Soon after arriving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Oct. 1, 2001, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers raised doubts about the war plan -- days from execution -- to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Gen. Tommy R. Franks, then chief of U.S. Central Command, planned a single thrust toward the Afghan capital from the north.
Franks anticipated, correctly, that resistance from Taliban and al Qaeda fighters would collapse. He did not, however, position a blocking force to meet them as they fled. Some Bush administration officials now acknowledge privately they consider that a costly mistake.
In the presidential campaign, Democrat John F. Kerry has revived a debate on whether U.S. forces missed a chance to catch Osama bin Laden and his top aides at the battle of Tora Bora. Kerry accuses President Bush of "outsourcing" the job to Afghan tribal leaders. Recent interviews with military participants shed new light on the period beginning two months earlier, before bin Laden left Kabul for Tora Bora.
Myers urged Franks, in a series of discussions that have not been reported before, "to look at opening a southern front . . . to cut off the withdrawal of the Taliban and al Qaeda," according to a senior flag officer who participated in the debate. A brigade of the Army's 10th Mountain Division in Uzbekistan and two Marine Expeditionary Forces in the Arabian Sea "were prepared to go in there -- they'd done the planning, the load preps," said the flag officer, whose account was confirmed by a second participant. Neither agreed to be identified because of political sensitivity.
Franks did not accept the advice. Kabul fell on Nov. 13. Bin Laden and Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, took their best fighters southeast, largely unscathed. Three weeks later, most escaped a second time from a warren of manmade tunnels at Tora Bora. "It was the difference between defeating the enemy and destroying the enemy," said a subordinate describing Myers's views.
Franks said later, without referring to Myers, that he sought to avoid estranging Afghanistan's Pushtun majority by allowing its militias to take the lead in the south. He also said, more recently, that he would have needed months to dispatch enough U.S. forces to make a decisive difference.
Al Qaeda's consecutive escapes from Kabul and Tora Bora marked the last time the Bush administration had so large a concentration of jihadists in its sights. The subsequent global manhunt has often sought men believed to have been at one of those battles, or both.
A high-ranking war planner likened the result to throwing a rock at a nest of bees, then trying to chase them down, one by one, with a net.
-- Barton Gellman