Wednesday, December 23, 2009

tora bora remembered

I’ve been pleased to see Peter Bergen’s reassessment of the fuckup of Tora Bora, published in the New Republic, has had a small effect on the chattering class – it even gave Maureen Dowd a heart palpitation or two. The report itself is full of excuse speak for the officials involved, and does not dare venture into speculating that Osama's escape was the best thing ever to happen to Bush. It is all about Osama "slipping away," not being let slip. That would never, ever happen, of course. Thus, instead of including, for instance, information that would put Tora Bora in context - for instance, the notorious airlift of Taliban officials into Pakistan from Kunduz - Bergen's depiction of a Pakistan was on the U.S. side, at this time, is shall we say, dubious. Still, it picks up on one central fact - the American military response in the Afghan war sucked. This is in marked contrast to the snow job put into effect by the media at the time. In December 2001, you’ll remember, the chattering class was in ecstasies over our powerful and purposive president, Bush, and his team of Vulcans, who, in the cave paintings that have been excavated from time in a site near the Potomac River, are all depicted with giant hard phalluses. To understand how extraordinarily bad court society is in D.C., one has to read, say, Slate from that time – a goldmine of the conventional wisdom all dressed up like contrarianism.

Here, to get us into the spirit of the media, circa 2001, is the last graf of a Time magazine story from December 09, 2001, filled with fun factoids about the ‘craven’ Taliban and their inevitable defeat by the forces of good, aka the Americans. It ends with this kick-ass graf:

“Though the American commanders still counseled patience last week, they will not put up with inaction for long. Afghan forces told TIME they spotted U.S. and British commandos heading into the Tora Bora mountains last week, traveling in pairs, shouldering heavy supplies and carrying rifles. There were more soldiers on the way, backed by U.S. gunships, bombers and Predator drones, ready to pounce on their prey. It's a safe bet that if bin Laden is holed up in the snowdrifts of Tora Bora, with his hosts defeated and on the run, he still harbors hopes of making a great escape. It's a safer bet that the U.S. would love to see him try.”

Yeah, that Osama didn’t know who he was up against!

My Limited Inc. blog has long been on this beat. I’ll reprint here what I wrote on July 28, 2006:

I have nursed my own conspiracy theory about another incident in the “war on terror … ttt-terrorism… ttt-terrorists.” In fact, I am very surprised that this incident has attracted so little attention. Perhaps it is because the Lefty side that opposes Bush has such ambiguous feelings about the Afghanistan war that it doesn't want to investigate what it means to leave a terrorist group on tap. I’m talking, of course, about the battle of Tora Bora, and the escape of Bin Laden into Pakistan.

Here is an instance, I think, when incompetence and conspiracy are two faces of the same coin. What really happened at Tora Bora has been reported, as most of the fuck-ups of the non-war have been reported, long after it really happened. To disarm the news, simply delay it for enough years that people don’t care any more – that does seem to be the strategy of the Big Fix in D.C., and it certainly works on the journalists. None of them, so far, have taken the hint from Suskind about Bush’s meeting with the CIA in August, 2001 and deepened it, so we still don’t know have a complete sense of our unpreparedness due, almost uniquely, to the apathy of the reigning potentate.

Anyway, I recently came across Army Times reporter Sean Naylor’s account of the battle. According to Naylor, the incompetence factor (although he doesn’t put it so bluntly) can be laid at the feet of General “Kick me in the ass” Franks, who operated in our heroic Afghanistan war as a conduit for the senilities of Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, of course, didn’t want the Afghanistan war to involve regular troops, on the theory that that is where the Russians went wrong. No, we’d used bombing and our super duper special forces – initial decisions that we are paying for today. Anyway, the American force that approached Tora Bora at the end of November, 2001 was extremely small, and depended on Afghan allies that were busy feuding with each other. According to Naylor, as the siege proceeded, the Air Force flew over the twenty mile passage between Tora Bora and Pakistan and recorded “hot spots” on their heat sensing equipment. Now, CENTCOM, unbelievably, had never considered the possibility that Al Qaeda’s forces could escape from Tora Bora – thus, there were no guards on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the hot spot data did provoke some consultation:

“The Generals in Kuwait recommend[ed] bombing the positions as soon as possible. But Franks [who, you will recall, bravely lead our heroic troops from a boat in Florida] and his staff did not see it like that. “They might be shepherds,” was Control Command’s attitude, according to two officers who sat in on the video-teleconferences in which the matter was discussed. At CFLCC that theory didn’t wash. The idea that scores of shepherds were tending to their flocks at 10,000 feet in the middle of winter was implausible.”

Implausible is a kindly word. Let’s recall what was happening back at the scene in Tora Bora. This is from the NYT Magazine’s rather thorough article about it in 2005:

“The American bombardment of Tora Bora, which had been going on for a month, yielded to saturation airstrikes on Nov. 30 in anticipation of the ground war. Hundreds of civilians died that weekend, along with a number of Afghan fighters, according to Hajji Zaman, who had already dispatched tribal elders from the region to plead with bin Laden's commanders to abandon Tora Bora.” – Mary Ann Weaver, NYT, 9/11/05

Recall, also, that at the time Franks was displaying this untoward shepherdophilia, the U.S. was accepting payment from the Northern alliance in captives gathered at random – the camel driver, the Avon salesman, the cab driver – and subjecting them to the waterboarding, beatings, and sometimes murder that they obviously richly deserved.

So if it wasn’t kindness that drove Franks, what could it be? Well, LI’s search for a theory would begin by asking who would gain an advantage by a stripped down force of Al Qaeda escaping to Pakistan. Hmm. Well, they would provide a ready reminder of “terror” if there were people in the military and in the White House who intended to use the 9/11 attack to provoke, for purely political reasons, further wars that would aggrandize their shaky political position and – oh joy – unleash the fruits of the war culture, giving the government an excuse to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, especially in the Red States, and sweetening the retirement of every general who went along.

The problem with this theory is that it implies that the White House is full of cretinous, treasonous creatures who would flush the interests of the country down the toilet if it gave them an extra meal or two at Signatures restaurant.



Anonymous said...

Yep, but wasn't it fun when king g needed a bad guy to pop up there was o right on cue. WOW and I thought o was still on cia payroll.

Roger Gathmann said...

He didn't just pop up, of course. Though in the bizarre 2000 campaign, it was as if the guy we'd bombed Sudan for, who'd bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzanika, did't exist. If you look at the Gore Bush debate on foreign policy, you'll notice that they talked about nothing of any importance to the U.S. in the last ten years.

Much more important than the CIA in Osama bin Laden's charmed life has been his function in the saudi ruling class. Thee Saudis don't want him killed - they don't want the spillover - and they want him at arm's length, where he serves the useful function of providing something to do for radical Saudi males.

Anonymous said...

And there be "some" who didn't get away from the killing fields. 'Tis the season, so let's hearken to the Good Lord's Book: "And some there be that have no memorial, That are perished as though they had never been."


Roger Gathmann said...

Amie, your link is a reminder that the really medieval atrocity has been Afghanistan, since it was 'played' against the Russians in the late 70s. That war cost, from what I've read, 1 million dead over the decade. And it never ended.

LFC said...

Your "theory" about the U.S. deliberately letting OBL escape at Tora Bora seems weak to me, though admittedly I'm not up on all the details of the battle. For one thing, Bush & Co. had no problem cooking up bogus justifications for the Iraq war based on alleged WMD in Iraq, Saddam's implied (nonexistent of course) links to 9/11 etc. They could have made this 'case' just as easily if OBL had been sitting in Guatanamo or wherever. They didn't need him to be at large.

Rather, one of the problems, as you allude to, was the Pentagon's decision to rely mainly on Afghan forces to carry the brunt of the Tora Bora operation and not support them adequately w U.S. regular forces. That, at least, is my impression. Apart from Tora Bora and OBL's escape, the rest of the 2001 Afghanistan operation, strictly from a military standpoint, was fairly successful. Then came the Iraq invasion and Afghanistan was put on the back burner, so to speak. Big mistake. This may be conventional wisdom now, but c.w. is not always wrong.

Roger Gathmann said...

Mr. LFC - doubtless there are holes in my conspiracy theory. But I don't think that one of them is "Bush & Co. had no problem cooking up bogus justifications for the Iraq war based on alleged WMD in Iraq." Rather, I think they had every problem with cooking this up - it took a year, it failed to persuade traditional allies, and it was always in danger of being exposed by the press. What helped the Bush administration was that OBL was out there - a nice corrective that could be pointed to if anyone questioned the Bush administration's stance on Saddam. If I am correct, I take it that this was the payoff, to the Bushies, for the escape. At the same time, I imagine that the dimwits at the white house saw OBL as essentially a non-starter anymore - they believe they had won in Afghanistan and that his continued existence made no difference. This, in fact, has been the line that has floated up in rightwing talk ever since - there is, on the one hand, the hysteria about terrorists, and, on the other, the belief that OBL 'doesn't count', is 'minor'.

LFC said...

I concede that having OBL out there probably did help the Bushies somewhat in their effort to gin up general anxiety, create a sense of a link between Saddam and 9/11, etc. But I remain rather skeptical about the conspiracy theory. (We aren't going to resolve this here, obviously.)

Roger Gathmann said...

As well you should! It seems, unfortunately, that Congress, which had time to intensely investigate steroid use among ball players, never really bothered itself, over eight years, in investigating why Osama bin Laden escaped Tora Bora and remade his group. I guess that steroid use was just too overwhelmingly important.