Bush had no plan to catch Bin Laden
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - New evidence from former United States officials reveals that
Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were able to skip Afghanistan for
Pakistan unimpeded in the first weeks after September 11, 2001, as the George W
Bush administration failed to plan to block their retreat.
Top administration officials instead gave priority to planning for war with
Iraq, leaving the United States with not nearly enough troops or strategic
airlift capacity to close the large number of possible exit routes through the
Afghanistan-Pakistan border area where Bin Laden escaped in late 2001.
Because it had not been directed to plan for that contingency, the US military
was also forced to turn down an offer from then
Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf in late November 2001 to send 60,000
troops to intercept the al-Qaeda leaders.
As Northern Alliance troops marched on Kabul with little resistance in November
2001, the Central Intelligence Agency had intelligence that Bin Laden was
headed for a cave complex in the Tora Bora Mountains close to the Pakistani
The war had ended only days earlier, much more quickly than expected, and
United States Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Tommy Franks, responsible for
the war in Afghanistan, had no forces in position to block bin Laden's exit.
Franks asked Lieutenant General Paul T Mikolashek, commander of Army Central
Command (ARCENT), if his command could provide a blocking force between
al-Qaeda and the Pakistani border, according to David W Lamm, who was then
commander of ARCENT Kuwait.
Lamm, a retired army colonel, recalled in an interview that there was no way to
fulfill the CENTCOM commander's request, because ARCENT had neither the troops
nor the strategic lift in Kuwait required to put such a force in place.
"You looked at that request, and you just shook your head," recalled Lamm, now
chief of staff of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the
National Defense University.
Franks apparently already realized that he would need Pakistani help in
blocking the al-Qaeda exit from Tora Bora. Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld
told a National Security Council meeting that Franks "wants the [Pakistanis] to
close the transit points between Afghanistan and Pakistan to seal what's going
in and out", according to the National Security Council meeting transcript in
Bob Woodward's book Bush at War.
Bush responded that they would need to "press Musharraf to do that".
A few days later, Franks made an unannounced trip to Islamabad to ask Pakistani
leader Pervez Musharraf to deploy troops along the Pakistan-Afghan border near
A deputy to Franks, Lieutenant General Mike DeLong, later claimed that
Musharraf had refused Franks's request for regular Pakistani troops to be
repositioned from the north to the border near the Tora Bora area. DeLong wrote
in his 2004 book Inside Centcom that Musharraf had said he "couldn't do
that", because it would spark a "civil war" with a hostile tribal population.
But US ambassador Wendy Chamberlin, who accompanied Franks to the meeting with
Musharraf, provided an account of the meeting to this writer that contradicts
Chamberlin, now president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, recalled
that the Pakistani president told Franks that CENTCOM had vastly underestimated
what was required to block bin Laden's exit from Afghanistan. Musharraf said,
"Look you are missing the point: there are 150 valleys through which al-Qaeda
are going to stream into Pakistan," according to Chamberlin.
Although Musharraf admitted that the Pakistani government had never exercised
control over the border area, the former diplomat recalled, he said this was "a
good time to begin". The Pakistani president offered to redeploy 60,000 troops
to the area from the border with India but said his army would need airlift
assistance from the United States.
But the Pakistani redeployment never happened, according to Lamm, because it
wasn't logistically feasible. Lamm recalled that it would have required an
entire aviation brigade, including hundreds of helicopters, and hundreds of
support troops to deliver that many combat troops to the border region - far
more than was available.
Lamm said the ARCENT had so few strategic lift resources that it had to use
commercial aircraft at one point to move US supplies in and out of Afghanistan.
Even if the helicopters had been available, however, they could not have
operated with high effectiveness in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border
region near the Tora Bora caves, according to Lamm, due to a combination of
high altitude and extreme weather.
Franks did manage to insert 1,200 marines into Kandahar on November 26 to
establish control of the airbase there. They were carried to the base by
helicopters from an aircraft carrier that had steamed into the Gulf from the
Pacific, according to Lamm.
The marines patrolled roads in the Kandahar area hoping to intercept al-Qaeda
officials heading toward Pakistan. But DeLong, now retired, said in an
interview that the marines would not have been able to undertake the blocking
mission at the border. "It wouldn't have worked - even if we could have gotten
them up there," he said. "There weren't enough to police 1,500 kilometers of
US troops probably would also have faced armed resistance from the local tribal
population in the border region, according to DeLong. The tribesmen in local
villages near the border "liked bin Laden", he said "because he had given them
millions of dollars".
Had the Bush administration's priority been to capture or kill the al-Qaeda
leadership, it would have deployed the necessary ground troops and airlift
resources in the theater over a period of months before the offensive in
"You could have moved American troops along the Pakistani border before you
went into Afghanistan," said Lamm. But that would have meant waiting until
spring 2002 to take the offensive against the Taliban, according to Lamm.
The views of Bush's key advisers, however, ruled out any such plan from the
start. During the summer of 2001 Rumsfeld refused to develop contingency plans
for military action against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, despite a National
Security Presidential Directive that called for such planning, according to the
9-11 Commission report.
Rumsfeld and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz resisted such planning for
Afghanistan because they were hoping that the White House would move quickly on
military intervention in Iraq. According to the 9-11 Commission, at four
deputies' meetings on Iraq between May 31 and July 26, 2001, Wolfowitz pushed
his idea to have US troops seize all the oil fields in southern Iraq.
Even after September 11, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney
continued to resist any military engagement in Afghanistan, because they were
hoping for war against Iraq instead.
Bush's top secret order of September 17 for war with Afghanistan also directed
the Pentagon to begin planning for an invasion of Iraq, according to journalist
James Bamford's book Pretext for War.
Cheney and Rumsfeld pushed for a quick victory in Afghanistan in NSC meetings
in October, as recounted by both Woodward and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas
Feith. Lost in the eagerness to wrap up the Taliban and get on with the Iraq
War was any possibility of preventing Bin Laden's escape to Pakistan.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.