Finishing a Job: Obama Gets Osama

From the Archive: One year ago, President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, ending a near-decade-long manhunt. Amid U.S. celebrations, it was largely forgotten that the delay in getting the terrorist leader resulted from blunders by George W. Bush and his neocon advisers, Robert Parry wrote in 2011.

By Robert Parry (First published on May 2, 2011)

President Barack Obama touched off American celebrations with his announcement late on May 1, 2011, 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.

President Barack Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

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.”

A Counter-Narrative

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.

Macho Talk

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 Tony 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’s “Bush Silences a Dangerous Witness.”]

But the war also drove Iraq into 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 late on Sunday night on May 1, 2011, 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.

Closing In

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 a fairly brief 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 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.

[For more on the strange Bush/Bin Laden symbiosis, see’s “Bin Laden’s Personal Debt to Bush.” To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, 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 His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

13 comments for “Finishing a Job: Obama Gets Osama

  1. dahoit
    May 6, 2012 at 10:47

    Add me to the unimpressed with murder group,as acting like the mob doesn’t instill warm feelings in me,and if this whole WOT isn’t the biggest scam in world history,call me Meyer.

  2. dahoit
    May 3, 2012 at 12:18

    I despise democrats in martial drag more than republicans in their panties and girdles any day.
    Is this a reelection of the crud article?

  3. May 3, 2012 at 00:01

    Well, the presidential race is getting more interesting, at the same time more ridiculous! I loved Obama, but now getting very cold feet about the antics over bin Laden. Mitt Romney is a rich creep with NO substance. But more to the point: Obama using the ALLEGED bin Laden compound story as campaign fodder, and then Romney dumb enough to fall into that, as well, like….”Gee, if I wuz prez I woulda done that, too.” What the hell is wrong here? For one, there are numerous reports bin Laden died YEARS AGO. And I am rather convinced that whoever the Seals shot, it was NOT bin Laden. What else explains the mysterious dumping of an unknown body at sea, so there’s no way to verify, identify, or prove it was bin Laden. Worse, the CIA comes back to the scene of the crime (THEIRS) and destroys the compound. WHY? Aha, any evidence that might be contrary to our government’s lies needed to be “taken care of.” That, too, is an oddity that needs to be challenged. SECOND, how is it a president of the U.S. has the right to order the assassination of ANYONE without due process, rule of law (which Hillary Clinton harps on all the time with regard to China, N. Korea and other nations “hostile” to U.S. interests). At least, the German Nazis got some semblance of due process at the trials at Nuremberg. Apparently due process, international protocols and rule of law are no longer observed, even by America. Oh that’s right, “dead men tell no tales.” And now this business of China’s Chen Chuangcheng wanting U.S. asylum. So far, he’s walking free, but Bradley Manning ISN’T. Maybe Chen is China’s Bradley Manning. Let’s see, we murder civilians, women, children, and urinate on their bodies. Sorry, but the fakery and hypocrisy of our foreign policy is simply reaching into a deeper hole of absurdity.

    • BARBBF
      May 7, 2012 at 17:45

      Remember when bin Laden was our “friend” and Obama’s former foreign policy adviser convinced Jimmy Carter to give US taxpayer $$$$ to support him?

      YouTube – Zbigniew Brzezinski to Jihadists: Your cause is right!

  4. rosemerry
    May 2, 2012 at 14:57

    If ObL really did survive until last year, with his history of kidney disease, are we to believe that this sick man fathered ten more kids with four young wives?
    He was more alive than any of the bumbling Yanks pursuing him!

    Point two: Obama refused to indict any of his criminal predecessors, wanting to “go forward, not backwards”. Why go so far back, after AlQaida became weak (if it was ever strong), to kill an ill or dead man just to show off?

  5. Otto Schiff
    May 2, 2012 at 14:39

    One of the greatest skills the government has developed, is to lie to the public. This is a nonpartisan effort.

  6. elmerfudzie
    May 1, 2012 at 18:56

    Osama Bin Laden died over ten years ago. The whole thing was staged by US Intel and only CIA operatives could reveal the true reasons…but they certainly won’t. Historically speaking and as proof of death, Che Guevara’s hands were cut off and sent to, Castro?, and photos of his unmutilated corpse went on international display. Mussolini’s lifeless body dangled from a open street square for all to see and an autopsy on the body of Lee Harvey Oswald was seamless in procedure, went undisputed and performed in one place. On the other hand, JFK’s autopsy caused quite a stir, a mistake our Intel would never allow again. To date, the usual eye witness rub-outs have begun to take place, such as the helo crash that killed most of the special op’s team involved in that “Bin Laden compound” raid. No body, no DNA tests (chain of custody by the SEALS lacks all credibility), no autopsy, no interrogation, no burial press coverage, no incontestable photo’s but above all, absolutely NO truth. It took sixty five years for the world to learn that Hitlers body was not burned at the Berlin bunker site but was moved to Moscow and kept on ice until 1970. Perhaps, so was Osama’s body kept on ice just in case that fictitious raid went wrong. I can only guess that our government so feared the accidental appearance of the Paparazzi, that this latest conspiracy was staged in a third world country and adjacent to a highly restricted military zone.

    • RG
      May 4, 2012 at 15:40

      Dude, it’s time you got fitted for another tin-foil hat. Clearly the one you’re wearing right now, is no longer working.

      • elmerfudzie
        May 5, 2012 at 15:29

        If you have a specific point to argue in any of my comments, write them down, otherwise avoid remarks suggest that I’m unbalanced and that you are a certified psychologist. Personal attacks are bad- period. They serve only to diminish the credibility of this site. We are all entitled to our opinions Sir, that’s what makes our country great!

    • BARBBF
      May 7, 2012 at 17:35

      WHO KNOWS WHAT THE TRUTH IS? Some say that bin Laden’s been dead for years….

  7. F. G. Sanford
    May 1, 2012 at 16:35

    He was worth more alive than dead as a propaganda tool. One cannot help but wonder why else the pursuit was abandoned for so long. But that value would have evaporated had he turned out to be dead all along. If you stop and think about the multitude of preposterous “explanations”, the whole story falls flat on its face. For example, a thousand troops couldn’t be spared to comb the hills of Tora Bora, but years later, thirty thousand could be spared to implement the “surge” in Afghanistan against the advice of General McKiernan, the only real expert on the ground. The explanation went to the gearing up of operations in Iraq, and the need to commit resources there. But when the “surge” was implemented, there was still a full compliment of troops in Iraq. It’s easy to fool the general public about the logistical realities of managing troop deployments with vague and unspecified generalities. They don’t have any idea of what it takes even to supply that many Soldiers with toilet paper. We can freeze the assets of people like Mubarak and Qaddafi, but somehow the supposed millions of our arch nemesis flowed for ten years unnoticed by the world’s greatest intelligence machines. All of our supposed allies and their intelligence services shrugged their shoulders in bewilderment as well.

    Here’s the reality of the whole story: It took thirty crack commandos and a bomb-sniffing dog to catch an old fart protected by a chauffeur, a cook, a bodyguard and some women and children. They lost a helicopter in the process. Miraculously, none of them were injured. Unusual in helicopter crashes, but let’s assume that was true. Then, they had to figure out how to get everybody back, including the body, short one helicopter. If any real ingenuity was involved, that was the prize. The burial at sea reminds me of a quote from The Count of Monte Cristo: “If you wish to find the guilty party, first discover whose interests the crime serves! Whose interests might be served by your disappearance?” I can’t help but wonder who was really ‘in the bag’. Forever the skeptic, my take is, “Show me the body”. Unfortunately, Habeas Corpus is but another victim of this whole charade.

    • incontinent reader
      May 1, 2012 at 17:49

      Nice going! Right on!

  8. incontinent reader
    May 1, 2012 at 15:31

    Many pundits have said that catching Bin Laden immediately could have shortened the war on terror- i.e. the “unspeakable ‘whatever’ ” on Al Qaeda. Whether or not that was true, is it something the Administration really wanted? Or was it to remake all of the Middle East, by overthrowing a series of regimes, and tying up those countries’ assets and resources for the use of, and development by, the U.S. and its favored allies? Was it so clear that there was no accommodation possible with the Middle Eastern States we ended up attacking? What was, and is, our real relationship with Al Qaeda and bin Laden, and who really are the Al Qaeda? Why was bin Laden killed when he could have revealed much more alive, the bin Laden tapes and computer records notwithstanding? Was it another ‘kill the witness’ before he reveals more unpleasant truths? By what criteria do we distinguish freedom fighters from terrorists? Is it ‘you say tomayto, and I say tomahto’? Are the John McCains and Joe Liebermans and their acolytes the real defenders of democracy? What in fact is the “democracy” Bush (and Obama) were (are) fighting for? Who’s on first? Will there ever be any real answers as long as the foxes and wolves manage the chicken coop?

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