Rumsfeld order allowed bin Laden's escape

A new Senate report says that American military leadership refused reinforcements to block al-Qaida leader's path

Published November 30, 2009 4:50PM (EST)

When Osama bin Laden gave American troops the slip in the early days of the Afghanistan war, it seemed reasonable to give the benefit of the doubt to American military leadership. Tora Bora, the cave complex where the al-Qaida chief had been hiding, is situated in some of the most impassable mountain terrain on the planet. American troops had little experience in the region or local connections, and it was winter to boot. Though they won the battle, catching one particular guy in that kind of scenario was never going to be an easy job.

But a new report commissioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shows that, in fact, the U.S. military may have had bin Laden in its grasp, and decided that dropping the net was too risky a proposition. The study, released Monday, is titled “Tora Bora revisited: how we failed to get Bin Laden and why it matters today.” According to the report, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld turned down requests for a larger American troop presence to block escape routes from Tora Bora.

Rumsfeld had emphasized a small American footprint in Afghanistan from the start of the war. He was famously besotted with the idea of warfare conducted by small, agile teams working with local allies and heavy air support. Accordingly, at Tora Bora, there were fewer than 100 American commandos on the scene. Although officials in Washington, including the president, had been told that the Afghan soldiers accompanying the Americans were tired, cold and not that invested in capturing bin Laden, requests for American reinforcements were denied.

The study contradicts the claim of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said that it wasn’t conclusive at the time where the terrorist leader was. In fact, according to the report, bin Laden was clearly in reach at Tora Bora. Even he thought it was already over: Expecting to die, he wrote up a last will and testament.

Apparently, Rumsfeld was convinced that sending more troops would antagonize the local population, potentially causing an insurgent resistance. By November -- one month before the battles at Tora Bora took place -- American planners had also already begun shifting emphasis and attention to preparations for a war in Iraq.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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Afghanistan Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Osama Bin Laden Terrorism War Room