an inertia of mistakes…

Posted on Monday 30 November 2009


    By John F. Kerry
    NOVEMBER 30, 2009

    [click to enlarge]Removing the Al Qaeda 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 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…

    This failure and its enormous consequences were not inevitable. By early December 2001, Bin Laden’s world had shrunk to a complex of caves and tunnels carved into a mountainous section of eastern Afghanistan known as Tora Bora. Cornered in some of the most forbidding terrain on earth, he and several hundred of his men, the largest concentration of Al Qaeda fighters of the war, endured relentless pounding by American aircraft, as many as 100 air strikes a day. One 15,000-pound bomb, so huge it had to be rolled out the back of a C-130 cargo plane, shook the mountains for miles. It seemed only a matter of time before U.S. troops and their Afghan allies overran the remnants of Al Qaeda hunkered down in the thin, cold air at 14,000 feet.

    Bin Laden expected to die. His last will and testament, written on December 14, reflected his fatalism. ‘‘Allah commended to us that when death approaches any of us that we make a bequest to parents and next of kin and to Muslims as a whole,’’ he wrote, according to a copy of the will that surfaced later and is regarded as authentic. ‘‘Allah bears witness that the love of jihad and death in the cause of Allah has dominated my life and the verses of the sword permeated every cell in my heart, ‘and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together.’ How many times did I wake up to find myself reciting this holy verse!’’ He instructed his wives not to remarry and apologized to his children for devoting himself to jihad.
I guess I’m in the minority these days. I read how disappointed the Progressives are in Obama, and I skim the Right Wing hate literature generated by Fox News, the Republican Party, and Talk Radio. I don’t much like Geithner and Summers. I feel out of my league in evaluating what’s happening at this point [other than that the mood of the country is in the pits]. I think we’re more interested in Tebow and Tiger than the fate of Western Civilization in general and our own battered economic state in the specific. But I still find myself still looking backwards, and this Report by Senator Kerry is the kind of thing that grabs my attention. I’m sure it will be panned as the rant of a "Liberal," but if you read the whole thing, Senator Kerry seems to have his ducks in a row to support his conclusions:
    [click to enlarge]But the Al Qaeda leader would live to fight another day. 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 U.S. 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. Instead, the U.S. command chose to rely on airstrikes and untrained Afghan militias to attack bin Laden and on Pakistan’s loosely organized Frontier Corps to seal his escape routes. On or around December 16, 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 decision not to deploy American forces to go after bin Laden or block his escape was made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, the architects of the unconventional Afghan battle plan known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Rumsfeld said at the time that he was concerned that too many U.S. troops in Afghanistan would create an anti-American backlash and fuel a widespread insurgency. Reversing the recent American military orthodoxy known as the Powell doctrine, the Afghan model emphasized minimizing the U.S. presence by relying on small, highly mobile teams of special operations troops and CIA paramilitary operatives working with the Afghan opposition. Even when his own commanders and senior intelligence officials in Afghanistan and Washington argued for dispatching more U.S. troops, Franks refused to deviate from the plan. There were enough U.S. troops in or near Afghanistan to execute the classic sweep-and-block maneuver required to attack bin Laden and try to prevent his escape. It would have been a dangerous fight across treacherous terrain, and the injection of more U.S. troops and the resulting casualties would have contradicted the risk-averse, ‘‘light footprint’’ model formulated by Rumsfeld and Franks. But commanders on the scene and elsewhere in Afghanistan argued that the risks were worth the reward.

    After bin Laden’s escape, some military and intelligence analysts and the press criticized the Pentagon’s failure to mount a full-scale attack despite the tough rhetoric by President Bush. Franks, Vice President Dick Cheney and others defended the decision, arguing that the intelligence was inconclusive about the Al Qaeda leader’s location. But the review of existing literature, unclassified government records and interviews with central participants underlying this report removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora…
It’s certainly consistent with what we already know. Our leaders were tentative at the outset, not wanting to commit adequate troops to do the job. They approached this heavy task with a "light footprint." I find their stated logic for why unconvincing, just as unconvincing as trying to invade Iraq with a minimal force. While the folly of their decisions is obvious now, I think it was obvious then too.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear President Obama’s decisions about Afghanistan, reportedly another "surge," this time in Afghanistan. It’s another "rock and a hard place" decision trying to make up for what we didn’t do eight years ago. Who knows? Maybe it will work and we’ll knock down the Taliban some, strengthening the corrupt government of Hamid Karzai, but whatever Obama does, it will be a belated attempt to make up for the poor decisions that came before.

History can be a way of making sense of the past, knowing outcomes allows us to see what really mattered – things that weren’t so apparent at the time they were happening [or just plain poor thinking]. History now tells us that Rumsfeld’s decision at Tora Bora was a cataclysmic mistake. But it came on the heels of an earlier mistake:
    On November 21, 2001, President Bush put his arm on Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as they were leaving a National Security Council meeting at the White House. ‘‘I need to see you,’’ the president said. It was 72 days after the 9/11 attacks and just a week after the fall of Kabul. But Bush already had new plans.

    According to Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, the president said to Rumsfeld: ‘‘What kind of a war plan do you have for Iraq? How do you feel about the war plan for Iraq?’’ Then the president told Woodward he recalled saying: ‘‘Let’s get started on this. And get Tommy Franks looking at what it would take to protect America by removing Saddam Hussein if we have to.’’ Back at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld convened a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draft a message for Franks asking for a new assessment of a war with Iraq. The existing operations plan had been created in 1998 and it hinged on assembling the kind of massive international coalition used in Desert Storm in 1991.

    In his memoir, American General, Franks later described getting the November 21 telephone call from Rumsfeld relaying the president’s orders while he was sitting in his office at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. Franks and one of his aides were working on air support for the Afghan units being assembled to push into the mountains surrounding Tora Bora. Rumsfeld said the president wanted options for war with Iraq. Franks said the existing plan was out of date and that a new one should include lessons about precision weapons and the use of special operations forces learned in Afghanistan.

    ‘‘Okay, Tom,’’ Rumsfeld said, according to Franks. ‘‘Please dust it off and get back to me next week.’’ Franks described his reaction to Rumsfeld’s orders this way: ‘‘Son of a bitch. No rest for the weary.’’

Looking back on Iraq and our invasion allows us to see what a non-danger Saddam Hussein really was. We knew that already after the Gulf War when we routed him in a short time in the 1990-1991 Desert Storm operation. Why they were so insistent on invading Iraq again remains obscure: oil exploration? to assert the U.S. as the sole superpower? paranoia? so little Bush could be like big Bush? Whatever the thinking, they radicalized a force in Iraq unlike anything Hussein could’ve ever mustered. History screams that invading Iraq was a mistake in its own right. Now Kerry’s Report makes it clear that the focus on Iraq probably colored Rumsfeld’s decision at Tora Bora, multiplying the damage. And we already know that the focus on invading Iraq [that antedated Bush and Cheney’s inauguration] was the nidus for an even earlier mistake – ignoring al Qaeda in the days before 9/11 in spite of insistent warnings from the C.I.A. and Richard Clarke. And we further realize now that the problem of the isurgency in Iraq has preoccupied us for years, leading us to make yet another bad call – allowing the War in Afghanistan to smolder on the back burner [underfunded and undermanned] while the Taliban regrouped in Pakistan and returned with a vengeance. It’s hard to imagine a bigger tangle. The preconceived Project for the New American Century plan to invade Iraq and effect the beloved "Regime Change" has distorted rational thought from the start – resulting in a cascade of misadventures stretching back over more than a decade.

History can be illuminating, but it can also be an albatross. President Obama has spent months trying to decide what to do in Afghanistan. I, for one, am glad he’s taken his time. I hope he’s thinking right about how to proceed. For my part, I don’t much care about the government of Hamid Karzai. I’m not in love with the Taliban either. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that matters is insuring that Afghanistan is no longer a training ground for al Qaeda or anything like it. I worry that this rotten history might be perpetuated – trying to "win," whatever that means. So I hope that Obama is thinking about Afghanistan afresh, rather than in the context of what has come before. What has come before is a comedy of errors that became a pitiful tragedy – an inertia of mistakes…

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