The Skeptics

How Bush Lost bin Laden

By spring 2002, less than a year after the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, President George W. Bush decided to pull most of America’s Special Operations Forces and CIA paramilitary operatives off the hunt for Osama bin Laden so they could be redeployed for a possible war in Iraq. I’ve written about this before, but I did not know the extent to which the war in Iraq contributed to our loss of bin Laden until I read this piece from the Washington Post:

The American campaign [in Afghanistan] 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.

First, why would the Bush administration rely on a foreign government to capture Osama bin Laden, only weeks after 9/11? Second, of all the foreign governments to rely on, why would it be Pakistan, the country that during the seven-year period leading up to 9/11 was actively funding, arming, and advising Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban regime that harbored Osama bin Laden? But it gets worse:

But in early December, over lunch at his palace in Islamabad, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made it clear to U.S. officials that he did not 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 noncommittal 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.”

Whatever one thinks about Musharraf, my problem lies primarily with Bush. The article explains:

A few months after Tora Bora, as part of the preparation for war in Iraq, the Bush administration pulled out many of the Special Operations and CIA forces that had been searching for bin Laden in Afghanistan, according to several U.S. officials who served at the time.

Even the drones that U.S. forces depended on to track movements of suspicious characters in the Afghan mountain passes were redeployed to be available for the Iraq war, Lt. Gen. John Vines told The Washington Post in 2006. Once, when Vines’s troops believed they were within half an hour of catching up to bin Laden, the general asked for drones to cover three possible escape routes. But only one drone was available — others had been moved to Iraq. The target got away.

That’s right folks! The Bush White House lost whatever opportunity it had to get bin Laden by diverting scarce resources to its war of choice in Iraq. of course, it should go without saying that even if America hadn’t gone into Iraq, it would’ve been difficult for Bush to have captured or killed bin Laden. But what really “grinds my gears” is to hear members of the Bush team claim credit for bin Laden’s recent demise—torture was “critically important”—while simultaneously ignoring their culpability for not helping to capture bin Laden when they had the chance.

Aside from the military, other vital resources were spread thin. Iraq diverted international funds, journalistic resources, public attention and criticism, and adequate Congressional oversight. Iraq also dealt a severe blow to NATO's unity of effort in Afghanistan. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that many European allies “have a problem with our involvement in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan.” Those forthright remarks were echoed by Dr. William Maley, Professor at Australian National University, and Mr. Daoud Yaqub, Research Scholar at Australian National University. “[T]o many observers in Europe," say Maley and Yaqub, "Iraq is a war of choice, and as a result Europe has no particular duty to shoulder a heavier burden in Afghanistan. The Afghan government and people are victims of this tension."

Thank you, Mr. Bush, Mr. Rumsfled, Ms. Rice, et al. for taking your eyes off the ball.