WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan on Tuesday disputed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s charge that the Bush administration let Osama bin Laden escape Afghanistan in 2001.
“I was responsible for the operation at Tora Bora, and I can tell you that the senator’s understanding of events doesn’t square with reality,” retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks wrote in a commentary published by The New York Times.
The Kerry campaign took issue with the retired general’s comments. “Franks is a patriot. But in his attempt to campaign for President (George W.) Bush, he’s letting political spin get in the way of the facts,” said campaign spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.
Franks, who has endorsed the Republican president’s re-election bid, challenged Kerry’s contention that U.S. forces had the fugitive al Qaeda leader surrounded but “outsourced” the job of capturing him to Afghan forces in the rugged Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan.
The Massachusetts senator has repeatedly charged that Bush was so preoccupied with Iraq — long before the U.S.-led invasion of that country in March 2003 — that he took emphasis away from capturing bin Laden, blamed for the September 2001 attacks on America.
U.S.-led forces, which ousted Afghanistan’s fundamentalist Taliban rulers, waged a fierce battle in December 2001 in mountainous Tora Bora, known for its extensive cave complex. It is believed bin Laden slipped out of the region around this time, possibly fleeing into Pakistan.
‘NEVER WITHIN OUR GASP’
“We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001. Some intelligence sources said he was; others indicated he was in Pakistan at the time; still others suggested he was in Kashmir,” wrote Franks, who led the invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq as chief of the U.S. military’s Central Command.
“Tora Bora was teeming with Taliban and Qaeda operatives, many of whom were killed or captured, but Mr. bin Laden was never within our gasp.”
Franks contended that the American military did not outsource military action, although “we did rely heavily on Afghans because they knew Tora Bora.”
The Kerry campaign noted Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials said publicly at the time of the Tora Bora operation that bin Laden was believed to be there.
The Washington Post, quoting unidentified U.S. officials, reported in April 2002 the Bush administration had concluded bin Laden was present during the Tora Bora battle but managed to escape, and that failure to commit U.S. ground troops to find him was its biggest mistake in the fight with al Qaeda.
Franks relied on local Afghan militias on the ground instead of using American troops, while U.S. aircraft pounded targets from the sky. U.S. officials have said these militia fighters failed to fulfill promises to seal off the area.
The Kerry campaign also noted that Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, wrote in a book that Franks told him in February 2002 — 13 months before the Iraq war — the Pentagon had begun shifting manpower and resources from Afghanistan in preparation for military operations in Iraq. Graham is a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.