Videotape renews question: How did bin Laden escape?

Experts differ on Kerry's claim that Bush missed his chance in Tora Bora

Election 2004

October 31, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Osama bin Laden, who has thrust himself into the American presidential race in its waning days, is probably still hiding in the rugged border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the U.S. military.

It was through the snow-capped mountains in that region that bin Laden narrowly escaped three years ago, frustrating a military operation that has been a campaign issue for months.

Democratic candidate John Kerry repeated charges yesterday that the Bush administration bungled the raid in the Tora Bora mountains to capture bin Laden in December 2001. Retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who was the overall commander of the effort and is a vocal supporter of President Bush, continues to defend his use of Afghan fighters rather than calling in additional U.S. forces to seal off escape routes.

Some defense and intelligence analysts say that even if bin Laden is captured or killed, it will not dampen a fundamentalist Muslim terrorist campaign that continues to spread and target Americans. Bin Laden, they argue, has become a symbol of the campaign, much as Che Guevara, the Argentina-born Cuban revolutionary, inspired young Marxist rebels for more than a generation.

Army Maj. Scott Nelson told reporters in Afghanistan yesterday that the al-Qaida leader is likely still along a corridor that stretches 1,500 miles. "He is operating probably in the Afghanistan or Pakistan border area," Nelson said. "We are not exactly sure; if we knew exactly where he was, we would be there in a moment."

Bin Laden has been the specter hanging over the presidential race all year.

Bush has charged that his Democratic opponent's votes in the Senate on defense spending, together with his focus on allied cooperation, show that he is not strong enough to deal with the terrorist mastermind. Kerry, for his part, said that the Bush administration mishandled the operation in Tora Bora and that the president's "rush to war" in Iraq created a diversion from the real enemy: bin Laden and other terrorists who are targeting America.

Yesterday, at a rally in Appleton, Wis., Kerry once more returned to that theme, saying, "As I have said for two years now, when Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, it was wrong to outsource the job of capturing them to Afghan warlords who a week earlier were fighting against us."

Instead, Bush should have used more American troops, "the best-trained troops in the world, who wanted to avenge America for what happened in New York and Pennsylvania and in Washington."

Bush, during a stop in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, chided Kerry for "accusing our military of passing up a chance to get Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora."

"As the commander in charge of that operation, Tommy Franks, has said: It's simply not the case," Bush said. "It is especially shameful in the light of a new tape from America's enemy."

Nearly three years after the brutal fighting in Tora Bora, there is a lingering dispute about the operation. Some military officers who were there say additional forces could have effectively sealed the borders and prevented the escape of bin Laden, who they say was detected in an intercepted radio conversation - the last U.S. eavesdrop of the terrorist leader. They point out there were thousands of Marines aboard ships in the Arabian Sea who could have been airlifted to the fight.

During the summer, when he was on a book tour for his memoir, American Soldier, Franks was pressed on why he didn't use more U.S. troops at Tora Bora and whether bin Laden was allowed to slip away.

"We made the decision to use a small number of American troops and to - I guess the military terminology would be to leverage the Afghans themselves in order to get control of their country," Franks said. U.S. leaders wanted to avoid "the example of the Soviets," who put 620,000 troops into Afghanistan in the 1970s and "did not leave with a victory," he added.

In his book, Franks says there was no hard evidence that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, recalling that he briefed Bush and the National Security Council in the White House about operations along the Afghanistan border.

"`Is he in there, Tommy?' President Bush asked. Everyone knew who he was: bin Laden. `The intell people think there's a possibility,' I said. ... `The truth is Mr. President, I am not sure. He's not on the radio, and I've seen no credible reporting on bin Laden's whereabouts.'"

Yet Robin Moore, the author of the Vietnam-era classic The Green Berets, traveled with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan for his book, The Hunt for Bin Laden: Task Force Dagger, and offers a different picture.

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