?”

In the absence of good evidence to the contrary, though, few now credit the notion that any pilot shot down an airliner filled with helpless civilians on September 11. No pilot would have fired without authorization, could not have done so without fellow officers, radio operators and others being aware of it. There was no way such an action could have been kept secret.

Shootdown aside, the statements by the military and political leadership begged a host of questions. Had fighters really gone up in time to intercept any of the hijacked planes? If they did get up in time, what had they been expected to do? Could they – would they – have shot a plane down? If pilots were cleared to shoot, was the order given in the way the Vice President described? If so, when did he issue the order and when did it reach military commanders?


The most powerful military nation on the planet had been ill-prepared and ill-equipped to confront the attacks. Time was, at the height of the Cold War, when NORAD could have called on more than a hundred squadrons of fighter aircraft to defend the continental United States. By September 2001, the number had dwindled to a token force of just fourteen “alert” planes based at seven widely scattered bases. Only four of those fighters were based in the Northeast Air Defense Sector – NEADS – which covered the geographical area in which the hijackings took place.

Practice runs aside, moreover, the airplanes had never been scrambled to confront an enemy. They were used to intercept civilian aircraft that strayed off course, suspected drug traffickers, planes that failed to file a proper flight plan. Hijacks were rare, and counter-measures were based on the concept of hijacking as it had almost always been carried out since the sixties – the temporary seizure of an airliner, followed by a safe landing and the release of passengers and crew.

The cumbersome protocol in place to deal with a hijacking involved circuitous reporting, up through the FAA and on to the Pentagon, all the way up to the office of the Defense Secretary. At the end of the process, if approval was granted, NORAD would launch fighters. The pilots’ mission would then be to identify and discreetly follow the airplane until it landed. Nothing in their training or experience foresaw a need to shoot down an airliner.


September 11, 2001. Shortly before 7:30, Gen. Myers, was at the Pentagon viewing the slide presentation that comprised part of his usual morning intelligence/operations briefing.  The Air Force had deployed additional forces to Alaska and Canada in response to a major Russian military exercise in the northern Pacific that had begun the previous day. The Russians had scheduled the firing of an air-launched cruise missile as part of the exercise – the first such firing since the end of the Cold War.  A “threat-ring” graphic depicting the current range from the continental U.S. of Russian military forces – and the missiles they carried – flashed onto the screen as the briefer described them as “the current air threat to CONUS.” Within the hour, the nature of that threat was to change dramatically.

At 8:00 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston’s Logan airport bound for Los Angeles with 92 people aboard. All appeared well until thirteen minutes into the flight when Air Traffic Control lost contact with the cockpit.

“American 11 [instruction…there is no response]….American 11 [instruction]….American 11, Boston…American 11, Boston…American 11, the American on the frequency. How do you hear me?…He will not respond to me now…He’s turning right….American 11, Boston…American 11, if you hear Boston Center, ident….American, if you hear Boston, ident please, or acknowledge…..American 11, if you hear Boston Center….[THERE IS NO RESPONSE

Increasingly concerned, the Boston controller tried repeatedly over the next nine minutes to raise the flight and check the status of his own equipment. At 8:21, the plane changed course and someone turned off its transponder – severely limiting controllers ability to judge its position, speed or even to identify it accurately.

At 8:18, unbeknownst at the time to the controllers, a telephone rang at an American Airlines office almost a thousand miles away, in the town of Cary, North Carolina. The woman calling was a senior Flight 11 attendant, forty-five-year-old Betty “Bee” Ong.

Using a seatback Airfone, Ong  had dialed a number  that  crews knew well – they used it to help passengers with onward travel plans. When she got through, finally, to an American Airlines ground supervisor named Nydia Gonzalez, she sounded “calm, professional, and poised. The first four and a half minutes of Ong’s call, the standard  duration  of the recording  system at American, tell the tale.

I’m in my jumpseat, that’s 3R….My name is Betty Ong, I’m number  3 on Flight 11….The cockpit’s not answering their phone. Somebody’s stabbed in business class and, ah, I think there’s Mace that we can’t breathe. I don’t know. I think we’re getting hijacked . . . Somebody is coming back from business . . . hold on for one second . . . Karen and Bobbi got stabbed. [This last sentence, the tape shows, was spoken by a fellow attendant close by.] . . . Our number 1 got stabbed . . . our galley flight attendant and our purser has been stabbed. And we can’t get into the cockpit. The door won’t open.

“Karen” was lead flight attendant Karen Martin, “Bobbi” her backup BarbaraArestegui. Martin, Ong said, lost consciousness, then came around and was being given oxygen. Arestegui appeared not to be seriously injured.  The passenger in First Class Seat 9B, however, appeared to be dead.

The  man in Seat 9B had perhaps tried to intervene  and fight the hijackers. He was Daniel Lewin, an American-Israeli who had served in a crack Israeli commando unit. Lewin spoke Arabic, and may have understood before anyone else what the hijackers intended. Ong said the passenger  in Seat 10B, directly  to his rear,  had stabbed  Lewin to death. The man in 10B was one of the five young Arabs who had boarded that  morning.  The killer and  another  hijacker,  Ong said had gotten had gotten  into the cockpit. The sound of “loud arguing” had been heard.

There is no knowing exactly how or when the hijackers erupted into the cockpit. “There was no warning to be more vigilant,” Captain Ogonowski’s wife Peg would later say ruefully. “These people come in behind him. He’s sitting low, forward, strapped in – the same with his co-pilot. No warning…”

Ogonowski and co-pilot Tom McGuiness had been trained not to respond to force with force. FAA policy instructed pilots to “refrain from trying to overpower or negotiate with hijackers, to land the aircraft as soon as possible, to communicate with authorities, and to try delaying tactics.”

At 8:32, using a borrowed calling card, Ong’s colleague Amy Sweeney placed a call back to the American office back at Logan. She began speaking with duty manager Michael Woodward.

Sweeney said the hijackers had “boxes connected with red and yellow wire” – a bomb, she thought. One, she said, spoke no English. So far, passengers in Coach seemed unaware of what was going on.

As Ong talked on,  Nydia Gonzalez passed on what she learned to American’s security office in Texas.

“American Airlines Emergency line. Please state your emergency.”

“This is Nydia, American Airlines, calling. I’m monitoring a call from a flight attendant on Flight 11. …She is advising that the pilots…everyone’s been stabbed. They can’t get into the cockpit. That’s what I’m hearing.”

“Who’s this I’m talking to?”

Raleigh, [Carolina] Ops. Center.”

“What was your name again?”

“Nydia.””

“Last name?”

“Gonzalez. [spells] We’ve got a flight attendant on the line one of our agents.”

“I’m assuming you are declaring an emergency. Let me get APC on here…”

“Betty, you’re doing a great job. Just stay calm, okay….We are absolutely. We’re contacting the flight now. We’re also contacting APC.”….

“Is there a doctor on board?” “You don’t have any doctors on board….”

“You’ve got all the First Class passengers out of First Class? “

“Have they taken everyone out of First Class?”

“Yeah. She says that they have. They’re in Coach.” “What’s going on honey?”

“The aircraft, it’s erratic again. Flying erratically…”……

“They are going to handle this as a confirmed hijacking….They seem to think he is descending.”

“They may have sprayed something. They’re having a hard time breathing.”

Now Ong’s connection was fading in and out. Her colleague Amy Sweeney said she could see they were now “over New York City.” Then Ong exclaimed, “Oh God!…Oh God!…” and began to cry.

Sweeney screamed and said, “Something is wrong. I don’t think the captain is in control. We are in a rapid descent…We are all over the place…I see water! I see buildings!…” Next, a deep breath and, slowly, calmly, “Oh my God!…We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low.” Seconds later, again, “Oh my God, we are way too low…”

The American Airlines people on the ground could no longer hear either flight attendant. In Boston, duty manager Woodward got only “very, very loud static.” In North Carolina, Gonzalez hung on the line.

“What’s going on Betty. Betty, talk to me. Betty….”

“O, we’ll stay open…”

“I think we may have lost her….”

While Ong and Sweeney had been alerting their colleagues, the Boston air traffic control had picked up an ominous message from the cockpit.   Someone in the 767’s cockpit someone had keyed the mike to make an announcement to the passengers – but had instead broadcast a message to controllers.

Controller: “Is that American 11 trying to call?”

Male voice[accented]: “We have some planes. Just say quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport.”

Controller: “Who’s trying to call me here?…American 11, are you trying to call.”

Male voice: “Nobody move. Everything is okay. If you try to make a move you endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.

Then seconds later, another transmission:

Male voice: Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.

In Herndon, Virginia, the FAA’s new national operations manager Ben Sliney had begun his first day on the job by fielding a routine phone call alerting him pending Russian missile shot. Ten minutes later, though, at 8:28, a call came through from Boston Center advising that American 11 had been hijacked and was heading toward New York.

The nerve center for the military on September 11 was an unprepossessing aluminum bunker, the last functional building on an otherwise abandoned Air Force base in upstate New York. From the outside, only antenna betrayed its possible importance. Inside, technicians manned rows of antiquated computers and radar screens. They did not, though, expect to have a quiet day on September 11. Their commander, Colonel Robert Marr, moreover, expected to have to respond to a hijacking.

A simulated hijacking. For the Northeast Air Defense Sector’s headquarters was gearing up for its part in the latest phase of Vigilant Guardian, one of several largescale annual exercises. This one, old-fashioned in that it tested military preparedness for an attack by Russian bombers, included a scenario in which an enemy would seize an airliner and fly it to an unnamed Caribbean island.

At 8:30 that morning, the exercise proper had not yet got under way. The colonel was munching apple fritters. His mission-control commander, Major Kevin Nasypany, was away from the Ops floor getting a coffee. The general to whom they answered, Larry Arnold, was at the NORAD Command Center in Florida.

On the Ops floor at NEADS, Master Sergeant Maureen Dooley, Technical Sergeant Shelley Watson, and Senior Airman Stacia Rountree, were chatting about furniture at the mall – wondering whether an ottoman and a love seat were on sale. To be sure, the orders for the day’s training exercise provided for the team to be capable of responding to a “Real World Unknown”, but no one expected much to happen.

Then the unknown arrived, in the form of a call from FAA controller Joe Cooper, at Boston Center, to Sergeant Jeremy Powell. It was 8:38.

Cooper: Hi, Boston Center TMU [Traffic Management Unit] We have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.

Sgt. Jeremy Powell: Is this real-world or exercise?

Cooper: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.

The sergeant, and the women who moments earlier had been discussing home furnishings, needed some persuading. Phased by the advent of real-life excitement, Shelley Watson even exclaimed, “Cool!” A moment later, after an “Oh, shit…”, she was all business. “We need call-sign, type aircraft. Have you got souls on board, and all that information?…a destination?” Cooper could say only that the airplane seized was American 11 – as would become clear, the first of the four hijacks. No one could have imagined the destination its hijackers had in mind.

By 8:41, Colonel Marr had ordered the two alert jets at Otis Air National Guard base, on Cape Cod, to battle stations.

Marr immediately passed the order down the chain of command, but it was immediately clear there was a problem.

Weapons Director: I don’t know where I’m scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination.”

At 8:46, having conferred with General Arnold, Marr ordered the Otis planes into the air – to no avail.

Absent any detailed data, they were assigned merely to fly to military-controlled airspace off the Long Island coast. In the same minute, a hundred and fifty-three miles away, American 11 smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

The NEADS technicians, who had a TV set, saw the tower in flames. “Oh, God,” Sergeant Watson said quietly. “Oh my God…”A colleague at her side cried, “God save New York.”

 

Watch for Part 2 of IN THEIR OWN WORDS: INTHE TRUE STORY OF THE 9/11 BATTLE IN THE SKY to be published in coming days

 

 

 

 

          

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September 7, 2016 · 3:44 pm

Afghanistan: Back When It All Began

  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.

 

 

 

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