Sunday, November 29, 2009

Senator Kerry report: TORA BORA REVISITED: HOW WE FAILED TO GET BIN LADEN AND WHY IT MATTERS TODAY

You can read Senator Kerry's report here. Release date is tomorrow, 30NOV09, and anticipates President Obama's speech on Afghanistan scheduled for 01DEC09.

For an in-depth response to Senator Kerry's report, I refer to Mudville Gazette's reaction here (part one) and here (part two).

There's nothing really new in the report. My reaction is that the Afghanistan invasion plan had, as any plan must have, strengths and weaknesses. In my opinion, the plan made sense. Speed was necessary. As it was, for diplomatic as well as practical reasons, Operation Enduring Freedom didn't begin until 07OCT01. Using airpower and Spec Ops organizing local 'Northern Alliance' forces as the stand-in for conventional forces allowed for the rapid deployment and invasion and surprisingly fast defeat of Taliban and al Qaeda forces. However, Tora Bora was and is notoriously difficult operational territory, worst case scenario stuff, which is why Osama bin Laden and his allies used it as a fall-back position. Moreso given the timeframe, Afghan forces presumably were immediately better prepared to operate as light infantry in the Afghan mountains compared to our conventional forces. Even our SF guys had trouble operating there, as evidenced by the battle of Takur Ghur in March 2002, which Oscar fought in as an Army Ranger.

The fact that Senator Kerry can be reasonably certain our SF guys had Osama bin Laden cornered in Dec 01 is a testament to the success of the SF and speed-based invasion plan. However, if Osama bin Laden was truly obtainable at that moment, what happened at that point may also be a testament to a weakness of the plan, ie, the shortage of Western military conventional mass and the reliability of our Afghan allies in hunting down al Qaeda, when presumably our allies were more concerned about wresting control of the country from the Taliban. Another possibility is that the necessary Western military elements were available, ie, an SF team fixing bin Laden's position while airpower and reinforcements (eg, QRF) were on stand-by, but a commander on the ground simply made the wrong cautious judgement. Or it may be the actions that reasonably could have been taken were taken and Senator Kerry is using his office to play partisan political blame-games. If I recall correctly, "Dalton Fury" in his 60 Minutes interview said airstrikes were called in on the position where bin Laden was believed to be. He believes we hit the right spot and that local Afghans got bin Laden out. I've also read that escaping al Qaeda and Taliban in Tora Bora used bluff surrender ploys to stall our forces while they escaped, which may have worked regardless of the size of the forces we had in the area.

We defeated the Taliban and al Qaeda in terms of controlling Afghanistan, but it can be more straightforward to achieve traditional military victory by occupying a country than it can for a nation to hunt down a single man or group of men. Senator Kerry's speculation about Osama bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora reminds me of the WWII stories about Nazi leaders escaping from Germany despite their defeated nation being thoroughly occupied and surrounded by millions of Soviet, American, and other nations' soldiers.

Be that as it may, if a different invasion plan was followed that emphasized Western conventional forces, would we have reached the same moment where bin Laden was cornered? Assuming we reached that moment, would it have been practical to have had an additional brigade-plus of conventional American infantry in the area on a moment's notice? And assuming they could have been there as a "blocking force" at that moment, would the additional troops have made a difference in stopping bin Laden's escape through the notorious Tora Bora? And, finally, even if bin Laden was killed or captured in Dec 01, would the post-war peace-building mission in Afghanistan be substantially changed today?

06DEC09 update: Doug Stanton takes the opposite tack and says we should have been more SF and less conventional in Afghanistan.

Eric

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