When we had Osama bin Laden, we let him walk away. That is the criticism that John Kerry and John Edwards have repeatedly leveled at the Bush administration, with -- amazingly -- not one word of rebuttal from President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney during the first two debates.
The charge has to do with the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, when al-Qaida and Taliban die-hards were making a last stand in the Tora Bora redoubt in the White Mountains along the border with Pakistan. Kerry alleges that bin Laden was there and was allowed to escape by the kind of Afghan proxy forces that the United States had relied on throughout its Afghan campaign.
This line of attack gains power only with serious oversimplification. Kerry said in the first debate, "We had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora." Kerry doesn't know that. Some intelligence indeed suggests that bin Laden was there. But the U.S. commander on the ground, Gen. Tommy Franks, also had reports that bin Laden was in Kashmir, in southern Baluchistan and northwest of Khandahar near a lake.
Kerry also said, "We didn't use American forces." That is false. The United States expended massive amounts of ordnance at Tora Bora, both laser-guided bombs and the devastating fire of AC-130 gunships. Video feeds from Predator drone planes provided real-time intelligence. American Special Forces troops were present on the ground, if in small numbers.
They weren't there in force on the basis of a strategic choice that Kerry supported. The United States wanted to avoid the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. We could have flooded Afghanistan with roughly 150,000 troops like the Soviets, but at the risk of causing a nationalist reaction. So, the United States instead used Special Forces troops, precision-guided bombs and indigenous forces.
At the time, Kerry was all for it. He told an interviewer in late 2001 that the United States could avoid making Afghanistan into another Vietnam, "as long as we make smart decisions, and we don't go in and repeat what the British or the Russians tried to do. And I don't think we will; I think we're on a different footing." In mid-December 2001, right in the middle of the battle of Tora Bora, he supported the administration's strategy: "I think we have been smart. I think the administration leadership has done it well, and we are right on track." Kerry only cautioned against using too much force: "I am not for a prolonged bombing campaign," he said.
Of course, every strategic choice has its trade-offs. At Tora Bora, the local troops entered into surrender negotiations that let enemy fighters escape. Some critics suggest that the United States, instead of relying on Pakistani forces to catch al-Qaida escaping to Pakistan, should have done that job itself. But putting U.S. forces into Pakistan could have had the significant cost of destabilizing the relatively moderate government of President Pervez Musharraf.
Kerry warned about exactly this possibility. As the Afghan campaign got under way, The Boston Globe reported: "Kerry, the son of a foreign diplomat, said the greater challenge is managing Muslim unrest in neighboring Pakistan. ... 'My judgment is people who think that Pakistan itself will be easily manageable are really misjudging the public sentiment there,' Kerry said."
At the time, Kerry even weighed in sympathetically on the battle of Tora Bora. On Jan. 20, 2002, Kerry said on CNN: "I do think some people have asked some questions about how that particular component of the mission sort of played out. But the fact is that it is a difficult place. He is elusive. I think they are doing the maximum amount right now possible to try to track him down."
Kerry now says there's no way he would have missed the opportunity the United States had at Tora Bora. What he said three years ago argues otherwise. This controversy is only more evidence that what the senator will never miss is an opportunity to be opportunistic.