Friday, January 30, 2009

The Hunt for Bin Laden

By David Forsmark
Friday, January 30, 2009

Kill bin Laden: A Delta Force Commander's Account of the Hunt for the World's Most Wanted Man
By Dalton Fury
St. Martin's, $25.95, 320 pp.

In the September 30, 2004, presidential debate, John F. Kerry continued a long-standing Democrat tradition of distorting classified information for political ends — and counting on the Republican opponent to be too principled to give away classified information in rebuttal -- when he intoned in his best Lurch impression:

"(W)hen we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, [he had] 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best-trained troops in the world to go kill the world's number one criminal and terrorist. They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other."

Unfortunately, President Bush, who has the constitutional authority to declassify information on the spot, did not take the opportunity to expose Kerry as a liar who would be too reckless with American lives to be the country's commander in chief.

But even before Dalton Fury's revelations about the situation in his terrific new book, Kill bin Laden, Kerry's charge didn't pass the smell test for any reasonably well-informed viewer. At the time, my fantasy of a Bush response went something like this:

"John Kerry talks about Tora Bora as though it's a little village, and all we had to do was walk in and arrest Osama. He should consult an atlas. Tora Bora is in one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the world. The Soviet Union threw masses of troops against it for ten years and lost thousands of men. Mr. Kerry says the lives lost in liberating Iraq were wasted, but just for the propaganda value of capturing Osama, he would have sacrificed many times that many American lives — without absolute knowledge the target was even present."

That alone makes John unfit to be Commander-in-Chief.

But Senator Kerry's lack of honesty also makes him a poor choice for president. Contrary to press reports, he well knows "the best-trained troops in the world" led a very successful military campaign that killed at least hundreds of battle-hardened al Qaeda operatives, a loss from which Osama bid Laden's legion of terror has yet to recover.

As for the Afghan troops, we used the same methods that were so successful at Mazar-e-Sharif and toppled the Taliban while Kerry and his allies in the media were revving up their talk of a growing "quagmire" in Afghanistan. At Tora Bora, the U.S. accomplished what the Soviets and every other invader, failed to do -- without the loss of a single American life."

John, since you are following in the disgraced footsteps of Senator Patrick "Leaky" Lehey, you should be given the same respect. I believe Vice President Dick Cheney had that about right."

Of course, that would have violated the "New Tone."

Now, for the first time, we have the details that directly refute Kerry and the Democrats' Big Lie about Tora Bora. In Kill bin Laden, the commander of the Delta Force unit that pulverized thousands of terrorists -- using a pseudonym, Dalton Fury — tells the real story of one of recent history's most misrepresented battles.

In December 2001, after much of Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban, thousands of al Qaeda, most likely including bin Laden, fled to the Tora Bora cave complex in the Hindu Kush mountains, a sub-range of the Himalayas. Bin Laden had been developing fortified positions in the caves there since the days of the Soviet occupation.

Fury commanded about 40 members of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment, popularly known as Delta Force, and called "the Unit" by its members (and whose existence is not formally acknowledged by the U.S. government). They were given the job of rooting out al Qaeda and killing bin Laden. Delta was joined by a few CIA paramilitaries, a Green Beret A Team, some Air Force Special Forces targeting specialists and a few British commandos.

The force's presence, however, was played down, denied and kept as hidden as possible from the press. The official story was that the Afghan Eastern Alliance was taking it to al Qaeda — along with more than a little help from high-flying friends with smart bombs and daisy cutters.
This was difficult, as the press was all over the rear of the battlefield, and Fury shares some amusing anecdotes of the lengths the operators would go to avoid being caught on camera or in front of a microphone. The Afghan "generals," however, were garrulous, indeed.

The tale the Democrats peddled about "outsourcing" the battle seems to be based on an April 17, 2002, story by a Washington Post reporter who apparently fell for the "official line" on the battle at Tora Bora. That'ss no excuse for speading falsehoods, however -- plenty of Democrats on congressional intelligence and military committees knew the truth but were content to fan the flames for partisan ends.

Fury's tale is one of incredible bravery, dedication and ingenuity, leavened by frustrating bureaucracy and conflicting agendas.

The Delta Force operators and the other Special Forces shooters performed splendidly, primarily going out in small teams to establish observation posts where the could call in airstrikes. The teams were stealthy and skilled but extremely vulnerable, Fury notes. Discovery by al Qaeda or the Taliban likely would have meant a Lone Survivor scenario for any of them.

At first, Fury writes, the tactics that worked so well in the rest of the war in Afghanistan stalled at Tora Bora. The Afghans were terrified of al Qaeda's abilities to fight in the darkness. This meant territory taken during the day was yielded as the sun set.

There also was a related problem of motivation. General Ali's fighters had been very motivated to free themselves from the yoke of the Taliban, but al Qaeda was not their direct enemy. It was a painful lesson, Fury writes:

"What motivation did the Afghan Muslims possess for hunting down, raising their rifles, sighting in, and actually shooting an al Qaeda fighter, much less the revered leader?

"I am convinced that not a single one of our muhj fighters wanted to be recognized in their mosque as the man who killed Sheikh bin Laden."

On the other hand, Dalton write, the muhjis responded reasonably well once they saw the example of the American spotters and snipers, who stayed put at night and inflicted awesome damage on the entrenched terrorists.

Another source of frustration for Fury was that his excellent Green Beret A Team was pulled away from him at a critical time without explanation. Whether it was a casualty-shy commander or resentment over Delta's taking over the mission is not something Fury speculates on.

Fury addresses the mistakes of Tora Bora but refutes the notion that even a perfect operation would have been guaranteed to net bin Laden. Nothing is certain in war, and the terrain made everything that much less assured.

An example of the oversimplification of the situation, he writes, was Geraldo Rivera's Fox News stunt of hiking out of Tora Bora to Afghanistan in three hours. Of course, the mustachioed showboat took his walk showing how "easy" it was in the summer -- and without Delta Force snipers or B-52s raining death on his position.

For years, it was considered better than even money that bin Laden was dead. Fury relates the frantic radio transmissions of battered al Qaeda terrorists and bin Laden himself that were used to track movements and target positions; it's very likely Osama's position was hit, and he was severely injured.

It's very possible that closing the mountain passes with mines -- as Fury's boss, Lt. Commander Jake Ashley had requested -- or troops stationed at the Pakistan border would have netted bin Laden. Or it might not have. It certainly would have led to more al Qaeda deaths. The political or diplomatic reasons behind this denial have not been made public.

In an exit interview, President Bush maintained that the military chain of command is still not completely completely certain that bin Laden was at Tora Bora. That may be technically true, but both former CIA paramilitary operative Gary Berntsen whose bestseller Jawbreaker told this story from the CIA side, and Fury, the commander closest to the battle and the intelligence in the field are convinced otherwise.

Despite the fact that he has taken great pains to hide the identities of those on active duty and to not reveal relevant information to the enemy, Fury has taken some heat from his former comrades for talking about so recent a Delta operation in public. Constructive or not, some feel it just isn't done.

However, Fury's tough assessment of his own performance clears him from any charges of self-aggrandizement. It would be easy to emphasize the achievements of the fight and pound his chest; but Fury thinks that the lack of a serious military analysis about what really happened at Tora Bora is keeping its lessons from being learned, and that the record should be set straight. I think he's right on this one.

So was Tora Bora the "biggest mistake" of George W. Bush, as Democrats maintain, or the unqualified success that some Pentagon spinners have proclaimed? Fury says it was neither.

Since the elimination of Osama bin Laden was the primary goal of the mission, Fury concludes:

"So regardless of how one chooses to spin the facts, the battle must be viewed as a military failure. This harsh reality is not to say that American and British commandos, controllers, and intelligence operatives did not perform according to billing, for they certainly did. Even so, how can any other claim of success be made? It was, without a doubt, a tremendous tactical victory. But throw in the strategic assessment, and the fight at Tora Bora can be classified as only being partially successful operationally."

While it has moments of excruciating suspense, incidents of awe-inspiring daring, and lots of fascinating detail on how elite warriors are fighting al Qaeda, Kill bin Laden does not have the non-stop, slam bang action of other recent war classics like House to House or the mega-selling Lone Survivor.

It is, however, a very compelling read-- and a valuable corrective to the public record. Dalton Fury has done his country another service by writing it.

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