A different sort of search requires a new set of tactics

Note: Please upgrade your Flash plug-in to view our enhanced content.

Chapter 2: Lessons learned

The American campaign was conducted primarily from the air. Despite the pleas from CIA operatives, U.S. officials were reluctant to send in ground troops to flush out bin Laden. They told officers on the ground in Afghanistan that Pakistani troops would help them, cutting off bin Laden if he tried to cross into their country.

But in early December, over lunch at his palace in Islamabad, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made it clear to U.S. officials that he didn't want to commit troops unless the Americans would help transport them to the border by air. According to Wendy Chamberlin, then the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Musharraf told her and Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of U.S. Central Command: "I'd put the troops in trucks, but that'll take weeks. Could you give me air support?"

Franks would not comment for this article, but according to Chamberlin, he was noncommital about air support. Only later did she learn that the general was already "planning for Iraq," she said. "Even if he could have helped out, he was already starting to have to reshuffle." Without the air support, the Pakistanis sent some soldiers to the border, but never enough to secure it.

Back in Tora Bora, a team from Delta Force - the military's secretive, elite Special Operations unit - planned to sneak up on bin Laden from behind, crossing into the terrorist's suspected lair from Pakistan, through an undefended back door. That would have required using supplemental oxygen to scale a 14,000-foot peak, but according to the leader of the Delta Force team, who later wrote a book under the pseudonym Dalton Fury, the plan had a better chance of succeeding than any frontal assault that relied on help from Afghan fighters.

Fury, the assault troop commander who retired from the Army as a major, said in an e-mail interview that the Pakistani forces who were supposed to seal the border "never made it there." He said his superiors told him to skip the border-side assault and instead "align our mission with the Afghan mujaheddin to put an Afghan face on killing" bin Laden.

Fury didn't trust the Afghans. "The mujaheddin were not very skilled or motivated fighters," he said. But following orders, the Delta Force team stayed on the Afghan side of the border.

On Dec. 10, Fury's team got a tip from a source who claimed to know bin Laden's general location in the Tora Bora area. Thirty members of the team launched a hasty assault, but when some of his men were abandoned by their Afghan allies behind enemy lines, the team halted its advance and spent two hours rescuing their mates. Fury aborted the mission.

The next summer, Fury's men returned to Tora Bora with a forensics team to search 80 graves of al-Qaeda fighters. None of the remains they dug up was a match for bin Laden.

The team stayed on the hunt. In December 2002, they conducted a nighttime raid on Tora Bora, capturing a man who had given medical care to bin Laden. But bin Laden himself was long gone. The trail had gone cold.

Tora Bora taught both sides important lessons. The Americans learned, as a top intelligence official said, "that it was a bad idea to 'outsource' something as important as capturing or killing bin Laden." Mutual mistrust kept the Pakistani military and Afghan fighters from embracing the Americans' search for bin Laden.

After Tora Bora, the Americans knew that "when the time came to move, we would do it ourselves," said the official, who was involved in the search for years.

Bin Laden, who took the U.S. bombing seriously enough to have written his will in mid-December of 2001, learned that he had lost his safe haven and was now a fugitive on the run. "Hiding and isolation from operatives and recruits transformed him from a hands-on leader into an almost mythical figure within al-Qaeda," the intelligence official said. That new mystique lent additional import to each video or audio transmission that bin Laden managed to smuggle out, but it also dampened al-Qaeda's fundraising and recruiting capacity.

VIDEO EDITING AND SHOOTING: Alexandra Garcia and Ben de la Cruz
WRITING AND REPORTING: Marc Fisher, Ian Shapira and Peter Finn
PHOTO RESEARCH: Dee Swann and Nick Kirkpatrick
VIDEO RESEARCH: Akira Hakuta, Jayne Orenstein, Tucker Walsh, Jason Aldag and Jonathan Forsythe
CARTOGRAPHY: Laris Karklis and Gene Thorp
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Steven King and Cory Haik
PHOTO CREDITS: AFP, The Associated Press, Getty Images, Linda Davidson for the Washington Post, The White House

Your Reactions

word cloud

Cast Your Vote