FOX News Channel host Bill O'Reilly suggested that Senator John Kerry is being dishonest in criticizing President George W. Bush for relying too heavily on Afghan fighters during the December 2001 siege of Tora Bora. O'Reilly cited an October 19 op-ed by retired Army General Tommy Franks, in which Franks denied that the U.S. military "outsourced" crucial operations at Tora Bora to non-Americans, as Kerry has claimed.
But The Washington Post cited military experts who believe that excessive reliance on foreign fighters during the Tora Bora siege cost the United States its best chance to capture Osama bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda. Moreover, Franks has motivations to defend U.S. actions at Tora Bora: Not only has he publicly endorsed Bush for reelection, but also, as commander-in-chief of United States Central Command from July 2000 to July 2003, Franks has faced scrutiny for his own tactical decisions at Tora Bora.
O'Reilly's comments came in the first installment of his "Almost Kerry" interview, in which O'Reilly will choose people familiar with Kerry each day this week (October 25-29) to answer questions that O'Reilly had planned to ask Kerry in person had Kerry agreed to appear on FOX News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. On the October 25 edition of the show, O'Reilly argued with one such Kerry stand-in, Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey M. Berry, who has followed Kerry's career:
O'REILLY: John Kerry said on a number of occasions, on October 13, 2004 ... that they [the Bush administration] let Osama bin Laden get away in Tora Bora and Afghanistan because they used only Afghan soldiers to seal that area. Yet, on October 19, General Tommy Franks wrote [in an op-ed] that Special Forces were embedded with those units. Did you make a mistake, Senator Kerry, and do you want to take back your comments?
BERRY: There was a small number of American soldiers there. On the Afghan-Pakistani border, which is very large, you needed an Army.
O'REILLY: You can't drop an Army into a remote region like that. It's impossible.
BERRY: It's true that you don't need the -- you don't need the -- you don't need tanks and the full division. You needed individuals with electronic detection equipment. They could have sealed that off.
O'REILLY: Yes, like Special Forces that were there, according to General Franks. So I think that the senator misspoke there.
O'Reilly's statement suggests that the presence of an unspecified number of U.S. Special Forces, which Franks noted, negates Kerry's claim that Bush "outsourced" the job of hunting bin Laden. But Franks did not deny that the United States relied heavily on Afghan fighters; he simply insisted that this reliance did not amount to "outsourcing."
From Franks's op-ed:
[W]e did not "outsource" military action. We did rely heavily on Afghans because they knew Tora Bora, a mountainous, geographically difficult region on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. ... Killing and capturing Taliban and Qaeda fighters was best done by the Afghan fighters who already knew the caves and tunnels.
But an April 22, 2002, Washington Post article found that U.S. military experts largely disagree with Franks. "Osama bin Laden was present during the battle for Tora Bora late last year and ... failure to commit U.S. ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against al Qaeda, according to civilian and military officials with first-hand knowledge," the Post reported.
As for Franks's own role, the Post reported that these experts believe Franks's misjudgments of Afghan allies' reliability caused the United States to miss its best chance of capturing bin Laden:
A common view among those interviewed outside the U.S. Central Command is that Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the war's operational commander, misjudged the interests of putative Afghan allies and let pass the best chance to capture or kill al Qaeda's leader. Without professing second thoughts about Tora Bora, Franks has changed his approach fundamentally in subsequent battles, using Americans on the ground as first-line combat units.
In the fight for Tora Bora, corrupt local militias did not live up to promises to seal off the mountain redoubt, and some colluded in the escape of fleeing al Qaeda fighters. Franks did not perceive the setbacks soon enough, some officials said, because he ran the war from Tampa with no commander on the scene above the rank of lieutenant colonel.