- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2009

Osama bin Laden was unquestionably within reach of U.S. troops in the mountains of Tora Bora when American military leaders decided not to pursue the terrorist leader with massive force in 2001, says a report by Senate Democrats.

The report asserts that the failure to kill or capture bin Laden at his most vulnerable, in December 2001, has had lasting consequences beyond the fate of one man, saying his escape laid the foundation for today’s reinvigorated Afghan insurgency and inflamed the internal strife now endangering Pakistan.

Staff members for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic majority prepared the report at the request of the chairman, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, as President Obama prepares to boost U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The chairman of another Senate panel, appearing on Sunday’s political talk shows, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the committee’s report underscores Democratic criticisms that the Bush administration mistakenly concentrated more on Iraq than Afghanistan.

“We took our eye off the ball,” Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Instead of moving in on him at Tora Bora, the previous administration decided to move its forces to Iraq. It was a mistake then. And I think this report … just sort of reinforces that.”

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, downplayed the report, telling CNN’s “State of the Union” that although it offered valid historical lessons, “at the same time, it does serve as a convenient way for, perhaps, Democrats to say once again, there’s another failing of the past administration.”

Mr. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, has long argued the Bush administration missed a chance to get the al Qaeda leader and top deputies when they were holed up in the forbidding mountainous area of eastern Afghanistan only three months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

More pointedly, the report seeks to affix a measure of blame for the state of the war today on military leaders under President George W. Bush, specifically Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary and his top military commander, Tommy Franks.

“Removing the al Qaeda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat,” the report says. “But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide. The failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism.”

The report states categorically that bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora when the United States had the means to mount a rapid assault with several thousand troops at least. It says that a review of existing literature, unclassified government records and interviews with central participants “removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.”

On or about Dec. 16, 2001, bin Laden and bodyguards “walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area,” where he is still thought to be based, the report says.

Instead of a massive attack, fewer than 100 U.S. commandos, working with Afghan militias, tried to capitalize on air strikes and track down their prey.

“The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines,” the report said.

At the time, Mr. Rumsfeld expressed concern that a large U.S. troop presence might fuel a backlash, and he and some others said the evidence was not conclusive about bin Laden’s location.

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