In a report released yesterday--just in time for the Sunday papers and talk shows-- the panel's Democratic majority repeats claims that Osama bin Laden was "within our grasp" at Tora Bora in December 2001, when U.S. military leaders made the decision not to pursue him with massive force.
And, if you believe Mr. Kerry's narrative, we're still paying the price for that mistake today. Surviving to fight another day, bin Laden's escape "laid the foundation for today's reinvigorated Afghan insurgency," and inflamed the internal strife which threatens neighboring Pakistan. As the Associated Press reports:
“Removing the al-Qaida leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat,” the report says. “But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide. The failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism.”
The report states categorically that bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora when the U.S. had the means to mount a rapid assault with several thousand troops at least. It says that a review of existing literature, unclassified government records and interviews with central participants “removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.”
On or about Dec. 16, 2001, bin Laden and bodyguards “walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area,” where he is still believed to be based, the report says.
While the AP clearly accepts the committee's version of events, more careful readers will note that the Senate report was carefully crafted to endorse Mr. Kerry's long-held views. While committee members (and staffers) have security clearances--and access to classified information--their assessment was largely based on unclassified government records and other open sources.
Why does that matter? Because the intelligence record on bin Laden's presence at Tora Bora is far less conclusive. While a former Delta Force commander (who participated in the battle) claims to have advanced within 2,000 yards of bin Laden's suspected position, Al Qaida fighters who were later captured said their leader was only in the area for only a short time, and departed before the main battle began. Intelligence summaries prepared after the battle have raised similar questions about how long bin Laden was at Tora Bora and the possibility that he was never "in our grasp."
Similarly, claims about bin Laden's radio chatter at Tora Bora are based on the opinions of a CIA expert who was with U.S. forces. How does the expert's claims stack up against NSA analysis of the traffic? Readers of the report will never know, since Kerry's staffers never bothered to consult the world's premier SIGINT agency or if they did, NSA's conclusions never made the final report.
It's also worth noting that some of the "sources" cited in the report have their own axe to grind with the Bush Administration and the military chain-of-command. The Delta operative, who uses the pen name "Dalton Fury" wrote a book that is highly critical of how military commanders handled operations at Tora Bora. A CIA paramilitary officer--also present for the operation--reached the same conclusion, and emerges as another primary source for the Kerry report.
Meanwhile, the assessment is less charitable towards key players who changed their minds, namely retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Mike DeLong, who served as the Deputy Commander at CENTCOM under General Tommy Franks. While noting that General DeLong initially supported claims about bin Laden's presence at Tora Bora, the report also hints that the former flag officer's later views may have been influenced by politics. The Senate study observes that DeLong's change-of-heart came just before the 2004 presidential election, and only weeks after General Franks published similar claims about Tora Bora.
But there's also the possibility that DeLong simply revised his position after reconsidering what he knew as the battle unfolded--and what he subsequently learned from available reporting. As he told Senate staffers in an interview:
‘‘What I put in the book was what the intel said at the time,’’ he said. ‘‘The intel is not always right. I read it that he was there. We even heard that he was injured. Later intel was that he may or may not have been there. Did anybody have eyeballs on him? No. The intel stated that he was there at the time, but we got shot in the face by bad intel many times.’’
Obviously, both DeLong and his former boss, General Franks, have a dog in the fight, trying to preserve their reputations against the pull of both history and politics. But the same holds true for Mr. Kerry. Five years ago, he tried to indict George W. Bush for "failing" to get bin Laden, but that issue never resonated with the American public. Now, as a Democratic president prepares to justify a major troop increase in Afghanistan, Senator Kerry finds it convenient to (once again) blame his political rival, insisting that the war against Al Qaida could have been won at Tora Bora in December 2001.
Naturally, that theory has more holes that a block of Swiss. Al Qaida has managed to muddle along for the past eight years, despite long stretches when bin Laden was incommunicado--thanks largely to U.S. military pressure. While the terror leader remains an inspirational figure among radical Islamists, but there is ample reason to believe that bin Laden's movement would have survived his demise.
Indeed, post 9-11 attacks in locations as diverse as Bali, Madrid, London and Fort Hood illustrate that terror splinter cells and "lone wolves" may pose the greatest threat to western security, regardless of Al Qaida's current status, or that of its founding father.
Was an opportunity missed at Tora Bora? Probably. But our inability to "get" bin Laden at that moment, in the snowy mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border--was not a decisive failure, a mistake that doomed our effort, as Mr. Kerry would suggest. Truth is, the war against our Islamic terrorists will continue long after bin Laden is gone, regardless of when that occurs.
As part of its assessment, the Senate report claims that the "vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Army and Marine Corps," was kept on the sidelines. But that ignores some rather inconvenient facts; the window of opportunity at Tora Bora was relatively narrow, and secondly, it takes considerable effort to transport thousands of troops (and required logistics) high into the mountainous terrain of the Afghan border region. Preparations for the kind of battle envisioned by Kerry and his armchair strategists would have taken weeks--and provided a clear tip-off for bin Laden and his entourage. By the time that force was assembled, the terror leader would have been long gone.
But don't tell that to the military experts on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
ADDENDUM: The Wall Street Journal reminds us that Mr. Kerry was actually against more troops for the Tora Bora campaign back in 2001, telling CNN's Larry King that the strategy then in place was "the best way to protect the troops and sort of minimalize the proximity, if you will." That means Kerry is now in the awkward position of supporting a troop surge for Tora Bora, eight years after he was against it.