We are devoting many posts today to the anniversary of 9/11, with first-hand accounts, insight, and commentary dedicated to that day seven years ago that changed our world.
Nic Robertson | BIO
Senior International Correspondent
It’s hard for me to see clearly what’s on the blurry cell phone video from Afghanistan.
Are there children and women under those blankets, were as many as 90 people killed in a US air strike as Afghan and UN officials suggest. The countries lawmakers believe so, they want strict controls put US troops. I just don’t know.
But what is painfully clear to me the strengths and weaknesses the coalition had in it’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks are not only unchanged after 7 years, but threaten to unravel the hunt of the worlds most wanted terrorist.
When bin Laden fled with hundreds of die-hard al Qaeda fighters to the mountains of Tora Bora in western Afghanistan for his last stand against the coalition, the coalition made a fatal mistake.
They had the superiority in the air. The spy planes or drones to track and locate the man who had declared war on the west 3 years earlier and the bombers to pound the caves he and his followers were hiding in. Ground troops were almost an after thought. Small teams of ‘Special Forces’ hired local warlords to cut off bin Laden’s escape.
In a London café recently, a Libyan who fought along side bin Laden in Afghanistan long before 9/11 told me he knew how the al Qaeda leader escaped. Not over the nearby border in to Pakistan as widely surmised, but back in to Afghanistan to the assured security of old tribal allies. To Warlords he could count on because their ancient customs and rigid codes of conduct forbade them to turn him in.
Capturing or killing bin Laden failed because too much faith was put in air power alone. Today the coalition’s hunt for bin Laden is unraveling because of the same reliance on airpower.
With every child or woman killed in the hunt for bin Laden or the Taliban, the threads that bind the people of Afghanistan to their President Hamid Karzai weaken. As they tear so the tolerance for the coalition that keeps Karzai in power stretches to breaking point.
In the minds of Afghans, the Soviets who occupied the country two decades ago were butchers whose barbaric tactics killed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. A decade after putting in over 100,000 troops, the ‘Red Army’ slunk back to their collapsing empire defeated. They lost because they so enraged the Afghan's tribesmen. Across the country they turned on them in droves.
The Coalition uses wholly different tactics than the Soviets and goes out of it’s way to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties, but the Afghan’s are finding it hard to tell the difference. When their President and their Parliamentarians tell them US forces killed 90 people, most of them children, they find it hard to feel anything else other than anger.
A couple of months ago I met Malalai Joya, a young Parliamentarian who is one of Karzai’s biggest critics. She challenges him for failing to rid the government of warlords and corruption. She is an ardent supporter of the democratic and human rights changes the West wants for Afghans. But she had a stark warning for me. “I know the people of my country” she said “they will not tolerate occupation for long”.
When a reformer like Joya says this I know patience with the coalition must be running out. And if time is running out for US troops in Afghanistan so time is running out in the hunt for Bin Laden.
According to Hamid Mir, the last journalist to interview bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader was last seen in the west of Afghanistan in early 2005. Mir, whom I met in Pakistan recently says he talked with one of Bin Laden’s guards who told him the al Qaeda leader narrowly missed capture by British forces in south Afghanistan late 2004. He narrowly escaped after a three day fire fight. British forces have not verified this account of a battle to capture bin Laden.
But perhaps more interesting is what the guard had to say about how they’ve avoided capture so long, by local support. The guard told Mir al Qaeda fighters married local women and by so doing ensured undying protection from the tribes they married in to.
Mir reports finding shopkeepers in Eastern Afghanistan who were proud to tell him they’d sold food to feed the al Qaeda leader. bin Laden is using culture to buy loyalty.
In tribal society when some one is killed a blood debt must be paid. Money given or another life taken in return. Disputes can span generations, it’s no different when coalition forces kill innocents... however unfortunate the circumstances. The debt and the anger to have it repaid in blood is growing.
Where bin Laden is able to use local culture to his advantage, the coalition is losing with every air strike that goes wrong. They lose what little leverage they had over the loyalties of the tribes bin Laden hides among.
In the past few years, as coalition casualties in Afghanistan have climbed beyond those in Iraq, I’ve heard solders and officers vent their frustrations privately away from the camera. Many feel let down, the resources they need are not there.
Officers don’t like to admit on camera they don’t have enough troops but in some cases are so strapped for soldiers they are putting car mechanics and logisticians in the front line positions. With troops so thinly spread the reliance on air power goes up, not just to defend them but to find their targets in the vast mountainous country.
There are just over 60,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. About half are US forces. That’s less than half the number of troops in Iraq. Plus Iraq is significantly smaller and has it’s own security forces totaling over half a million now. Afghanistan doesn’t even have close to one tenth of troops anywhere close to being 'battle ready.'
The shortage of ground troops that so hampered the early efforts to catch the al Qaeda leader now appears not only to be one of the biggest factors for why he is still on the run but if air strikes continue to cause high collateral casualities may well contribute to the biggest setback at bringing him to justice. The loss of freedom for US troops to hunt him down in Afghanistan.