NBC News claims that Osama bin Laden may have narrowly escaped U.S. forces last month, in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan--the same area when the terrorist leaders was last seen six years ago.
We use the word "claims" because the network--and its sources--can't actually confirm that bin Laden was present when coalition forces staged a three-day assault on Tora Bora between 14-16 August. Some sample comments affirm the vague nature of NBC's claims:
One of the officials interviewed by NBC News, a general officer, admitted Tuesday that it was “possible” Bin Laden was at Tora Bora, saying, in fact, "I still don’t know if he was there."
While the intelligence did not provide “positively identification” that Bin Laden or Zawahiri were at the scene, there was enough other intelligence to suggest that one of the two men was there.
Enough other intelligence? If you're scratching your head on that one, here's something of an amplification from NBC :
Another official said that intelligence analysts believed strongly that there was a high probability that “either HVT-1 or HVT-2 was there,” using U.S. intelligence descriptions — high value targets — for Bin Laden and Zawahiri. He added that while opinion inside the agency was divided, many believed it was Bin Laden rather than Zawahiri who was present. The reason: “They thought they spotted his security detail,” said the official, a large al Qaeda security detail — the kind of protection that would normally surround only Bin Laden, or Zawahiri.
Let's review; U.S.-led coalition forces launched a mission into Tora Bora in mid-August, to disrupt a pre-Ramadan meeting of Al Qaida and Taliban officials. Planning intensified amid reports that bin Laden or Zawahiri might be present. However, we still can't confirm that either Al Qaida official was actually in the region, although some of the locals think they spotted his security detail. Yeah, that's conclusive.
Digging a little deeper in the reporting, you'll discover some of the ulterior motives for the network--and their sources. On the military side, there seems to be a beef between the SOF operators who led the raid, and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, which served as a blocking force:
Military officials admit there were unidentified "planning and coordination problems" even before it got to execution, “primarily between the operators and the generals who give the go-orders” added an intelligence official. A company of the 82nd Airborne was brought in since a Ranger team trained in special operations was not available. But the combination of the “dark side” — the SEALs — and the conventional — the 82nd Airborne — didn't work. "They didn't gel," said the military official. There was "a lack of responsiveness to the intelligence and a lack of aggressiveness."
It's a frequent complaint from SOF operators, who (given their druthers) would prefer "lighter and leaner" operations, relying largely on their own assets, and without the "support" force that is often added to provide security and additional firepower. The reported clash between conventional and special forces has happened before, although there are other examples--both in Iraq and Afghanistan--where SOF and conventional elements have meshed effectively. By talking to NBC, the special ops community took a preemptive shot at the 82nd Airborne, blaming them for any "failure" in the latest Tora Bora raid.
As for NBC, they manage to recycle Democratic talking point that we "don't have enough forces in Afghanistan" to do the job:
But the bigger part of the picture is the question of allocation of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq. All Delta Force and “dark side” Rangers were moved to Iraq, said a special operations officer involved in the Afghanistan operation. Left behind in Afghanistan were SEAL Team Six and some Rangers. But apparently in this case, not enough “dark side” were available. The 82nd, said a second special operations officer, “is a poor substitute … [it is] a blunder to use them on an op with dark side operators.”
And what have those "dark side" operators been doing in Iraq? Tracking down terrorist leaders and "neutralizing" a significant number of insurgent networks. As our commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, reported earlier in the summer, the pace of special operations in the troop surge has been stunning; he told an interviewer that U.S. SOF units are conducting "multiple raids" every night, a major reason for the downturn in terrorist operations and violence. Clearly, the concentration of SOF assets in Iraq is paying big dividends.
It's also worth nothing that SOF elements have been working--successfully--with other elements of the 82nd Airborne, now deployed in central Iraq. So why were there problems in Afghanistan? The answer may lie in a number of factors, ranging from intra-service rivalries (most of the residual SOF operators were SEALS, while the 82nd is an Army asset); personality clashes between unit commanders, or simple time constraints.
Consider this: let's say the NBC report is accurate. Word that bin Laden was in Tora Bora probably resulted in a sudden--and dramatic--increase in the size of our attacking force, and pushed commanders to get underway as quickly as possible. Under that scenario, the time for training, coordination and rehearsal was compressed, leading to problems in the field. That wouldn't be the first time something like that has occurred--and it won't be the last, either. It's all part of the fog of war.
Truth be told, we may never know if bin Laden or Zawahiri were in Tora Bora last month. Six years after 9-11, we still don't have effective HUMINT on the whereabouts of senior Al Qaida leaders, another legacy of the intelligence failures over the past two decades. Until those problems are fixed, the search for senior terrorist leaders will remain difficult and frustrating, at best.