In the Afghan Aftermath, a Big 'What If' Is Raised

Peggy Noonan calls failure to get bin Laden at Tora Bora a 'richly consequential screw-up'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 31, 2021 11:55 AM CDT
In the Afghan Aftermath, a Big 'What If' Is Raised
In this Dec. 14, 2001, file photo, an Afghan anti-Taliban fighter, wearing an "I Love New York" button on his military jacket, stands among fellow fighters in the White Mountains near Tora Bora, Afghanistan.   (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)

Among the post-mortems being written about the Afghanistan war is one from Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal, who laments how the war could have ended successfully soon after it began. In December 2001, US and Afghan forces had Osama bin Laden pinned down in the mountainous Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Had the US launched a ground assault or at least blocked the mountain paths into Pakistan, bin Laden likely would have been killed or captured, she writes, citing a 2009 Senate report on what transpired at Tora Bora. But no such decisions were made, and bin Laden managed to slip into Pakistan. "What a richly consequential screw-up it was, and how different the coming years might have been, the whole adventure might have been, if we’d gotten it right," declares Noonan.

A big part of the problem is that the administration of George W. Bush became distracted with plans to invade Iraq around this same time, she writes. Gen. Tommy Franks had been working on a Tora Bora plan to provide Afghan ground troops with air support when he was ordered to shift his focus to Iraq. "What if we’d gotten Tora Bora right?" wonders Noonan. "Think of what might have followed. Bin Laden and his lieutenants captured or dead, an insult answered. Maybe a few more months in Afghanistan for America while the bad guys were fully, truly broken." It's impossible to say for sure what might have happened next, "but it's hard to imagine it would be worse than the 20-year muddle and the troops and treasure lost." (Read her full column.)

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