US forces missed a clear opportunity to capture Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora district of the White Mountains in Afghanistan in December 2001, a US Senate committee report to be officially released today says, placing much of the blame on military leaders under Presient George W Bush, his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and Gen Tommy Franks.
The report, prepared by the Democratic staff of the Senate foreign relations committee, said the costly decision not to go after the al Qa'eda leader then, because of fear of a backlash among some Afghans, has had severe consequences in the fight against terrorism. "Removing the al Qa'eda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat. 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 report, titled "Tora Bora: How We Failed to Get Bin Laden and Why It Matters Today", said.
"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, leaving the American people more vulnerable to terrorism, laying the foundation for today's protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan." The report's publication comes as the US president, Barack Obama, is expected to call for sending more troops to Afghanistan in a speech tomorrow at the US Military Academy at West Point. Mr Obama's remarks will envision an exit strategy.
"We are in year nine of our time in Afghanistan. We're not going to be there another eight or nine years," Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters in announcing the speech. "This is not one country or one region's problem alone," Mr Gibbs said. Yesterday, the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, in television interviews called on Pakistan to intensify the hunt for bin Laden and al Qa'eda's second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri.
John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, wrote in the report: "Our inability to finish the job in late 2001 has contributed to a conflict today that endangers not just our troops and those of our allies, but the stability of a volatile and vital region." It draws partly from interviews with participants, a history of the Tora Bora episode written in 2007 by the military's Special Operations Command, and books by two CIA officers, Gary Berntsen and Gary Schoen, and by a commander in the US army's elite Delta Force who goes by the pen name Dalton Fury. The chief investigator of the foreign relations committee that prepared the report is Douglas Frantz, a former journalist who has reported extensively on the hunt for bin Laden.
The Senate committee report said it "removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora". "Fewer than 100 American commandos were on the scene with their Afghan allies and calls for reinforcements to launch an assault were rejected. Requests were also turned down for US troops to block the mountain paths leading to sanctuary a few miles away in Pakistan. The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines," the report said
"On or around December 16, 2001, two days after writing his will, bin Laden and an entourage of bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan's unregulated tribal area. Most analysts say he is still there today," the report concluded. Mr Berntsen, who was the senior CIA paramilitary commander in Afghanistan, was cited in the report as being sceptical about relying on Afghan militias "who were hardly anxious to get at al Qa'eda in Tora Bora".
"He also knew that the special operations troops and CIA operatives on the scene were not enough to stop bin Laden from escaping across the mountain passes," the report said, citing what Mr Berntsen wrote in his book Jawbreaker, published in 2005: "We needed US soldiers on the ground! I'd sent my request for 800 US Army Rangers and was still waiting for a response. I repeated to anyone at headquarters who would listen, 'We need rangers now! The opportunity to get bin Laden and his men is slipping away!'"
Gen Franks and his subordinates refused to deploy the troops. "I don't give a damn about offending our allies!" Mr Berntsen recalls telling Maj Gen Dell Dailey at the time, then the commander of US special operations forces in Afghanistan. "I only care about eliminating al Qa'eda and delivering bin Laden's head in a box!" The report concluded that "rather than allowing bin Laden to escape, Franks and Rumsfeld could have deployed American troops already in Afghanistan on or near the border with Pakistan to block the exits while simultaneously sending special operations forces and their Afghan allies up the mountains to Tora Bora. The complex mission would have been risky, but analysis shows that it was well within the ability of the American military".
Fury, who was the senior military officer at Tora Bora, commanding about 90 special operations troops and support personnel, told the staff that prepared the Senate report: "In general, I definitely think it was worth the risk to force to assault Tora Bora for Osama bin Laden. What other target out there, then or now, could be more important to our nation's struggle in the global war on terror?" firstname.lastname@example.org