New evidence from former U.S. officials reveals
that the George W. Bush administration failed to adopt any plan to block the
retreat of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders from Afghanistan to Pakistan
in the first weeks after 9/11.
That failure was directly related to the fact that top administration officials
gave priority to planning for war with Iraq over military action against al-Qaeda
As a result, the United States had far too few troops and strategic airlift
capacity in the theater to cover the large number of possible exit routes through
the border area when bin Laden escaped in late 2001.
Because it had not been directed to plan for that contingency, the U.S. military
had to turn down an offer by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in late November
2001 to send 60,000 troops to the border passes to intercept them, according
to accounts provided by former U.S. officials involved in the issue.
On Nov. 12, 2001, as Northern Alliance troops were marching on Kabul with
little resistance, the CIA had intelligence that bin Laden was headed for a
cave complex in the Tora Bora Mountains close to the Pakistani border.
The war had ended much more quickly than expected only days earlier. CENTCOM
commander Tommy Franks, who was responsible for the war in Afghanistan, had
no forces in position to block bin Laden's exit.
Franks asked Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek, commander of Army Central Command
(ARCENT), whether his command could provide a blocking force between al-Qaeda
and the Pakistani border, according to David W. Lamm, who was then commander
of ARCENT Kuwait.
Lamm, a retired Army colonel, recalled in an interview that there was no way
to fulfill the CENTCOM commander's request, because ARCENT had neither the
troops nor the strategic lift in Kuwait required to put such a force in place.
"You looked at that request, and you just shook your head," recalled
Lamm, now chief of staff of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies
at the National Defense University.
Franks apparently already realized that he would need Pakistani help in blocking
the al-Qaeda exit from Tora Bora. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told
a National Security Council meeting that Franks "wants the [Pakistanis]
to close the transit points between Afghanistan and Pakistan to seal what's
going in and out," according to the National Security Council meeting
transcript in Bob Woodward's book Bush at War.
Bush responded that they would need to "press Musharraf to do that."
A few days later, Franks made an unannounced trip to Islamabad to ask Musharraf
to deploy troops along the Pakistan-Afghan border near Tora Bora.
A deputy to Franks, Lt. Gen. Mike DeLong, later claimed that Musharraf had
refused Franks' request for regular Pakistani troops to be repositioned from
the north to the border near the Tora Bora area. DeLong wrote in his 2004 book
Inside Centcom that Musharraf had said he "couldn't do that,"
because it would spark a "civil war" with a hostile tribal population.
But U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin, who accompanied Franks to the meeting
with Musharraf, provided an account of the meeting to this writer that contradicts
Chamberlin, now president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, recalled
that the Pakistani president told Franks that CENTCOM had vastly underestimated
what was required to block bin Laden exit from Afghanistan. Musharraf said,
"Look you are missing the point: there are 150 valleys through which al-Qaeda
are going to stream into Pakistan," according to Chamberlin.
Although Musharraf admitted that the Pakistani government had never exercised
control over the border area, the former diplomat recalled, he said this was
"a good time to begin." The Pakistani president offered to redeploy
60,000 troops to the area from the border with India but said his army would
need airlift assistance from the United States to carry out the redeployment.
But the Pakistani redeployment never happened, according to Lamm, because
it wasn't logistically feasible. Lamm recalled that it would have required
an entire aviation brigade, including hundreds of helicopters, and hundreds
of support troops to deliver that many combat troops to the border region
far more than was available.
Lamm said the ARCENT had so few strategic lift resources that it had to use
commercial aircraft at one point to move U.S. supplies in and out of Afghanistan.
Even if the helicopters had been available, however, they could not have operated
with high effectiveness in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border region
near the Tora Bora caves, according to Lamm, because of the combination of
high altitude and extreme weather.
Franks did manage to insert 1,200 Marines to Kandahar on Nov. 26 to establish
control of the airbase there. They were carried to the base by helicopters
from an aircraft carrier that had steamed into the Gulf from the Pacific, according
The Marines patrolled roads in the Kandahar area hoping to intercept al-Qaeda
officials heading toward Pakistan. But DeLong, now retired from the Army, said
in an interview that the Marines would not have been able to undertake the
blocking mission at the border. "It wouldn't have worked even if
we could have gotten them up there," he said. "There weren't enough
to police 1,500 kilometers of border."
U.S. troops probably would also have faced armed resistance from the local
tribal population in the border region, according to DeLong. The tribesmen
in local villages near the border "liked bin Laden," he said "because
he had given them millions of dollars."
Had the Bush administration's priority been to capture or kill the al-Qaeda
leadership, it would have deployed the necessary ground troops and airlift
resources in the theater over a period of months before the offensive in Afghanistan
"You could have moved American troops along the Pakistani border before
you went into Afghanistan," said Lamm. But that would have meant waiting
until spring 2002 to take the offensive against the Taliban, according to Lamm.
The views of Bush's key advisers, however, ruled out any such plan from the
start. During the summer of 2001, Rumsfeld had refused to develop contingency
plans for military action against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan despite a National
Security Presidential Directive adopted at the Deputies' Committee level in
July and by the Principles on Sept. 4 that called for such planning, according
to the 9/11 Commission report.
Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz resisted such planning
for Afghanistan because they were hoping that the White House would move quickly
on military intervention in Iraq. According to the 9/11 Commission, at four
deputies' meetings on Iraq between May 31 and July 26, 2001, Wolfowitz pushed
his idea to have U.S. troops seize all the oil fields in southern Iraq.
Even after Sept. 11, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Vice President Dick Cheney continued
to resist any military engagement in Afghanistan, because they were hoping
for war against Iraq instead.
Bush's top secret order of Sept. 17 for war with Afghanistan also directed
the Pentagon to begin planning for an invasion of Iraq, according to journalist
James Bamford's book Pretext for War.
Cheney and Rumsfeld pushed for a quick victory in Afghanistan in NSC meetings
in October, as recounted by both Woodward and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas
Feith. Lost in the eagerness to wrap up the Taliban and get on with the Iraq
War was any possibility of preventing bin Laden's escape to Pakistan.
(Inter Press Service)