U.S. Concludes Bin Laden Escaped at Tora Bora Fight

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By Barton Gellman and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

The Bush administration has concluded that Osama bin Laden was present during the battle for Tora Bora late last year and that failure to commit U.S. ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against al Qaeda, according to civilian and military officials with first-hand knowledge.

Intelligence officials have assembled what they believe to be decisive evidence, from contemporary and subsequent interrogations and intercepted communications, that bin Laden began the battle of Tora Bora inside the cave complex along Afghanistan's mountainous eastern border. Though there remains a remote chance that he died there, the intelligence community is persuaded that bin Laden slipped away in the first 10 days of December.

After-action reviews, conducted privately inside and outside the military chain of command, describe the episode as a significant defeat for the United States. A common view among those interviewed outside the U.S. Central Command is that Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the war's operational commander, misjudged the interests of putative Afghan allies and let pass the best chance to capture or kill al Qaeda's leader. Without professing second thoughts about Tora Bora, Franks has changed his approach fundamentally in subsequent battles, using Americans on the ground as first-line combat units.

In the fight for Tora Bora, corrupt local militias did not live up to promises to seal off the mountain redoubt, and some colluded in the escape of fleeing al Qaeda fighters. Franks did not perceive the setbacks soon enough, some officials said, because he ran the war from Tampa with no commander on the scene above the rank of lieutenant colonel. The first Americans did not arrive until three days into the fighting. "No one had the big picture," one defense official said.

The Bush administration has never acknowledged that bin Laden slipped through the cordon ostensibly placed around Tora Bora as U.S. aircraft began bombing on Nov. 30. Until now it was not known publicly whether the al Qaeda leader was present on the battlefield.

But inside the government there is little controversy on the subject. Captured al Qaeda fighters, interviewed separately, gave consistent accounts describing an address by bin Laden around Dec. 3 to mujaheddin, or holy warriors, dug into the warren of caves and tunnels built as a redoubt against Soviet invaders in the 1980s. One official said "we had a good piece of sigint," or signals intelligence, confirming those reports.

"I don't think you can ever say with certainty, but we did conclude he was there, and that conclusion has strengthened with time," said another official, giving an authoritative account of the intelligence consensus. "We have high confidence that he was there, and also high confidence, but not as high, that he got out. We have several accounts of that from people who are in detention, al Qaeda people who were free at the time and are not free now."

Franks continues to dissent from that analysis. Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, his chief spokesman, acknowledged the dominant view outside Tampa but said the general is unpersuaded.

"We have never seen anything that was convincing to us at all that Osama bin Laden was present at any stage of Tora Bora -- before, during or after," Quigley said. "I know you've got voices in the intelligence community that are taking a different view, but I just wanted you to know our view as well."

"Truth is hard to come by in Afghanistan," Quigley said, and for confidence on bin Laden's whereabouts "you need to see some sort of physical concrete proof."

Franks has told subordinates that it was vital at the Tora Bora battle, among the first to include allies from Afghanistan's Pashtun majority, to take a supporting role and "not just push them aside and take over because we were America," according to Quigley.

"Our relationship with the Afghans in the south and east was entirely different at that point in the war," he said. "It's no secret that we had a much more mature relationship with the Northern Alliance fighters." Franks, he added, "still thinks that the process he followed of helping the anti-Taliban forces around Tora Bora, to make sure it was crystal clear to them that we were not there to conquer their country . . . was absolutely the right thing to do."


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© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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