Newsweek: Jihadis nearly killed Osama in 2004 to prevent capture by U.S. troops

A mammoth piece but essential reading. From the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to the chatter this summer that’s got intel analysts on edge, it’s the fall and rise of Al Qaeda in the tribal territories in 14 pages. Some of it you’ve heard before, like the assault on Tora Bora, the disastrous peace deal in Waziristan that gave AQ their opening to rebuild, and the 2005 raid on Zawahiri that Rumsfeld cancelled at the last minute, but not until you read this will you appreciate how systemic and crippling the U.S.’s two recurring problems — poor intelligence and unbelievable degrees of risk aversion — have been in the hunt for Osama.

The story of the near-miss with Bin Laden is a sexy bit at the beginning of the piece that doesn’t have much to do with the main thrust so I’ll let you follow the link for that. Some highlights, starting with Rumsfeld’s and Franks’s decision not to deploy Rangers at Tora Bora because it would “take too long” and wasn’t worth the risk:

To catch bin Laden [at Tora Bora], the CIA was left to lean on local tribesmen, a slender reed. NEWSWEEK recently interviewed two of the three tribal chiefs involved in the operation, Hajji Zahir and Hajji Zaman. They claimed that the CIA overly relied on the third chieftain, Hazrat Ali—and that Ali was paid off (to the tune of $6 million) by Al Qaeda to let bin Laden slip away. Ali could not be reached for comment. But Crumpton, who admits that he has no hard evidence, told NEWSWEEK he is “confident” that a payoff allowed Al Qaeda to escape. Unsure which side would win, some tribesmen apparently hedged by taking money from both sides.

That’s the first of many cases of fatal risk aversion described in the story. Here’s how bad it gets:

In July 2002, a CIA case officer told [Special Forces team leader Adam] Rice that a figure believed to be Mullah Omar, the one-eyed chief of the Taliban, had been tracked by aerial drone to a location in the Shahikot Valley, a short flight to the north. The Taliban chief and his entourage would be vulnerable to a helicopter assault, but the Americans had to move quickly.

Rice was not optimistic about getting timely permission. Whenever he and his men moved within five kilometers of the safe house, he says, they had to file a request form known as a 5-W, spelling out the who, what, when, where and why of the mission. Permission from headquarters took hours, and if shooting might be involved, it was often denied. To go beyond five kilometers required a CONOP (for “concept of operations”) that was much more elaborate and required approval from two layers in the field, and finally the Joint Special Operations Task Force at Baghram air base near Kabul. To get into a fire fight, the permission of a three-star general was necessary…

But Rice made his request anyway. Days passed with no word. The window closed; the target—whether Mullah Omar or not—moved on…

Rice, the A-Team sergeant stuck in his safe house near Kandahar, recalls that his team’s frustration peaked when a memo came down from the brass at Baghram, ordering men not to initiate fire fights and even not to use words like “death” and “destruction” in their CONOPS. Among Rice’s men, it became known as the “limp dick memo.”

The other running theme throughout the piece is how many top-flight resources were sucked away for the Iraq invasion and how Iraq, as much as the new safe haven AQ got in Waziristan when Musharraf ran away, has helped to restock the jihadi knowledge base that the U.S. dismantled in 2001. The authors don’t pursue that to ask what it might imply about a symbiosis between AQ and Al Qaeda in Iraq or whether leaving Iraq would create a bigger jihadi laboratory there than exists now (pretty clearly the authors think it wouldn’t), but that’s beyond the scope of the article anyway:

When the United States struck Afghanistan in 2001, “there were probably 3,000 core Al Qaeda operatives,” says Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School. “We killed or captured about 1,000; about 1,000 more ended up in distant parts of the world. And about 1,000 ended up in Waziristan. But the great terror university in Afghanistan is gone; they’ve relied on the Web since. They haven’t had the hands-on instruction and the bonding of the camps. That’s resulted in low-skill levels. Their tradecraft is really much poorer.”

The danger now, says Arquilla, is that the longer the Iraq War goes on, the more skilled the new generations of jihadists will become. “They’re getting re-educated,” he says.

Like I say, a must read. I’ll leave you with the following bit from Musharraf as the takeaway quote, not because it’s hugely significant to the piece but because given the way the wind is blowing on Iraq, it’s hard to deny its awful but essential truth: “My great concern is that one day the United States is going to desert me. They always desert their friends.”