The 92,000 classified Afghan War documents, which were just released by Wikileaks, provide a troubling narrative of that conflict’s downward spiral as President George W. Bush concentrated the American military on the neoconservative target of choice, Iraq.
Though the reports don’t directly address Bush’s strategic blunder, they tell the story of badly stretched U.S. forces trying to manage a complex task in Afghanistan while the Taliban, al-Qaeda and their allies in Pakistan regrouped along the border and became a dangerous adversary.
Also indirectly, the reports underscore the successful counter-strategy pursued by al-Qaeda leaders, to keep the United States bogged down in Iraq while they rebuilt their capabilities in their safe havens within the tribal territories of northwest Pakistan.
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Some of that strategy was already known. For instance, one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants, called “Atiyah,” wrote in a letter dated Dec. 11, 2005, that “prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest.” The letter was sent to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the hyper-violent leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by a U.S. bombing raid in June 2006.
Atiyah’s advice to Zarqawi had been to tone down his violence against Iraqis and to proceed more patiently in developing alliances. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan was clearly worried that Zarqawi was alienating too many Iraqis by trying to rush the war against the Americans.
It was in that context that Atiyah informed Zarqawi that the broader strategy was to keep U.S. attention on Iraq by “prolonging the war.” Back in Washington, President Bush continued to play into al-Qaeda’s hands by insisting that Iraq was “the central front in the war on terror.”
Other intelligence information also revealed that in 2004, al-Qaeda understood that its situation along the Pakistani-Afghan border remained precarious and would improve only if Bush continued his blunderbuss approach that was alienating people across the Muslim world.
Al-Qaeda leaders even feared that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would cause many of its young recruits to put down their guns and go home. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]
Bin Laden Boosts Bush
In late October 2004, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that bin Laden released a pre-election video with the intent of helping Bush gain a second term so his war policies would continue.
Bin Laden devoted most of his harangue to denouncing Bush in what looked like a Brer Rabbit ploy of “Don’t throw me in the briar patch” – suggesting to American voters that whatever they do, don’t give Bush a second term – when that was exactly what al-Qaeda wanted.
After bin Laden’s video dominated the news on the Friday before Election 2004, a meeting of senior CIA analysts began with deputy CIA director John McLaughlin observing that “bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” according to Ron Suskind’s book The One Percent Doctrine, which relies heavily on CIA insiders.
“Certainly,” CIA deputy associate director for intelligence Jami Miscik said, “he [bin Laden] would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years,” according to Suskind’s account of the meeting.
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts drifted into silence, troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.
If helping Bush was bin Laden’s intent, the strategy appeared to work. Two last-minute polls showed Bush moving from a virtual dead heat with Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, to about a five percentage point lead. Bush then hung on to win by an official margin of less than three points.
[For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Agrees Bin Laden Helped in ‘04”]
In April 2006, a National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, formalized some of the analysis about the benefit of the Iraq War to Islamic terrorism. The Iraq War had become a “cause celebre” that was “cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement,” the NIE said.
Then, through 2006 and 2007, Iraq experienced a staggering level of civil strife, with Sunni and Shiite extremists forming death squads to go after their rival sects – as well as the Americans.
However, several developments gradually tamped down the violence by late 2007, including the fact that beginning in 2006 some Sunnis militants, who had grown disgusted with al-Qaeda’s brutality, agreed to stop killing Americans in exchange for money. The de facto ethnic cleansing that had separated Sunnis from Shiites also reduced the opportunities for sectarian violence.
Still, the conventional wisdom of Washington – significantly shaped by influential neoconservative commentators – held that Bush’s decision to “surge” U.S. forces by about 40,000 troops explained the decline in killings. The myth of the “successful surge” was born as the neocons scrambled to reclaim their status as the U.S. experts on the Middle East.
But another development may have had even a greater effect on the plummeting U.S. death toll in Iraq. American deaths declined into single digits per month when it became clear that the Americans would be forced into a military withdrawal, which became increasingly apparent to Iraqis in 2008 as a new “status of forces agreement” was hammered out.
By late 2008, however, even as the U.S. government finally acquiesced to a military departure from Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated badly. The hard-line Taliban, which had ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the post-9/11 U.S. invasion, had reorganized with the help of old allies in Pakistani intelligence. Al-Qaeda also was gaining operational strength.
Just as Atiyah had envisioned, “prolonging the war” in Iraq had bought al-Qaeda and its allies precious time to regroup inside Pakistan, which had another appealing feature to bin Laden and friends, its nuclear bombs.
The worsening predicament for U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a reality that resonates through the larger narrative presented by the 92,000 documents released by Wikileaks, covering a six-year period from January 2004 to December 2009.
For instance, there are the dramatic electronic messages from Combat Outpost Keating, an isolated American base camp that was part of an undermanned Bush strategy for challenging the Taliban in remote eastern Afghanistan. The strategy had become increasingly untenable as the Taliban regained its fighting strength and began to surround these outposts.
As part of the Obama administration’s early review of the Afghan War, the decision was made to begin abandoning these vulnerable outposts. However, before Keating could be closed down, it came under heavy attack on Oct. 3, 2009, with a concentrated force of militants storming the outpost and breaching its perimeter.
With helicopter gunships some 40 minutes away, the Keating defenders were largely on their own. The electronic messages to headquarters grew increasingly frantic with the base in danger of falling.
“Enemy in the wire at keating,” one defender typed. “ENEMUY IN THE WIRE ENEMY IN THE WIRE!!!”
As the U.S. troops suffered growing casualties, American F-15s bombed several suspected insurgent positions. Eventually, helicopters arrived with U.S. reinforcements forcing the enemy to retreat, but not before eight Americans were killed and nearly two dozen were wounded.
President Barack Obama’s decision last fall to “surge” U.S. forces by 30,000 more troops, bringing the total to around 100,000, has led to a further spike in American casualties, with the total death toll now exceeding 1,200.
However, the bottom line for the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan is that Obama’s escalation may well be a case of too little, way too late. The opportunity to stabilize Afghanistan and to eradicate al-Qaeda appears to have been squandered in late 2001 when the Bush administration pivoted prematurely to Iraq.
Even as bin Laden and his top lieutenants were cornered in the Afghan mountains at Tora Bora in fall 2001, the attention of Bush and his neocon advisers had already shifted toward Iraq, which the neocons considered a greater threat to Israel’s security. Neocon theorists also held that by taking Iraq, regime change could then be pressed against Syria and Iran, thus eliminating all of Israel’s major Islamic enemies.
So, when the small American Special Forces team pursuing bin Laden called for reinforcements to seal off his escape routes to Pakistan and to mount an assault on al-Qaeda’s mountain strongholds, their appeals fell mostly on ears already listening to White House demands for Iraq war plans, said an analysis of the Tora Bora battle by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Instead of staying focused on capturing bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda, Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks was instructed to begin planning for the invasion of Iraq.
“On Nov. 21, 2001, President Bush put his arm on Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld as they were leaving a National Security Council meeting at the White House. ‘I need to see you,’ the president said. It was 72 days after the 9/11 attacks and just a week after the fall of Kabul. But Bush already had new plans.”
Citing Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, the Senate report quoted Bush as asking Rumsfeld, “What kind of war plan do you have for Iraq?”
In an interview with Woodward, Bush recalled instructing Rumsfeld to “get Tommy Franks looking at what it would take to protect America by removing Saddam Hussein if we have to.”
In his memoir, American General, Franks said he got a phone call from Rumsfeld on Nov. 21, after the Defense Secretary had met with the President, and was told about Bush’s interest in an updated Iraq war plan.
At the time, Franks said he was in his office at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida working with one of his aides on arranging air support for the Afghan militia who were under the guidance of the U.S. Special Forces in charge of the assault on bin Laden’s Tora Bora stronghold.
Franks told Rumsfeld that the Iraq war plan was out of date, prompting the Defense Secretary to instruct Franks to “dust it off and get back to me in a week.”
“For critics of the Bush administration’s commitment to Afghanistan,” the Senate report noted, “the shift in focus just as Franks and his senior aides were literally working on plans for the attacks on Tora Bora represents a dramatic turning point that allowed a sustained victory in Afghanistan to slip through our fingers. Almost immediately, intelligence and military planning resources were transferred to begin planning the next war in Iraq.”
Losing Bin Laden
The CIA and Special Forces teams, calling for reinforcements to finish off bin Laden and al-Qaeda, “did not know what was happening back at CentCom, the drain in resources and shift in attention would affect them and the future course of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan,” the Senate report said.
Henry Crumpton, who was in charge of the CIA’s Afghan strategy, made direct appeals to Franks to move more than 1,000 Marines to Tora Bora to block escape routes to Pakistan. But the CentCom commander rebuffed the request, citing logistical and time problems, the report said.
“At the end of November, Crumpton went to the White House to brief President Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney and repeated the message that he had delivered to Franks,” the report said. “Crumpton warned the president that the Afghan campaign’s primary goal of capturing bin Laden was in jeopardy because of the military’s reliance on Afghan militias at Tora Bora. …
“Crumpton questioned whether the Pakistani forces would be able to seal off the escape routes and pointed out that the promised Pakistani troops had not arrived yet.”
But the Iraq-obsessed Bush still didn’t act. Finally, in mid-December 2001, the small U.S. Special Forces team convinced the Afghan militia fighters to undertake a sweep of the mountainous terrain, but they found it largely deserted.
The Senate report said bin Laden and his bodyguards apparently departed Tora Bora on Dec. 16, 2001, adding: “With help from Afghans and Pakistanis who had been paid in advance, the group made its way on foot and horseback across the mountain passes and into Pakistan without encountering any resistance.
“The Special Operations Command history (of the Afghan invasion) noted that there were not enough U.S. troops to prevent the escape, acknowledging that the failure to capture or kill … bin Laden made Tora Bora a controversial battle.”
Bush, however, was following the advice of Washington’s neocons who considered Afghanistan essentially a sideshow with the main event awaiting in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, in vanquishing Israel’s enemies.
So, for the next seven years, U.S. forces in Afghanistan had to make do with the limited attention of Washington while the Bush administration obsessed over Iraq.
The narrative of that reversal of fortune in Afghanistan – as the undermanned occupying troops saw their advantage lost to a resurgent resistance – can be found in the 92,000 classified documents published by Wikileaks.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.