Revisiting the First 102 Days of the War on Terror

The phrase Tora Bora became a tagline for anti-Bush stump speeches by John Kerry during his 2004 presidential run. Over a decade later youve written a book about what happened there. First, why did you want to document this moment in history, and second, what is its larger significance, besides the obvious ten-year hunt for Americas most wanted man?

I think it’s safe to say that September 11 and the 102 days that followed represented the most important moment in history since the collapse of the Soviet Union. What happened during those 102 days set the stage for the longest war in American history and has shaped America’s role in the world. It was the only time for nearly a decade in which the United States knew exactly where Osama bin Laden was. And, it was the last time that the majority of al Qaeda’s leadership would ever be in the same place. From that point forward, nothing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the war against al Qaeda has ever been the same.

Its important to note that the significance of Tora Bora extends beyond bin Laden. As I have written elsewhere, the best estimates indicate that over one thousand al Qaeda and Taliban operatives were positioned around the Tora Bora mountain range at the start of the battle while only 250 were killed or captured. Among those at Tora Bora were Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy and now the leader of al-Qaeda; Nasir al Wuhayshi, the Yemeni firebrand who runs al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, the courier who led the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Indeed, Tora Bora was the last time that the majority of al Qaeda’s leadership would ever be in the same place. For the United States of America, it was a singular opportunity to destroy much of al-Qaeda in one swift motion. So at its core, the Battle for Tora Bora was not simply a botched attempt to kill bin Laden; it was a fight for the very existence of al Qaeda, and I think a question that future historians will vigorously debate is whether al Qaeda could have survived if most of the militants at Tora Bora were killed or captured in 2001.


Is this a testimony to the failure of the light footprint model of holding territory?

Perhaps, but only because the “light footprint model” was never designed for holding territory. As I wrote in the book:

The failure to prevent the exodus of hundreds – if not thousands – of core al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and operatives into Pakistan represented a catastrophic blunder that enabled America’s enemies to regroup and endure in relative safety. This operational failure stemmed largely from the light footprint approach used to topple the Taliban across Afghanistan. The low number of American commandos, backed by the full force of U.S. air power, and combined with dubious Afghan allies was an effective formula for disrupting and removing the political power of local Taliban forces in Afghanistan. But this model of warfare was neither designed nor suitable for cordoning off swaths of land and capturing or killing the enemies within that region.

It was a classic ends and means mismatch. The “light footprint approach” proved very effective across Afghanistan in vanquishing militants from local strongholds. It was also very effective at Tora Bora in accomplishing that same task. The real failure was applying a technique proven to send militants running to a situation where the objective should have been to prevent escape and kill or capture everyone.

Tora Bora was the last time that the majority of al Qaeda’s leadership would ever be in the same place. For the United States of America, it was a singular opportunity to destroy much of al-Qaeda in one swift motion.

You write that no one in the White House was paying attention when we had OBL cornered. Was this out of complacency after our routing of the Taliban? Were we already distracted by Saddams WMD? Why did we take our eye off the ball? 

I think that is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer, and the simplistic answers that have been previously given by others fall short. Bin Laden’s escape was the culmination of over a dozen major factors, not to mention sheer luck that a bomb didn’t land on his location at Tora Bora. Some of those factors included complacency after the Taliban were defeated in Kabul and the distraction of Iraq. Others included U.S. tactical, policy, and leadership failures, the reliance on untrustworthy and ragtag Afghan allies, and Pakistan’s duplicitous role. But to truly answer that question I think you have to read the book and draw your own conclusions, because ultimately it was the series of events starting on September 12 that put America on the path to failure at Tora Bora.
Why was the advice of top CIA officers to seal the porous boundary with Pakistan with a ring of some 800 Army Rangers ignored by the higher echelons? In the end we just dispatched a few special operations forces.  

That’s the big question. General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander largely responsible for the operational and strategic components of the war effort, contended that dedicating additional American troops would take weeks to deploy and result in lost momentum or even bin Laden’s escape (not to mention Franks’ disproven claim years later that they never knew whether bin Laden was at Tora Bora in the first place). His deputy has also argued that the population near Tora Bora remained sympathetic to bin Laden, and any attempt to infiltrate conventional troops to the region would instill anger and result in firefights with the Afghan locals. So at that level, there was general contentment with approach and deep resistance to adjusting the force structure.

Beyond Franks, it remains unclear whether President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld were aware of CIA officer Gary Berntsen’s official request for additional troops at Tora Bora. In their memoirs, both President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld claim not to have received such a request. While that may technically be true in the narrowest sense possible, it belies the reality that President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld failed to concern themselves with the operational affairs at Tora Bora. Think about that: during a battle that lasted for nearly three weeks, a battle against the masterminds who only three months prior killed nearly 3,000 civilians on U.S. soil, neither the president nor the secretary of defense was directly engaged in the most important operation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to believe that an engaged president and secretary of defense, who questioned and prodded the military commander about the significant battles being waged in the present, the location of Osama bin Laden, the possibility for his escape, the whereabouts of concentrations of al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, the reliability of local allies, the potentialities and contingencies, the knowns and unknowns, and the tactics utilized by American forces, allow a battle to be waged for the existence of al-Qaeda by 93 Western commandos and a contingent of untrustworthy Afghan rebels in bin Laden’s suspected hideout without any assurances that a reliable force would seal the escape routes.


You write that the strategic objective was not the decimation of al-Qaeda but rather to remove its safe havens from Afghanistan. Did we set our sights too low?

We certainly did not get the policy right. What emerged from the National Security Council meetings was a general consensus that the U.S. goal in Afghanistan was to remove Afghanistan as a safe haven for al Qaeda – a fundamentally different objective from destroying al Qaeda. Furthermore, the top three civilians at the Department of Defense discouraged concentrating on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Secretary Rumsfeld instructed his civilian and military subordinates, “Don’t over-elevate the importance of al Qaida,” while Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz “warned against focusing narrowly on al Qaeda and Afghanistan.” To them, Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network in Afghanistan were not the primary targets but merely actors in a much broader global conflict aimed to prevent terrorist attacks by whomever and wherever they arose.

As I wrote in the book:

Despite the eagerness to kill as many terrorists as possible, operations were structured around regime change first and consequentially expelling al Qaeda from Afghanistan. But displacing al Qaeda was not synonymous with victory. The presence of vast ungoverned spaces in neighboring Pakistan offered the terrorists a newfound sanctuary beyond the reach of American forces. So as the United States began its war in Afghanistan, it fought not to destroy al Qaeda decisively, but rather to disperse an already decentralized enemy.


Another strategic failure, you write, was the executive branchs and civilian leaderships refusal to take more control over military matters. Is the lesson of Tora Bora, perhaps like the Bay of Pigs and other fiascos, for the president to be directly engaged and to always question the military brass?

No, because one could make a persuasive case based on historical tidbits, such as President Johnson’s role in determining air targets during the Vietnam war, that presidents should not micromanage wars. Ultimately, it’s a matter of judgment regarding the fine balance between trusting military advisors and providing civilian oversight. I find Eliot Cohen’s argument in Supreme Command that civilian leaders should engage in an unequal dialogue with the military at all levels when necessary by questioning, probing, and if needed overruling the advice of their military subordinates to be persuasive. It seems clear to me that the president as commander in chief and chief executive of the United States should be directly engaged on all vital issues of national security, but below that it is simply a matter of good judgment.


Can you give our readers a sense of how your work at State has changed you, since generally these books are written by outsiders like journalists, but you are in the corridors or at least embassies of power. Does that make it easier to tell a story like this or more difficult? 

I actually completed the book before I started my job at the State Department, although it was published after I started in the Foreign Service. On the one hand, it was more difficult because of the internal clearance processes I had to go through in order to speak publicly about a controversial and sensitive issue like Afghanistan. But on the other hand, I have found the experience much more rewarding and humbling, because I now interact with diplomats who have spent time in Afghanistan nearly every day. One of the greatest honors I have had was to speak to a group of diplomats that were preparing to go to Afghanistan. For better or for worse, the story of the first 102 days of war in Afghanistan is still relevant and helps explain some of the many challenges that the United States faces in Afghanistan today. I think my brief time at the State Department has also given me a better appreciation for the sacrifices that so many public servants have made to help the people of Afghanistan achieve peace, stability, and prosperity.


How did you get access to so many officials to speak to you on the record? 

I think it’s largely a testament to the character of these officials. The officials that I interviewed were kind, generous public servants who were willing to provide their unvarnished opinions and experiences in a thoughtful way. I deeply appreciate their contribution to my book. I sometimes had help getting in touch with officials, and some mentors generously vouched for me and helped make some of the interviews possible. But ultimately, I think that these officials spoke to me on the record because they care so much about the United States and their role during this tumultuous time.


What is the main thing we, the public at large, dont understand about Afghanistan and the war there?

There has been a tendency in the United States to frame the war in Afghanistan as a pre-determined failure in the graveyard of empires. But looking back upon the U.S. war in Afghanistan, particularly in the first 102 days after September 11, nothing was inevitable. 


[Photo source: Flickr Commons]


102 Days of WarHow Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001
by Yaniv Barzilai
Potomac Books, 194 pages, $17.46


Yaniv Barzilai is a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service. He has worked for the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C. and the Special Representative for Somalia at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. He has also worked as a desk officer in the Office of Afghanistan Affairs at the State Department. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent those of the State Department or the U.S. Government. 




  1. Ian Murdoch 14 November, 2014 at 14:08 Reply

    Great hindsight!

    Too bad those leaders who were making the tough decisions as events unfolded, knowing that lives were at stake, didn’t see things as clearly as Yaniv Barzilai does from his vanatage point a decade later.

  2. Eric Thompson 14 November, 2014 at 20:59 Reply

    Texas Rangers? You have to correct that. The CIA was calling for Army Rangers to shut down the escape routes. There were also thousands of Marines sitting off the coast on amphibious shipping that could have been put in. Tommy Franks messed the bed badly by not cordoning off the AO. He then made the same blunder during Anaconda. Pure buffoonery. Call it Monday morning quarterbacking but isolating and containing the objective is fundamental- infantry tactics 101.

  3. Joseph Love 14 November, 2014 at 21:14 Reply

    The fact that the interviewer doesn’t know the difference between a Texas Ranger and an Army Ranger, together with Mr. Barzilai’s failure to correct him suggests to me that perhaps this book isn’t as insightful as it pretends to be.

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