Recent Tora Bora action and bin Laden

NBC News:

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When the operation began in early August there was no expectation that Bin Laden or Zawahiri would be there, say U.S. military and intelligence officials. Instead, there was intelligence of a pre-Ramadan gathering of al Qaeda including "leadership" in Tora Bora. Senior officials in the U.S. and Pakistan tell NBC News that planning for the attacks intensified around Aug. 10 once analysts suggested that either Bin Laden or Zawahiri may have be drawn to the conference at Tora Bora. (When U.S. forces attacked al Qaeda camps in August 1998, following the East Africa embassy bombings, Bin Laden was attending a pre-Ramadan conference of al Qaeda in the same general area of eastern Afghanistan).

While the intelligence did not provide “positively identification” that Bin Laden or Zawahiri were at the scene, there was enough other intelligence to suggest that one of the two men was there. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are not believed to have traveled together since mid-2003 for security reasons.

Another official said that intelligence analysts believed strongly that there was a high probability that “either HVT-1 or HVT-2 was there,” using U.S. intelligence descriptions — high value targets — for Bin Laden and Zawahiri. He added that while opinion inside the agency was divided, many believed it was Bin Laden rather than Zawahiri who was present. The reason: “They thought they spotted his security detail,” said the official, a large al Qaeda security detail — the kind of protection that would normally surround only Bin Laden, or Zawahiri.

Also, locals reported the presence of groups known to be part of Bin Laden’s security detail —Chechens, Uzbeks and other Arabs, men willing to die rather than surrender top al Qaeda officials.

The military operation included "several hundred" U.S. and Afghan ground forces, say officials. Elements from the 82nd Airborne blocked off escape routes through the mountains on the Afghanistan side of the border, while helicopters inserted U.S. Navy Seals at night. The Seals pinpointed enemy positions and called in air strikes; the 82nd came in and "mopped up."

On the other side of the border, a senior Pakistani official says the U.S. military helped thousands of Pakistani forces — including their elite commando units — set up a blockade to sweep up any al Qaeda fleeing Afghanistan.

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What happened this time? Military officials admit there were unidentified "planning and coordination problems" even before it got to execution, “primarily between the operators and the generals who give the go-orders” added an intelligence official. A company of the 82nd Airborne was brought in since a Ranger team trained in special operations was not available. But the combination of the “dark side” — the SEALs — and the conventional — the 82nd Airborne — didn't work. "They didn't gel," said the military official. There was "a lack of responsiveness to the intelligence and a lack of aggressiveness."

Michael Sheehan, a former Army Special Operations colonel and counter terrorism ambassador, says he is not surprised.

“Our response is normally too big, too slow, too cumbersome and too risk adverse and those factors normally come from Washington,” said Sheehan.
“The operators normally want to go in much smaller, much more low profile in order to be able to get to the target without being identified and as those plans go up the chain of command they normally get much bigger and much more cumbersome.”

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The story suggest that some of the better assets were working operations in Iraq at the time and that the 82nd Airborne did not mesh well with the special forces troops. They don't explain what this means but we can speculate that it meant the bad guys got away again.

When the latest Tora Bora action started it was shortly after tribal leaders in Pakistan chased about 500 Uzbek fighters from their area and there was some speculation that they wound up at Tora Bora. If they had bin Laden and Zawahiri with them that would have been a real bonus for the operation. The story does not indicate what casualties were inflicted on the al Qaeda forces by the operation. It would be surprising if there were not significant casualties, but so far reports on the operation have been pretty quite. Perhaps this story is an attempt to explain what was going on, but it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

Dr. Rusty at the Jawa Report thinks the high value target was Abu-Yahya Al Libi. He describes al Libi as the current military commander of al Qaeda.

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