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ANALYSIS: Bush’s Lackluster Hunt For Bin Laden

By Alex Seitz-Wald on May 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm

"ANALYSIS: Bush’s Lackluster Hunt For Bin Laden"

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Politico reports that supporters of George W. Bush are “irked” that the former president isn’t getting more credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, despite the droves of conservatives lawmakers and pundits who have been rushing to give Bush equal credit as Obama.

But this praise for Bush relies on rewriting history to obscure the fact Obama re-prioritized the hunt for Bin Laden after Bush had largely abandoned the effort to focus on Iraq.

While many conservatives are triumphantly replaying Bush’s September 2001 declaration that he would find Bin Laden, just months later, by Bush’s own account, he was unconcerned about the terrorist mastermind. Asked about the hunt for Bin Laden at a March, 2002 press conference, Bush said, “I truly am not that concerned about him. I am deeply concerned about Iraq.” “I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you,” Bush added.

By 2006, the trail for Bin Laden had gone “stone cold” and Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes said Bush told him that hunting Bin Laden was “not a top priority use of American resources.” (Indeed, there was a flailing war in Iraq to fight.)

That year, it was revealed that the administration had shuttered the CIA’s Bin Laden unit in late 2005. As the New York Times reported at the time, the move reflected a shift in resources to Iraq:

In recent years, the war in Iraq has stretched the resources of the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, generating new priorities for American officials. For instance, much of the military’s counterterrorism units, like the Army’s Delta Force, had been redirected from the hunt for Mr. bin Laden to the search for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed last month in Iraq.

But Bush’s biggest misstep in the Bin Laden hunt occurred years before, in the early days of the war in Afghanistan. As a 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report found, the Bush administration blew a critical opportunity to capture Bin Laden in 2001. Bin Laden was wounded and on the run, but top Bush national security officials rejected repeated pleas for reinforcements from commanders and intelligence officials fighting the terrorist leader in the caves of Tora Bora, despite the availability of resources:

Fewer than 100 American commandos were on the scene with their Afghan allies and calls for reinforcements to launch an assault were rejected. Requests were also turned down for U.S. troops to block the mountain paths leading to sanctuary a few miles away in Pakistan. The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines. Instead, the U.S. command chose to rely on airstrikes and untrained Afghan militias. [...]

Even when his own commanders and senior intelligence officials in Afghanistan and Washington argued for dispatching more U.S. troops, [Commanding Gen. Tommy] Franks refused to deviate from the plan.

The report “removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora,” but that decisions made by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputies, and other top administration officials allowed Bin Laden to escape.

The consequence of this missed ooportunity are tremendous. As Lt. Col. Reid Sawyer, the director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, told NPR yesterday, “if bin Laden had been killed in Afghanistan eight years ago in the caves of Tora Bora, al-Qaida might well have died with him. Now the organization is diversified enough it could weather bin Laden’s death — and hardly miss a beat.”

Moreover, as Rumsfeld himself acknowledged, Bush’s extra-legal torture and rendition policies did not help capture Bin Laden. Enhanced interrogation techniques did not work. Bush ordered one final push to capture Bin laden shortly before he left office, but this effort too was unsuccessful.

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