Tuesday, October 05, 2004

How Osama got away

A few excerpts from a CSM article describing the bad planning on the ground:


Pir Baksh Bardiwal, the intelligence chief for the Eastern Shura, which controls eastern Afghanistan, says he was astounded that Pentagon planners didn't consider the most obvious exit routes and put down light US infantry to block them.

"The border with Pakistan was the key, but no one paid any attention to it," he said, leaning back in his swivel chair with a short list of the Al Qaeda fighters who were later taken prisoner. "And there were plenty of landing areas for helicopters, had the Americans acted decisively. Al Qaeda escaped right out from under their feet."


Untrustworthy allies:

Indeed, Mr. Ali paid a lieutenant named Ilyas Khel to block the main escape routes into Pakistan. Mr. Khel had come to him three weeks earlier from the ranks of Taliban commander Awol Gul.

"I paid him 300,000 Pakistani rupees [$5,000] and gave him a satellite phone to keep us informed," says Mohammed Musa, an Ali deputy, who says Ali had firmly "trusted" Khel.

"Our problem was that the Arabs had paid him more, and so Ilyas Khel just showed the Arabs the way out of the country into Pakistan," Mr. Musa adds.


It's not like we were lacking troops in the area:

More than 2,000 US marines are on standby in the Arabian Sea and Pakistan for what may become the largest manhunt in history, the search for Osama bin Laden.


How did all this go wrong? Military planners at the top were distracted, as Bob Woodward's book, "Plan of Attack" describes (transcribed by topdog04, whose piece on this is worth reading):

When he was back at the Pentagon, two miles from the White House across the Potomac River in Virginia, Rumsfeld immediately had the Joint Staff begin drafting a Top Secret message to General Franks requesting a "commander's estimate," a new take on the status of the Iraq war plan and what Franks thought could be done to improve it. The general would have about a week to make a formal presentation to Rumsfeld.... (p. 5)

"Hey," Newbold said in his best take-notice voice, "I've got a real tough problem for you. The secretary's going to ask you to start looking at your Iraq planning in great detail - and give him a new commander's estimate."

"You got to be shitting me," Renuart said. "We're only kind of busy on some other things right now. Are you sure?"

"Well, yeah. It's coming. So stand by."

..."Hey, boss," Renuart said, reporting that a formal request of a commander's estimate was coming. "So we'd better get on it."

Franks was incredulous. They were in the midst of one war, Afghanistan, and now they wanted detailed planning for another, Iraq? "Goddamn," Franks said, "what the fuck are they talking about?" (p. 8)


The conclusion:

In retrospect, it becomes clear that the battle's underlying story is of how scant intelligence, poorly chosen allies, and dubious military tactics fumbled a golden opportunity to capture bin Laden as well as many senior Al Qaeda commanders.


3 comments:

Thomas said...

So much wrong here, as before.

2000 Marines simply would not have done the job. Nothing against the Marines, but Tora Bora isn't a small neighborhood in suburban Baghdad. The terrain is so difficult that Tommy Franks complained at the time that it was difficult to know even how many of the enemy were present. Here's how he described the region: "This is a reasonably large area, and it has been developed over time as a substantial cave and tunnel fortress-style complex."

If 2000 troops weren't enough to attack and take Tora Bora--and they probably wouldn't have been, given the disadvantages of the terrain and the lack of (significant) numerical superiority for the invading force, would they have been enough to seal the border with Pakistan?

Perhaps you should consult a map.

And remember that you're looking for, at most, a handful of people.

(And you might remember that it still isn't clear that bin Laden was actually there when some published reports say he was. We don't know for sure. Tommy Franks insists that he wasn't, though obviously he may have his reasons for that.)

(Check out the results of Operation Anaconda, in March 2002, for the difficulties of operations in Afghanistan. That was led by Americans, but that didn't prevent many--perhaps most--al Qaeda and Taliban forces from escaping. That doesn't prove that they couldn't have captured bin Laden in a similar operation, but it does suggest that it would have been unlikely, at best.)
It is possible that a large American contingent could have done the job. That would have meant a very different war plan--one that took longer to put in place, and that posed additional risks to the interests of the US. It would have taken months to put an overwhelming force in place, as some had proposed, and an overwhelming force would have looked a bit like the Soviet force in 1979, from a military point of view. In other words, there were good reasons for attacking as we did, and good reasons to think that an alternative plan wouldn't have been successful in capturing bin Laden at the time but would have raised the stakes for the US.

The alternative plan wasn't the one chosen by the experts--the generals at the Pentagon. But apparently you would have rejected their advice and chosen different tactics.

There's no evidence--none at all--that planning for the Iraq war had anything at all to do with the failure to capture bin Laden. The tactics chosen were chosen before the war, with a complete focus on Afghanistan. The tactic most have suggested--overwhelming US force--could not be chosen on a whim. The choice of tactics--in particular, the decision to use a light US force--couldn't be changed on a moments notice.

Neil Sinhababu said...

The point isn't to have our 2000 guys swarm Tora Bora. It's to have them block the escape routes into Pakistan, and take out escaping al-Qaeda members by calling in air strikes or laying ambushes. One of the articles describes the big convoy of al-Qaeda vehicles that was going down the road -- why didn't it get blown up?

As for the rumors that Osama wasn't in Tora Bora, I'm just going on what I've read here. If there's evidence that he was somewhere else, where was that?

Thomas said...

So the rephrased charge is that we should have outsourced the attack on Tora Bora, but should have used our 2000 Marines to block the more than 20 miles of border with Pakistan in the immediate area. By my math, that'd be 100 Marines per mile. We could have lined them up single-file, I suppose.

Of course, bin Laden could have gone around the 20 miles we could have so secured, but the point isn't to be effective, it's to score rhetorical points, isn't it?

It's my understanding that we actually did have special forces on the ground to call in air strikes.

Tommy Franks has said repeatedly that we don't know for sure that bin Laden was at Tora Bora at the relevant times. The intelligence services have, I think, concluded differently, based on interrogations at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan. There were no sightings by US forces, for example, and there's no other evidence of overwhelming reliability.