Tora Bora. We didn’t get Bin Laden because we couldn’t.
WHAT!!! I thought we didn’t get Bin Laden because we mistakenly trusted the Afghans to do what they had promised, and we ignored very competent men on the ground who wanted to commit available US forces to the rear of Tora Bora to block Bin Laden’s escape.
Nope. The problem with that narrative is much of the evidence that Bin Laden was at Tora Bora is based on what we learned only AFTER the fight was over.
If hindsight was really a way to make decisions, we’d all be lottery winners. Historical context is also pretty important when trying to understand why a decision is made and avoid bad ones in the future. Secondly, it ignores the real world realities of what it takes to put men on the ground. Unlike the movies, in combat, the cavalry doesn’t arrive in the nick of time. Guns run out of bullets and the good guys sometimes lose.
This article is going to make some people very angry because it forces them to reconsider what they’ve been told by popular media for a decade. Have an open mind. My goal is not to argue the politics of Tora Bora, but the truth on the ground in Afghanistan, what was KNOWN at the time, and what was militarily possible.
The truth is we didn’t get Bin Laden at Tora Bora because we made a conscious and very effective decision to go into Afghanistan light. Peter Feaver (National Security Council member) said it best. “The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan succeeded because of the ‘light’ approach used. Losing OBL at Tora Bora was the price of that light approach. We had Bin Laden within reach at Tora Bora precisely because we were willing to try the very light-footprint approach.”
Compounding the brilliant unconventional warfare approach to Afghanistan is the fact we had a five-day window to catch Bin Laden.(1) We didn’t have the aircraft. We didn’t have the troops. We didn’t have the logistics (fuel, FARPs and ability to mass troops). We didn’t have the time to decide, plan, resource and execute. Finally, we didn’t have the conclusive evidence to change any of the above.
It is not debatable that Bin Laden was at Tora Bora. That is a fact confirmed AFTER the battle was over from interrogations of captured Al Qaeda. How awesome would it be to play the lottery knowing the winning numbers before the drawing? It’s a wonder we all aren’t millionaires! Those that press the narrative that we missed Bin Laden at Tora Bora do so in the glow of hindsight and an over enthusiastic estimation of our capabilities.
The first evidence that Bin Laden was at Tora Bora is based on voice intercepts around 10 Dec 2001, confirmed by two individuals in country from a voice they heard on the radio, not by voice analysis software at Langley.(2) Unfortunately, voice analysis is not conclusive. Conclusive evidence would come later after interrogating detainees. It is believed Bin Laden escaped Tora Bora between 12-15 Dec providing approximately a five day window to decide to take action on a voice intercept, plan, resource, and deploy the largest air assault since Desert Storm, during which Bin Laden always retained the freedom to run early.
Not Enough Aircraft
Air assaults require a multitude of things. First among them is aircraft.
We didn’t have the lift assets to emplace a BN+ behind Tora Bora. Due to Tora Bora’s altitude, CH47s and CH53s are the only effective airframes. We had a total of four MH47s (JSOC), four CH53Es (USMC) and three MH53s (USAF in Pakistan).(3) According to the Comm. on Foreign Relations (US Senate) – Nov 30, 2009 hearings chaired by Sen. Kerry, “Commanders estimated that deploying 1,000 to 3,000 American troops would have required several hundred airlift flights by helicopters over a week or more.”
LTG Michael DeLong (USMC) Deputy Commander of CENTCOM. DeLong defended the decision not to deploy large numbers of American troops. ”We didn’t have the lift,” he told the Committee staff. ”We didn’t have the medical capabilities.”
Not Enough Troops
Here’s a very simple map that might help you understand the challenge.
The rear boundary of the AQ positions is about 3-4 miles, with another 3-4 miles from the REAR of the AQ positions to the Pakistani border. That’s 9-16 square miles. If you maximize risk and just try to set up a thin defensive line with no reserve, and accept you have to pull from the line somewhere to reinforce probes or attacks in another, it takes well over a BN (almost 1000 men). Then consider we observed at least 1000 AQ fighters move into Tora Bora – you’re supposed to attack at a three to one troop ratio. It puts the risk in a new perspective.
There were about 1500 troops in Afghanistan in Dec 2001, spread over 17 locations.(4) One reinforced company from the 1-87th was in Bagram, with the rest of the BN securing K2 in Uzbekistan.(5) 3/75 Rangers committed two platoons at Bagram(6) (likely to serve as the QRF for all of Afghanistan). The rest of the BN was assisting SOF in country with sight exploitation, and the remainder of the BN was in Oman. The 1000 or so Marines in the vicinity of Kandahar were severing Route 1, conducting combat ops in the vicinity of Obj Rhino, securing Obj Rhino, securing the Kandahar airport, conducting sensitive site exploitation (including chem weapons reports), and sending Marines to Kabul to secure the embassy. Unclassified Marine reports state they considered all their combat power engaged. (7)
Not Enough Logistics
Logistics is boring. They are also painful. It takes effort and discipline to figure out what one needs to conduct an operation, and many defer those tasks to others, but understanding them is critical to knowing what is possible. There’s a saying, “Amateurs talk tactics, Professionals talk logistics”. There were simply not enough troop carrying aircraft, fuel, ammo, tanker aircraft and infrastructure to move 1000+ troops behind Tora Bora in five days. I don’t want to roll your eyeballs into the back of your head but just to share some of the issues…
It can take 16 to 33 C17s to lift a BN of Infantry, and an innumerable number of tankers to refuel on a 14 hour flight.(8) OBJ Rhino and Bagram were the only operational airfields, and they had limited space and cargo handling capabilities/storage. Only C130’s configured as tankers can refuel CH53 and MH47 aircraft. Distance from Jacobabad Pakistan (MH53s), K2 (MH47s) and OBJ Rhino (CH53s) to Tora Bora is 650, 700 and 450mi respectively, round trips ranging from five to seven hours at max speed (assuming light load).
Keep in mind, maintenance crews and parts necessitate these initial start points, and moving them especially to nearby austere locations would require dedicating some of these heavy lift aircraft to carrying fuel to set up forward refuel points with their security issues. Then there’s the issue that Tora Bora is at 14,000 feet cutting down the payload to include fuel to emplace troops at that altitude. I haven’t discussed resupply of ammo, providing Medevac, downed aircraft planning, crew rest and a multitude of other issues… like the Marines at Rhino had no cold weather gear in DECEMBER. I’ll just say this CAN be done, not in five days.
Not Enough Time
The next most important factor was time. There was a five day window to act once Bin Laden was heard on the radio. How much time would it have taken the national command authority to decide to throw out the book they had been successfully using in Afghanistan to date, launch an incredibly risky operation on the word of two men’s expert opinions that a voice on the radio was Bin Laden, overcoming numerous CIA false cries of “Wolf”?
How much time would we expect decision makers to need to weigh the various options and cost? It took us months to launch the raid on Abbottabad. Two years after Tora Bora it took over four hours for the NCA to OK a decapitating strike on Saddam after an EYEWITNESS account that Saddam was at a certain location.(9) Let’s split the difference between four hours and months. Let’s say a week, two days, a day? It doesn’t matter, because even if the NCA made a wild decision and flipped a coin, it would have taken more than five days to get troops behind Tora Bora.
Ignoring 18 hour sequences, flight times, moving tankers worldwide to support in-flight refueling, moving/stockpiling/securing fuel, ammo, batteries, water, pulling troops from ongoing ops to move them to central locations with resources one didn’t have, it would still “have required several hundred airlift flights by helicopters over a week or more” to cut off Bin Laden’s escape.
Tora Bora was simply a mountain too far. Remember that someone tells you how Arnhem II would have captured/killed Bin Laden.
1. SOCOM History 6th edition p101
2. “The CIA had a guy with them called Jalal and he was the foremost expert on bin Laden’s voice,” he said. “He worked on bin Laden’s voice for seven years and he knew him better than anyone else in the West. To him, it was very clear that bin Laden was there on the mountain.”
“Another special operations expert who speaks fluent Arabic and heard the intercepted communications in real time in Afghanistan told the committee staff that it was clearly bin Laden’s voice. He had studied the Al Qaeda leader’s speech pattern and word choices before the war and he said he considered the communications a perfect match.”
Comm. on Foreign Relations (US Senate) -Nov 30, 2009
3. MH47, CH53, MH53 strength in Afghanistan Dec 2001
(4 MH47s K2) Night Stalkers: 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) By Fred Pushies p55
(4 CH53s) Unclassified Documents From Marine Task Force 58’s Operations in Afghanistan Execution 25 November to 25 December
(7 MH53 Pavelows in Jacobabad Pakistan) On a Steel Horse I Ride A History of the MH-53 Pave Low Helicopters in War and Peace Darrel D. Whitcomb p505-520
4. “A big US-led ground attack at Tora Bora was never a serious option. For one, Franks only had about 1,300 soldiers, marines, and Special Forces in Afghanistan at the time of Tora Bora. They were spread across 17 locations.” “Tora Bora” By Dr. Rebecca Grant Air Force Magazine Online Journal of the Air Force Assoc Vol 94, No 12
5 “…and only a reinforced company of the 10th Mountain Division was at Bagram and Mazar-e Sharif. No other forces were readily available for use.” The United States Army in Afghanistan Operation ENDURING FREEDOM October 2001-March 2003 (Official History) p26
6. “Two platoons of Rangers were sitting around back at Bagram, and we asked for one platoon to help… Request denied. I never learned the reasons for that refusal.” Kill Bin Laden by Dalton Fury p246
7. Unclassified Documents From Marine Task Force 58’s Operations in Afghanistan Execution 25 November to 25 December
8. Airborne: A Combat History of American Airborne Forces E. M. Flanagan p426.
9. America’s Secret War by George Friedman (STRATFOR founder) p289