The resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaida has reignited the debate about how Osama bin Laden has eluded authorities during the past seven years. In late 2001, U.S. warplanes relentlessly pounded mountain caves in Afghanistan where bin Laden was thought to have been holed up after the ruling Taliban was ousted. But as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, a U.S. secret commando who was on the front line hunting bin Laden at the time says a prime chance to get the terrorist leader was lost.
In a new book titled Kill Bin Laden, the officer who led a secret U.S. team hunting for Osama bin Laden in the rugged Afghan mountains says the United States could have gotten the terrorist leader.
The officer, who writes under the pen name of Dalton Fury, says bin Laden was almost in his team's sights at Tora Bora.
Fury says that he is certain that Osama bin Laden was in the area in 2001, and that he and his team might have been as close as 500 meters to the al-Qaida chief. It depended, he says, on how old the intelligence was by the time his team received it.
"The intelligence was probably the best we've ever had," Fury noted. "But, again, it's impossible to know if he was there at the time we got the intelligence given to us. He might have been there at one time. He certainly was because that's what the signals intelligence told them. Now when we got it, it could have been several hours dated."
Fury was an officer in the elite Delta Force - a highly secret unit of commandos that is tasked with the most sensitive and toughest jobs. In this case, Fury says the mission in December 2001 was to lead a team of some 30 hardened Delta Force operatives into the Afghan mountains to kill Osama bin Laden.
According to Fury, the Delta team drew up a bold plan to get bin Laden - to come at him from behind by crossing the rugged mountains that border Pakistan.
"I think that they [al-Qaida] were clearly oriented toward the north," Fury said. "They had some defenses on the east and west, and the high ground was to their rear. We're talking about 14,000 foot [i.e., about 4300 meter] snow-covered peaks. I don't think that they believed that anybody would come over the mountains. That was definitely their Achilles' heel and that was clearly the way that we wanted to go in at first."
But Fury says the plan was vetoed. He never knew why, although he suspects that Pakistani political sensitivities about using the country as a staging area were at least part of the reason.
"I'm sure that the fact that we were in diplomatic discussions with Pakistan had something to do with it," he said. "But it was obvious that we could have gotten in there without the Pakistanis ever knowing. We're not talking about a thousand-man force going in there. You're talking about maybe 20 guys. A couple of helicopters could have put you down and you could have climbed out without anyone the wiser. But we never got an explanation of why, and we never asked for one. We're told, 'No,' and we move on. We don't cry in our corn flakes over it."
The Delta team also wanted to impede any possible escape by bin Laden and his friends by littering the mountain passes with special land mines. But that, too, was turned down.
The Delta team was ordered to link up with a group of Afghan fighters led by a local warlord near Tora Bora and to let them take the lead. Fury says the Afghan fighters were unreliable, often leaving the battlefield in the evening to break their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He says their motivation was the wads of cash brought in by CIA operatives to pay off the warlord.
"You got to remember that they're being paid to do this," Fury said. "So that was their incentive. Their agenda was clearly counter to our administration's, our country's agenda. I mean, we wanted bin Laden dead. I don't think that they really cared."
Bin Laden's escape was a political issue in the 2004 presidential campaign, and has resurfaced in the current one. Ranking officials, up to and including President Bush, have said it was never confirmed that bin Laden was at Tora Bora. But former C.I.A. officer Gary Berntsen, who was with Dalton Fury at Tora Bora, tells VOA there is no question that the al-Qaida leader was there.
"I had human intelligence. I watched him move down the road," Berntsen recalled. " I got reporting as he was moving down the road from Kabul. We had people out with satellite phones in different places, and [the Afghan Eastern] Alliance had human sources all over the place. And we watched him give one speech after another as he moved down the road to Nangarhar, stopped in a couple of places. I got reporting on all of it. And then I watched him move, got reporting on his movement into the mountains. That's why I pursued."
For 11 days, the C.I.A. and the Delta Force team tracked Osama bin Laden, calling in air strikes on suspected al-Qaida positions in the mountains. On December 18, the Delta team was told to pull out because U.S. military officers believed a massive bomb had killed bin Laden in a cave four days earlier.
But no trace of his body was found, even when the Delta team went back to dig up graves in the area to search for his remains.
Dalton Fury says some of his old comrades of the Tora Bora mission continue to believe that bin Laden is dead, hoping that they had helped kill him. But most intelligence estimates now place bin Laden somewhere in the wild and lawless tribal areas of Pakistan.