Tora Bora

How Bin Laden Escaped in 2001—The lessons of Tora Bora

In 2001, a small U.S. special operations force had won extraordinary victories in Afghanistan and closed in on Bin Laden before high-level blunders allowed him to escape into Pakistan.

Alain Buu/Gamma/Getty

This week marks the most important anniversary in the global war against al Qaeda that no one remembers.

Exactly twelve years ago, during the cold Winter days between December 10-16, in the jagged mountains of Tora Bora that separate Afghanistan from Pakistan, Osama bin Laden walked unencumbered into Pakistan and disappeared for nine and a half years.

Just before, however, bin Laden had made an egregious error. After spending a couple seconds too long on his radio, the CIA pinpointed bin Laden’s location to within ten meters. One hour later, forty of America’s most elite special operations forces raced to kill the most infamous man alive.

It was the only day for nearly a decade in which the United States knew exactly where Osama bin Laden was. And, it was the last time that the majority of al Qaeda’s leadership would ever be in the same place.

Only three months had passed since the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, and the horrific images remained seared into everyone’s mind: the news reports that a plane had hit the World Trade Center’s north tower, a Boeing 767 calmly and deliberately banking left just as it slammed into the south tower, the smoldering wreckage of the Pentagon, the crater in Pennsylvania, and the surreal collapse of the twin towers broadcast live on national television.

One official surveying the destruction likened it to a nuclear detonation. During Vice President Dick Cheney’s first visit to ground zero, his deputy national security advisor pulled him aside to tell him that the White House’s biological detectors had picked up traces of botulinum toxin. Botulinum is the most deadly poison in the world: one gram spread evenly can kill one million people. If accurate, everyone at the White House – including the President – would be dead in the next 48 hours.

For those officials responsible for America’s national security, the attacks were deeply personal. The botulinum scare turned out to be a false positive, but for one day in October of 2001 the very existence of an executive branch of government seemed in jeopardy.

So, perhaps the most surprising fact about the Bush Administration’s response to September 11, was that no one in the White House was paying attention when bin Laden was cornered at Tora Bora.

The United States had toppled the Taliban and cornered al Qaeda with record speed and an unprecedentedly small number of troops.

Nine weeks after September 11 – forty-seven days after the arrival of the first CIA team in Afghanistan, thirty-six days after the start of the bombing campaign, and twenty-three days after the arrival of U.S. troops – a couple hundred U.S. special operations troops working alongside Afghan opposition forces and CIA paramilitary teams captured Kabul.

By December 7, 2001, anti-Taliban forces controlled every major city in Afghanistan.

It was no secret that the core of al Qaeda retreated to Tora Bora in the previous weeks. Backed by signals intelligence and imagery, CIA officers and their Afghan assets continuously tracked the movement of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders east towards Pakistan.

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And, it was no surprise to the American operatives on the ground that bin Laden would escape. For weeks, Gary Berntsen, the top CIA officer in Afghanistan, pleaded for eight hundred Army Rangers to seal the six-by-six square mile sierra of Tora Bora. Then-colonel John Mulholland, the commander of the Special Forces A-teams in Afghanistan, was “concerned about the inadequacy of the force to the mission at hand.” General James Mattis, who commanded twelve hundred Marines at Camp Rhino near Kandahar, asked to reposition his forces to seal the border at Tora Bora. And, more than one thousand troops from the Tenth Mountain Division lay ready at Bagram Air Base near Kabul and Kharshi Khanabad in Uzbekistan.

Instead, the military opted to send forty additional Army special operators to Tora Bora.

When the opportunity came to kill bin Laden and decimate al Qaeda, less than one hundred special operations forces were deployed to pursue bin Laden in Tora Bora. Over those five days, hundreds – if not thousands – of al Qaeda and Taliban operatives crossed effortlessly into Pakistan and disappeared.

The failure to prevent the escape of al Qaeda and the Taliban into Pakistan represented a catastrophic blunder that allowed America’s enemies to survive 2001. General Tommy Franks rebuffed numerous requests to reinforce the U.S. contingent because he believed that the light footprint model that so effectively pushed the Taliban from the cities of Afghanistan would be appropriate for the mission at Tora Bora. But this model of warfare was neither designed nor suitable for cordoning off swaths of land and capturing or killing the enemies within that region. Franks's errors showed that he did not understand the distinction between displacing the enemy and destroying it.

The Battle of Tora Bora was also a failure of policy. General Franks’s decisions were a direct reflection of the guidance he received from the civilian leadership. In the planning sessions after the September 11 attacks, the objective that emerged for the war was to “remove Afghanistan as a safe haven for al Qaeda” – a fundamentally different objective from destroying al Qaeda.

Furthermore, the top three civilians at the Department of Defense discouraged concentrating on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Secretary Rumsfeld instructed his civilian and military subordinates, “Don’t over-elevate the importance of al Qaida,” while Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz “warned against focusing narrowly on al Qaeda and Afghanistan.” To them, Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network in Afghanistan were not the primary targets but merely actors in a much broader global conflict aimed to prevent terrorist attacks by whomever and wherever they arose.

But the largest mistake made by President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was their failure to examine and intervene in the affairs of the military. Throughout the Battle of Tora Bora, neither the president nor the secretary of defense was directly engaged in the most important operation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, how could an engaged president and secretary of defense – who questioned and prodded the military commander about the significant battles being waged, the location of Osama bin Laden, the possibility of his escape, the whereabouts of concentrations of al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, the reliability of local partners, the “knowns and unknowns,” and the tactics utilized by American forces – allow a battle for the existence of al Qaeda to be waged by ninety-three Western commandos and a contingent of generally untrustworthy Afghan rebels without any reliable force to seal the escape routes?

From that point forward, nothing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the war against al Qaeda has ever been the same.

Twelve years later, as America’s longest war comes to an inconclusive and uncertain end, one question lingers: how could we let Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban survive 2001?

Yaniv Barzilai works at the U.S. Department of State and is the author of 102 Day of War – How Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001, which will be released in January, 2014.

The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of the State Department or the U.S. Government.