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assault on tora bora

After the Taliban regime was defeated, the military turned its focus to mountainous region of Tora Bora, where is was believed that Osama bin Laden was holed up in fortified caves along with Taliban and Al Qaeda troops. Special Forces soldiers working with local warlords describe the assault on the caves, and military commanders defend against charges that the operation was a failure because of insufficent troops on the ground to root out bin Laden.

Col. John Mulholland
  Commander, 5th Special Forces Group

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[When did Tora Bora emerge as an operational focus?]

After the fall of Kandahar, Tora Bora emerged very quickly on the radar screen, at least from my headquarters, as there was the potential for Al Qaeda presence and possibly other personnel could be hiding. One of the main questions early on was how these forces could actually muster to go into this massive mountainous area, to really go after and seal this area, search it in detail and prosecute an operation up there.

There has been a lot of discussion since about [whether] American forces [should have been on the ground in Tora Bora]. I would be a liar if I didn't say that certainly ... [with] American forces on the ground, we would have had a more conventionally confident force to do conventional search, seizure, isolate, cordon and search operations. But that search force wasn't available yet, and there was great impetus to do something to move up into these mountains. So we were asked to supply an A-team up in there to assist with [Afghan forces -- 2,000 or 3,000 totally, as I remember] you could muster to go up there and take on any Al Qaeda forces who we knew were there. ... Our function was to work with [anti-Taliban Afghan] forces and increase their capability as much as possible to move into the mountains, and then re-apply air power up there to destroy these caves and to kill as many Al Qaeda as possible. [Al Qaeda] wasn't interested in surrendering, by and large.

It would have been a difficult task for any military to go up in these mountains, search them out and take prisoners. This is incredible terrain, incredible elevations, and truthfully, very difficult with the force available to decisively search every nook and cranny, because there are no shortages of caves in Afghanistan. They probably number in the hundreds of thousands, if not 50 million. They just seem [to be] everywhere, and [they are] natural granite, not man-made. ...

[Did you believe bin Laden was in the caves?]

... It was as good a place for him to be as anywhere. It had ... access to a cross-border sanctuary of Pakistan ... very defendable terrain, known strongholds within the framework of the mountains. So in terms of an analytical perspective, certainly it met the criteria for a place he could likely be. Kandahar [was] no longer available to him. Whether or not he was there or not, I truly never had the level of intelligence to say he was or wasn't. But I think it was a reasonable expectation that it was a place he could be, and therefore we would prosecute an operation to try to determine whether he was there or not. ...

The mission was to try to destroy and eliminate the Al Qaeda presence there, and capture Osama bin Laden or any of his senior deputies that were there. We certainly did the former with the Al Qaeda fighters up there. We knew it would be a hard fight. Everywhere we had encountered ... the Taliban, they tended to recognize when the day was done; they would either surrender or make deals. The Al-Qaeda would fight pretty much to the death or look for avenues to escape to fight another day. We knew it would be a hard fight up there, no question about that. And it was. They fought very hard, until we killed them. ...

If terms of the mission were to try and go find and show the world that we had captured and killed Osama bin Laden -- even though we didn't do that -- that's a very difficult task. Some folks underestimated how difficult the task is to find somebody in his own backyard. ... At any rate ...we certainly accomplished a significant proportion of the mission which was to go up there and destroy Al Qaeda in his backyard, in his stronghold.

Was it perfect? No, it wasn't perfect. ... In hindsight maybe would we have liked to have done more? Absolutely, we would like to walk out of the mountains with bin Laden and his cronies in hand, certainly, but it didn't happen. I think it's a mistake for people to cast too glaring an indictment of that operation not understanding fully the context of what was going on with the battlefield at the time, what was available, and the urgency of when people wanted to see things happen.

Gen. Tommy Franks
  Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command

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What was your assessment of the Tora Bora [operation]?

Tora Bora, in my view, was a successful operation. There was much speculation about who was in Tora Bora -- all of the speculation [was] after the fact. Looking back, I think that we had a sense that there were enemy formations in the Tora Bora complex. Historically, in Afghanistan, there are about a half-dozen places where outsiders, non-Afghanis, aggregate. ...

In early December ... it became obvious that the opposition forces with whom we were working in the vicinity of Jalalabad and down toward Tora Bora themselves don't like Al Qaeda at all, didn't like the Taliban at all. [They] had a desire to take their forces, which were substantial at that time, and move them on a sweep operation through Tora Bora. [They] put together an operation. We supported that operation.

I think it was a good operation. Many people have said, "Well, gosh, you know bin Laden got away." I have yet to see anything that proves bin Laden or whomever was there. That's not to say they weren't, but I've not seen proof that they were there. A great many Taliban and Al Qaeda [may have] lost their lives in Tora Bora. Some have said, "You just ran all of them over into Pakistan." At that particular time, our work with President Musharraf and with his forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was also another very positive piece of this operation.

In my view, the Pakistanis did a whale of a job supporting our operations, and in fact providing what we would call in military parlance "an amble" along that border, so that these forces were being policed up as they would try to exfiltrate from Tora Bora. ...

Those who would enlarge the story to indicate that there were some operational issues -- shouldn't have been done, or could have been done differently -- those who would argue that don't have a very great appreciation of the factors of mission and what an enemy force can look like, and what role terrain has to play in that the timing of an operation. Knowing that, at the end of the day, this is Afghanistan, and the Afghans wanted to move on this operation, I look at Tora Bora as a favorable operation.

As we speak now, some few weeks ago, we placed forces back in there to continue or not continue, but to move through some of the areas we'd been through before, to be sure we hadn't missed anything, and to be sure that Al Qaeda had not reintroduced themselves back into that area. So that area remains a concern to us. But Tora Bora was a good operation.

U.S. Special Forces ODA 572
  ODA 572 operated in the Tora Bora region, providing support for General Hazrat Ali.

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Why was the Tora Bora region important?

Shane (Master Sgt.):

At first, we weren't really sure of the importance of the Tora Bora region. The only thing we knew was that the people from the north, the Northern Alliance, started pushing the Taliban down. The Taliban was fleeing, heading down into areas south and over to the eastern side....

When the Tora Bora campaign started, how did it begin? What happened with you guys?

Shane (Master Sgt.):

It was already in operation [when] we got there, because General Ali was already fighting most of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in that area prior to our arrival. Once we got there, we got set up and reviewed Gen. Ali's plan. The plan he had was pretty much feasible. Being in a mountainous area, what he had planned was just the ideal situation for that type of terrain. Then we went, started taking up positions in order to call in close air support, to help his troops as they're moving forward. ...

The whole offensive was mostly his troops that he had underneath his command and his other commanders. We were just there to help call in the air support, just because of the language barrier with U.S. pilots.

Jeff (Staff Sgt.):

We would pretty much soften up [the Al Qaeda positions with airstrikes], while Gen. Ali's troops would push forwards. We kind of did like a leapfrog thing. We would engage targets and Al Qaeda troops that we saw, and Gen. Ali's troops would move ahead. We would go back a little bit farther, drop behind him just a little father back, so they could advance again. They kind of did it in stages.

But it took a little while during the beginning, because the soldiers would take ground, and then they'd retreat, and they'd take ground and retreat. Then you'd have to start over again the whole next day. That went on for a couple of days. Then they realized, "Hey, we can't do this really, just wasting more time." But after they stopped doing that, they started taking ground very quickly, and it moved along quite well. ...

Bill (Staff Sgt.):

A lot of media [has been] saying that we failed at Tora Bora. Well, we didn't fail at Tora Bora. Our mission was to take Tora Bora cave complex. We didn't let anybody get away. I mean, I haven't heard from bin Laden lately -- have you?

Jeff (Staff Sgt.):

It wasn't our mission to go there and look and hunt him down. That was not our mission. Our mission was to support Gen. Ali's troops in getting rid of the pockets of resistance of Al Qaeda and Taliban, and to go start the searches of the caves. ... We heard that it's a possibility that he would be there, because he would frequently go there. There's a neighboring city, Jalalabad, and he would go there also. So it was possible we ran into him. It's possible that he would have been up there. But we weren't after him specifically.

Just on an emotional level, were you hoping that he was there and that you might have killed him?

Jeff (Staff Sgt.):

I think everyone was probably hoping that you might see his head peek up somewhere, that they might find him or what have you. But then there's also a big possibility that, if he happened to be there, that you might not ever find him, because a lot of landslides buried a lot of caves. We buried a tank up there under rock. If you can't find a tank -- they went digging for it, and they couldn't find it. So if you can't even find a tank, how are you going to find a person, if something like that got covered up? It's possible; maybe, maybe not.

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