30 November 2009

Lessons of Tora Bora

Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released their official report on what went wrong back in 2001 at Tora Bora (read the full 49-page report here). Entitled, “Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed to Get Bin Laden and Why It Matters Today,” the paper definitely provides for an interesting read – ultimately arguing that, “Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.” For more on the background and events at Tora Bora, you can also read SOCOM's account of the battle here or check out the recent book "Kill Bin Laden" by Dalton Fury (the pseudonym for the Delta Force Commander on the ground at Tora Bora). Although much of the motivation for the SFRC report was political (mostly pushed by Sen. John Kerry), it nevertheless provides for a great examination of the decision-making process of our top military and civilian leaders at the time. The authors of the report conclude that:

“Removing the Al Qaeda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat. But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide. The failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism, leaving the American people more vulnerable to terrorism, laying the foundation for today’s protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan”

The timing of this report is quite appropriate as President Obama reportedly plans tomorrow (01 Dec) to announce a surge of 30,000-35,000 US troops to bolster our COIN efforts there (with most of this force concentrating in the Southern and Eastern part of the country). Much of the language in the Senate report condemns the “Rumsfeld-Franks” plan from 2001 which “emphasized minimizing the U.S. presence by relying on small, highly mobile teams of special operations troops and CIA paramilitary operatives working with the Afghan opposition.” Some within the Obama administration (led by VP Biden) have recently argued for a return to this type of “CT light” warfare and a drawdown of US conventional forces – which would in reality give up any hope of an all-out “COIN/nation-building” strategy in Afghanistan.

As GEN McChrystal argued in his Afghanistan assessment this August, “The situation in Afghanistan is serious; neither success nor failure can be taken for granted.” He understands (and I think Obama now agrees) that we’re at a critical point, where we can either “Go Big” or “Go Home” (as we’ve discussed in previous posts). Clearly, McChrystal advocates the “Go Big” approach, arguing that, “Success demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign. Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” Thankfully, it appears that after much deliberation, debate, and planning, President Obama has decided to accept risk and go for a win rather than a tie. It seems as though he has recognized the gravity of the decision he’s about to make and the associated risks involved and is committed (at least for the next 24-48 months) to giving it a shot. Despite the fact that our nation’s Soldiers will bear the effects of this decision (for better or worse), I feel this is the right thing to do. My only only major concern is whether 30-35,000 troops are enough to do the job (McChrystal originally asked for up to 60-80,000). As we listen to Obama’s speech tomorrow night and dissect his plan for the way ahead, it wouldn’t hurt to look back to 2001 and keep in mind the lessons we learned at Tora Bora.

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