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May 04, 2011

Decision Points: Tora Bora vs. Abbottabad
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Decision Points As deluge of news coverage on the death of Osama bin Laden continues, and some go to great lengths to credit George Bush with putting policies in place that ultimately led to bin Laden's death, it’s worth reminding ourselves that President Bush and his administration had an opportunity to nab bin Laden at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001. But their decision-making during that episode failed. The opportunity was squandered. In contrast, in Abbotabad, Pakistan, President Obama’s clear-eyed choices and ability to effectively multi-task in the last few weeks made all the difference. Three key decisions illustrate the difference between the meek, unfocused choices Bush made and what ultimately caught bin Laden.

Prioritizing competing demands

Peter Bergen’s definitive account of the battle for Tora Bora explains how the Bush administration’s attention was distracted by the planning process for Iraq. “In late November, Donald Rumsfeld told Franks that Bush ‘wants us to look for options in Iraq.’… Franks points out in his autobiography that his staff was already working seven days a week, 16-plus hours a day, as the Tora Bora battle was reaching its climax. Although Franks doesn’t say so, it is impossible not to wonder if the labor-intensive planning ordered by his boss for another major war was a distraction from the one he was already fighting.” It’s a well-worn story but one worth repeating: President Bush botched a golden opportunity for a quick, early, relatively decisive victory in the war on terror in favor of pursuing the ultimate war of choice in Iraq.

In contrast, President Obama – while managing the uprising in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan and a government on the brink of shutdown – could have been too distracted to pay attention to what were surely incomplete intelligence reports saying the CIA had located bin Laden. He could have followed the advice of members of Congress and put the U.S. in the lead of the war in Libya, which would have occupied a significant portion of the national security apparatus’s attention. All of those things could have taken President Obama’s eye off the goal of capturing bin Laden. This opportunity could have been squandered. (Of course, most presidents will take any opportunity – even a risky one – to score a foreign policy victory of this nature. And rightfully so, but that makes President Bush’s failure at Tora Bora all the more stunning.)

When it mattered, being willing to commit troops

According to Bergen, even when a relatively small influx of troops could have found and killed the leader of al Qaeda, throughout the battle of Tora Bora the “U.S. force was to remain tiny.” Why such a small presence? A desire to have a “light footprint.” The politics of sending troops into harm’s way are dicey. The Bush administration dithered. Bergen explains: “The Green Berets did call in airstrikes but were not allowed to engage in firefights with al Qaeda because of concerns that the battle would turn into a ‘meat grinder.’” (That’s an interesting viewpoint considering the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the latter of which has become America’s longest, but that’s another post.) 

Put that hesitation to commit forces against President Obama’ decision. The president was already being battered by his base for troop escalations in Afghanistan and committing U.S. military assets – however limited – to enforcing UN resolution 1973 in Libya. Throw in a tight fiscal situation and the constant comparison by pundits of Obama to Jimmy Carter, whose botched quick-hit helicopter operation in Iran would have been the first metaphor jumped to had the bin Laden gone wrong, and there were many reasons why Obama would have been safer with a drone strike or missile strike. But Obama knew an air attack wouldn’t produce a body, allowing bin Laden’s legend to live on through conspiracy, and it would have upped civilian causalities. Sending in the Special Forces was the right call. Paul Pillar lays it out nicely in explaining the difference between the pre-Obama hunt for bin Laden and Obama’s approach: “The challenges in finding Bin Laden, and the tools and techniques available to try to find him, have not fundamentally changed through the years. What changed since the 1990s is a willingness to use U.S. military force directly to kill him.” 

Judging the value of partners 

At Tora Bora, the Bush administration relied heavily on poorly trained and untrustworthy foreign fighters. Bergen quotes the Delta Force operator who ran the operation, saying, “For the most important mission to date in the global war on terror, our nation was relying on a fractious bunch of AK-47-toting lawless bandits and tribal thugs who were not bound by any recognized rules of warfare.” Those were the Afghans. On the Pakistan side, at a critical moment in the battle Pakistan removed its troops to respond to a provocation by India on its far border, leaving an already tough-to-defend border essentially unguarded. Brings to mind the saying about what to do if you want something done right… 

President Obama made no such mistake. Clear-eyed from the start about the mixed performance of Pakistan on sensitive operations, the administration decided information about the whereabouts of bin Laden was simply too sensitive to tell any part of the Pakistani government. On the heels of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis incident, which resulted in a substantial rift in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, President Obama ordered a risky operation that would, even if it came off flawlessly, inflame Pakistan. And he did it without their prior knowledge in order to help ensure success. Several people have rightly called the choice "gutsy."

What does it mean? 

The net result of these choices was a successful operation and a decisive blow against al Qaeda. Even if it didn’t occur in the middle of the night, finding bin Laden was President Obama’s three-AM phone call – it would be hard to think of a better answer.


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Bush was tapping in the dark so its not logical that they got distracted, one place no body thought Bin Laden was is Pakistan. sell platinum here

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