May 6, 2011

Hunt for bin Laden: Lessons learned from the enemy

Ian Shapira, Marc Fisher and Peter Finn, The Washington Post

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"The guy saw bin Laden and his son," Berntsen said. "When you're desperate, you're desperate. And when you don't have food and water, you'll take it."

As the United States carpet-bombed the cave complex, bin Laden and Zawahri urged their fighters to carry on against the Americans. In the bitter cold of the caves, bin Laden sipped mint tea. He heard pleas from his fighters for medicine and, with ever-greater urgency, escape routes.

A videotape later obtained by the CIA shows bin Laden in that period, teaching followers how to dig holes where they could spend the night without being seen by U.S. spy planes. As bin Laden speaks, a U.S. bomb explodes in the background. The terrorist casually notes that "we were there last night."

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 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 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." 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 them were abandoned by their Afghan allies behind enemy lines, the men halted their 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-Qaida fighters. None of the remains they dug up was a match for bin Laden.

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