President Obama finished the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but neocon mistakes prolonged the pursuit, reports Robert Parry. May 2, 2011
By Robert Parry
President Barack Obama touched off American celebrations with his Sunday night announcement that U.S. forces finally had killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but that long frustrating hunt might not have been necessary if George W. Bush had rejected neoconservative advice to pivot prematurely from Afghanistan to Iraq in late 2001.
In his memoir Decision Points, Bush recalled how he began making that turn shortly after the 9/11 attacks at the advice of arch-neocon Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who “suggested that we consider confronting Iraq as well as the Taliban” in Afghanistan.
Bush wrote that he was initially reluctant to go in that direction:
“Unless I received definitive evidence tying Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 plot, I would work to resolve the Iraq problem diplomatically. I hoped unified pressure by the world might compel Saddam to meet his international obligations. The best way to show him we were serious was to succeed in Afghanistan.”
But Bush did not fully succeed in Afghanistan. Though the U.S. invasion quickly toppled bin Laden’s Taliban allies, Bush let his ego and impatience get the better of him as he left unfinished the task of getting bin Laden “dead or alive,” as Bush had vowed.
Instead, Bush heeded his neocon advisers who were itching to take out Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime enemy of Israel whose nation was at the strategic center of the Middle East and happened to sit on the world’s second-largest petroleum reserves.
In his memoir, Bush noted the crucial moment of his decision-making only in passing and without explaining the full significance of the timing.
By November 2001, bin Laden and other al-Qaeda’s leaders were holed up at their mountain base in Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces units, working with Afghan militia, were on the trail but lacked the necessary forces and firepower.
It was at that moment when Bush made his fateful decision to pivot. He wrote:
“Two months after 9/11, I asked Don Rumsfeld to review the existing battle plans for Iraq. We needed to develop the coercive half of coercive diplomacy. Don tasked General Tommy Franks [then in charge of the Central Command covering the Middle East and Central Asia] with updating the plans. Just after Christmas 2001, Tommy came to Crawford to brief me on Iraq.”
What Bush left out of that narrative was later revealed by a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation that Franks was overseeing the military operation aimed at capturing or killing bin Laden when Rumsfeld relayed Bush’s order to freshen up the invasion plan for Iraq.
According to the committee’s analysis of the Tora Bora battle, the small team of American pursuers believed they had bin Laden trapped at Tora Bora and called for reinforcements to seal off possible escape routes to Pakistan.
But Bush was instead heeding his neocon advisers and turning his attention to Iraq. The Senate report said:
“On November 21, 2001, President Bush put his arm on Defense Secretary [Donald] 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,” an invasion of Iraq.
Gen. Franks in his memoir, American General recalled that he got a phone call from Rumsfeld that same day, on Nov. 21. The Defense Secretary had just met with President Bush who was interested in an updated Iraq war plan.
At the time, Franks said he was in his office at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida working with one of his aides on arranging air support for the Afghan militia who were under the guidance of the U.S. Special Forces in charge of the assault on bin Laden’s Tora Bora stronghold.
Franks told Rumsfeld that the Iraq war plan was out of date, prompting the Defense Secretary to instruct Franks to “dust it off and get back to me in a week.”
“For critics of the Bush administration’s commitment to Afghanistan,” the Senate report noted, “the shift in focus just as Franks and his senior aides were literally working on plans for the attacks on Tora Bora represents a dramatic turning point that allowed a sustained victory in Afghanistan to slip through our fingers.
“Almost immediately, intelligence and military planning resources were transferred to begin planning the next war in Iraq.”
The CIA and Special Forces teams, calling for reinforcements to finish off bin Laden and al-Qaeda, “did not know what was happening back at CentCom, the drain in resources and shift in attention would affect them and the future course of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan,” the report said.
Pleading with the President
Henry Crumpton, who was in charge of the CIA’s Afghan strategy, made direct appeals to Franks to move more than 1,000 Marines to Tora Bora to block escape routes to Pakistan. But the CentCom commander rebuffed the request, citing logistical and time problems, the report said.
“At the end of November, Crumpton went to the White House to brief President Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney and repeated the message that he had delivered to Franks,” the report said. “Crumpton warned the president that the Afghan campaign’s primary goal of capturing bin Laden was in jeopardy because of the military’s reliance on Afghan militias at Tora Bora.
“Crumpton questioned whether the Pakistani forces would be able to seal off the escape routes and pointed out that the promised Pakistani troops had not arrived yet.”
Crumpton also told Bush that the Afghan militia were not up to the job of assaulting al-Qaeda’s bases at Tora Bora and warned the President, “we’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful,” the report said, citing journalist Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine.
But the Iraq-obsessed Bush still didn’t act. Finally, in mid-December 2001, the small U.S. Special Forces team convinced the Afghan militia fighters to undertake a sweep of the mountainous terrain, but they found it largely deserted.
The Senate report said bin Laden and his bodyguards apparently departed Tora Bora on Dec. 16, 2001, adding: “With help from Afghans and Pakistanis who had been paid in advance, the group made its way on foot and horseback across the mountain passes and into Pakistan without encountering any resistance.
“The Special Operations Command history (of the Afghan invasion) noted that there were not enough U.S. troops to prevent the escape, acknowledging that the failure to capture or kill bin Laden made Tora Bora a controversial battle.”
Though excluding those details from his memoir, Bush challenged criticism that he bungled the battle of Tora Bora. He wrote:
“Years later, critics charged that we allowed bin Laden to slip the noose at Tora Bora. I sure didn’t see it that way.
“I asked our commanders and CIA officials about bin Laden frequently. They were working around the clock to locate him, and they assured me they had the troop levels and resources they needed. If we had ever known for sure where he was, we would have moved heaven and earth to bring him to justice.”
The reality, however, was that the neocons, who saw Iraq as a more serious threat to Israel, and the oil men of the Bush administration, who lusted after Iraq’s petroleum reserves, persuaded Bush to concentrate more on getting rid of Saddam Hussein than Osama bin Laden. Bush’s team told the American people that Hussein had WMD which he might give to al-Qaeda.
Some of Bush’s advisers also played on his macho self-image. In his memoir, Bush recalled one of his weekly lunches with Vice President Cheney (the former head of the Halliburton oil-drilling company), who was urging him to get on with the business of eliminating Hussein.
“Dick asked me directly, ‘Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?’ That was his way of saying he thought we had given diplomacy enough time. I appreciated Dick’s blunt advice. I told him I wasn’t ready to move yet. ‘Okay, Mr. President, it’s your call,’ he said.”
However, even as he was being prodded by Cheney and the neocons to act, Bush was using similar macho rhetoric about having “the balls” to go to war to ensure that Prime Minister Blair would commit British forces when the time came. In one melodramatic passage in Decision Points, Bush recounted a discussion with Blair:
“Once we laid out our position at the UN, we had to be willing to follow through with the consequences. If diplomacy failed, there would be only one option left. ‘I don’t want to go to war,’ I told Tony, ‘but I will do it.’
“Tony agreed. After the meeting, I told Alastair Campbell, one of Tony’s top aides, ‘Your man has got cojones.’ I’m not sure how that translated to the refined ears of 10 Downing Street. But to anyone from Texas, its meaning was clear.”
In late 2002 and early 2003, the Iraqi government tried to convince the world that it had destroyed its WMD stockpiles and had no relations with al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, in March 2003, President Bush forced U.N. weapons inspectors to leave Iraq and ordered the “shock and awe” invasion of the nearly defenseless nation.
Within three weeks, the invasion had ousted Saddam Hussein’s government, but failed to discover any WMD stockpiles. A few weeks later, Bush flew onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California and gave his “Mission Accomplished” speech declaring the end of major combat.
Eventually, Bush had the satisfaction of having U.S. troops deliver Hussein to the scaffold where he was hanged in late 2006. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Silences a Dangerous Witness.”]
But the war also drove Iraq into eight years (and counting) of a living hell, with the death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands, with many more maimed and with millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes and living in degradation and squalor. More than 4,400 U.S. troops also died and the total cost to the U.S. Treasury will likely exceed $1 trillion.
Back in Afghanistan
The consequences for Afghanistan from Bush’s premature pivot away from that war to the one ardently desired by the neocons were also devastating.
Rather than stabilizing Afghanistan and snuffing out al-Qaeda’s threat in the region, Bush watched as the Taliban staged a comeback in Afghanistan and key al-Qaeda leaders remained at large to inspire a new generation of jihadists.
According to his memoir, Bush recognized the deteriorating situation but couldn’t do much about it because U.S. forces were bogged down in the Iraq occupation. He wrote:
“My CIA and military briefings included increasingly dire reports about Taliban influence. The problem was crystallized by a series of color-coded maps I saw in November 2006. The darker the shading, the more attacks had occurred in that part of Afghanistan.
“The 2004 map was lightly shaded. The 2005 map had darker areas in the southern and eastern parts of the country. By 2006, the entire southeastern quadrant was black. In just one year, the number of remotely detonated bombs had doubled. The number of armed attacks had tripled. The number of suicide bombings had more than quadrupled.”
By the time Bush left office in early 2009, U.S. commanders were beseeching the new president, Barack Obama, to dispatch reinforcements to Afghanistan to stave off the Taliban’s consolidation of control over wide swaths of the country. Obama also had to deal with a worsening crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where leaders of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda had built safe havens.
To the dismay of Obama’s liberal “base,” the President agreed to dispatch tens of thousands of more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, even as he withdrew others from Iraq.
According to accounts of Obama’s thinking, his decision was colored by the risks of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups destabilizing the fragile civilian government of Pakistan and possibly gaining access to the country’s nuclear arsenal. Obama also needed a platform in the region to reenergize the counter-terrorism campaign against al-Qaeda.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama had vowed to “kill Osama bin Laden,” a statement that most interpreted as a tough-guy sound-bite, rather than a serious plan. But Obama apparently meant what he said.
In his brief televised speech on Sunday night, Obama disclosed that “shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.”
That redirection of U.S. priorities reversed the course taken by President Bush and his neocon advisers in late 2001. Instead of waging a regional crusade against perceived U.S. adversaries, who also were at the top of Israel’s enemies list, Obama refocused U.S. intelligence agencies on the man who sanctioned the 9/11 attacks.
According to Obama and other senior U.S. officials, the renewed attention began to bear fruit last year as a possible location of bin Laden’s hideout was identified in the middle-sized Pakistani city of Abbottabad, only about a one-hour drive north from the capital of Islamabad. In his speech, Obama said:
“Last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan.
“And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.
“Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”
Obama’s announcement late Sunday night touched off spontaneous celebrations by Americans outside the White House and at Ground Zero in New York. There was an immediate sense that finally the U.S. government had gotten its priorities right, going after the people responsible for the 9/11 atrocities, rather than other Muslim leaders who had nothing to do with the attack.
Though it remains unclear what the long-term consequences of this action will be, Obama’s success after years of Bush’s failure does suggest one important lesson: U.S. officials would be well advised to ignore the special pleadings of the neocons who remain highly influential inside Official Washington.
The neocons, along with other Bush advisers, exploited the 9/11 tragedy to justify a policy of inserting U.S. military forces into the heart of the Arab world to the detriment of bringing the masterminds of 9/11 to justice.
That miscalculation did horrendous damage to both the United States and the people of the Middle East. It also allowed Osama bin Laden to remain at large for more than nine years, until Sunday.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraqand Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.