A Senate report says the Bush administration could have captured terrorist Osama bin Laden in December 2001 — three months after 911 — but that poor judgment calls by then defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-top military commander Gen. Tommy Franks allowed him to get away.
The New York Daily News gives a good summary of the report, which comes right as President Barack Obama is about to announce an expected troop surge in Afghanistan. The report contends bin Laden’s escape contributed to the current mess in Afghanistank where terrorism is resurgent:
Osama Bin Laden was within military reach when the Bush administration allowed him to disappear into the mountains of Afghanistan rather than pursue him with a massive military force, a new Senate report says.
The report asserts that the failure to get the terrorist leader when he was at his most vulnerable in December 2001 – three months after the 9/11 attacks – led to today’s reinvigorated insurgency in Afghanistan.
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, requested the report, which came as President Obama prepares to send as many as 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Kerry has long argued the Bush administration botched an opportunity to capture the Al Qaeda leader and his top deputies when they were holed up in the forbidding mountainous area of Tora Bora.
The report calls then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks, the top military commander at the time, to the carpet and asserts the U.S. had the means to mount a rapid assault on Bin Laden with several thousand troops.
Instead, fewer than 100 commandoes, working with Afghan militias, tried to capitalize on air strikes and track down the ragged band of terrorists.
At the time, Rumsfeld expressed concern over the backlash that could be created by a large U.S. troop presence, and he and others said evidence of Bin Laden’s location was inconclusive.
“Removing the Al Qaeda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat,” the committee’s report concludes. “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, based in part on a little-noticed 2007 history of the Tora Bora episode by the military’s Special Operations Command, asserts that the consequences of not sending American troops in 2001 to block Mr. bin Laden’s escape into Pakistan are still being felt.
The report blames the lapse for “laying the foundation for today’s protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan.”
This report will do little in political terms since terrorism has now become a politicized issue. Democrats will say: see this shows how the Bush administration did a shabby job on terrorism. Republicans will say: see Rumsfeld said there wasn’t enough evidence to get bin Laden, or say see Obama hasn’t caught him yet either.
But history books will focus on fact and the fact will remain: he got away and many accounts now say he slipped through the U.S. grasp at a time when he could have been caught.
If bin Laden is caught or killed it would be an interesting development in this news story “arc” — but not “closure.” There will never be “closure” for 911. But if he’s killed or captured, look for that, too to be a big political football with Democrats trumpeting it and Republicans either downplaying it or finding some aspects of the event to criticize.
But, again, history will take a deep breath and eventually put it into non-polemics-laced perspective.
So far this tidbit of history remains elusive.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.