In the week leading up to the US presidential election, the Bush campaign still finds itself answering renewed challenges on its handling of the war on terror.
US Vice President Dick Cheney Tuesday called Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry an "armchair general" for his recent criticisms relating to the loss of 380 tons of explosives in Iraq.
As part of his argument that President George W. Bush has "failed miserably" to make America "safer at home and more respected in the world," Mr. Kerry has repeatedly asserted that Mr. Bush "took his eye off the ball of Osama bin Laden" in Afghanistan to attack Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
As evidence for this charge, Kerry says US forces could have killed or captured bin Laden when they had him trapped in the mountains of Tora Bora in 2001, but bungled the operation because they did not have enough troops on the ground and "outsourced" the job to Afghan warlords.
The Bush administration has repeatedly denied these charges. On Monday Bush once again directly refuted the charge accusing Kerry of "throwing out the wild claim that he knows where Osama bin Laden was in the fall of 2001 - and that our military had a chance to get him in Tora Bora."
"This is an unjustified and harsh criticism of our military commanders in the field," Bush said. "This is the worst kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking."
As The Associated Press reports, Mr. Cheney Tuesday invoked the name of retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to rebut Kerry's criticism. Franks "stated repeatedly it was not at all certain that bin Laden was in Tora Bora," said Cheney. "He might have been there or in Pakistan or even Kashmir."
"US Special Forces were on the ground, and in charge of the operation around Tora Bora," Cheney said. "They relied on Afghan fighters to help them kill and capture Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Tora Bora. They knew the landscape."
Cheney said Kerry "likes to say we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan in order to go to Iraq. But again listen to General Franks, who said neither attention nor manpower was diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq."
"Now John Kerry sitting 6,000 miles away, he is trying to cast doubt on these amazing performances" by US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cheney said. General Franks refuted Kerry's Tora Bora claims last week in a piece published by The Houston Chronicle.
It was a major White House blunder. And there were two reasons for it: 1) The Pentagon outsourced the war in eastern Afghanistan to the wrong warlords, who were collecting suitcases full of cash with one hand and spreading disinformation with the other. 2) The White House's and the Pentagon's attention were already directed toward toppling Saddam. This all amounts to Senator John Kerry being fundamentally correct when he charges on the campaign trail that Bush blew it in Tora Bora.
Kerry said in the first debate, "We had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora." Kerry doesn't know that. Some intelligence indeed suggests that bin Laden was there. But the US commander on the ground, Gen. Tommy Franks, also had reports that bin Laden was in Kashmir, in southern Baluchistan and northwest of Khandahar near a lake.
The Christian Science Monitor was one of the first news sources to report bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora. In a December 11, 2001 article the Monitor reported that there were "growing signs ... that bin Laden ... and other Al Qaeda leaders may have fled the besieged mountain base at Tora Bora."
By all accounts, about two-thirds of the original 1,500 to 2,000 of Arabs, Afghans, and Chechens may have fled. ... In addition to the original number of Al Qaeda fighters, hundreds of Al Qaeda family members have escaped the siege of Tora Bora in the past three weeks. Most of those leaving have tapped into an "underground railway" of sympathetic Afghan families at the base of Tora Bora, whose men had long been on bin Laden's payroll.
Though Mr. Rumsfeld has said that the two dozen or so US Special Forces are helping to block exit routes, that number of US military personnel can only be considered a token of the real figure needed to cut off all the mountain passes surrounding the mountain enclave.
As the US intensified its airstrikes on Tora Bora, US and Afghan helicopters started to arrive with supplies for the Afghans. Also - as was its pattern elsewhere in Afghanistan - the US began enlisting local warlords. Two - Hazret Ali and Haji Zaman Ghamsharik - would become notorious in the battle for Tora Bora. ...
The rift between the two men would seriously hinder US efforts to capture Al Qaeda's leadership. Although backed by the United States, the Jalalabad warlords would have to determine by themselves - while sometimes arguing fiercely - how best to go after Tora Bora's defenders.
... somewhere between Nov. 28 to Nov. 30 - according to detailed interviews with Arabs and Afghans in eastern Afghanistan afterward - the world's most-wanted man escaped the world's most-powerful military machine, walking - with four of his loyalists - in the direction of Pakistan.
In an article published April 17, 2002, The Washington Post wrote: "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 US 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."
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 US 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.
That Post report pointed out then that "the Bush administration has never acknowledged that bin Laden slipped through the cordon ostensibly placed around Tora Bora as US aircraft began bombing on Nov. 30," but added that "inside the government there is little controversy on the subject."
Regardless of whether bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora late in 2001, and whether better US planning could have prevented it, the question still remains: Where is he now?