Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Retired Gen. Tommy Franks can’t think his way through an op-ed piece any better than he can bring Osama bin Laden to justice, although in this case those are the same things.

He writes today in The New York Times in an attempt to give a devastating reply to what U.S. Sen. John Kerry keeps saying: President Bush made “a colossal error of judgment” in focusing on Iraq instead of bin Laden. The accusation tars Franks also, since he was in charge of the military operation considered to have been our best shot at getting bin Laden since 9/11.

“He escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded. But we didn’t use American forces, the best-trained in the world, to go kill him. The president relied on Afghan warlords,” Kerry said in the first debate, and that reliance led to bin Laden’s escape. “He outsourced that job, too.”

Franks makes three main points to dispute Kerry’s “distortions of history” and prove Bush hasn’t taken his eye off the ball — the ball being terrorism. He distinguishes these three main points by labeling them “first,” “second” and, yes, “third.”

Look at points two and three and see if there’s anything odd:

Second, we 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. It is where Afghan mujahedeen holed up for years, keeping alive their resistance to the Soviet Union. Killing and capturing Taliban and Qaeda fighters was best done by the Afghan fighters who already knew the caves and tunnels.

Third, the Afghans weren’t left to do the job alone. Special forces from the United States and several other countries were there, providing tactical leadership and calling in air strikes. Pakistani troops also provided significant help — as many as 100,000 sealed the border and rounded up hundreds of Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Did everyone spot the clunker? Right: These are the same points. Franks says “We did rely heavily on Afghans” but that “Afghans weren’t left to do the job alone.”

This is like telling someone, “First, I don’t want you to go alone. Second, I want someone to go with you.”

Nice trick. But it pales in comparison with Franks’ first point in defense of Bush and the reliance on Afghans in trying to capture bin Laden. Read carefully.

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. Tora Bora was teeming with Taliban and Qaeda operatives, many of whom were killed or captured, but Mr. bin Laden was never within our grasp.

Oh, retired Gen. Franks, if “we don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora,” how do we know he “was never within our grasp”?

Franks also fails to reply to Kerry’s assertion that the Afghans we “were there” with in Tora Bora had only weeks earlier been supporters of bin Laden and the Taliban, making them poor choices as allies — in fact, as guides on which we relied — in this crucial effort. Presumably this is because Franks can’t refute it, since he certainly shouldn’t be ignoring it: Kerry has made this charge as frequently as he’s made the one about our military outsourcing. Franks wraps up his defense on the Afghan front by insisting we had enough troops there to call it “a center of focus.” (This is wonderful language, something along the lines of Bush noting in his January State of the Union speech that “the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities” in Iraq.)

But enough troops, one wonders, for what? To let bin Laden go? To hand great portions of the country back to the warlords? To let Afghanistan again become the world’s top producer of opium?

Well done, Franks. It’s clear why we have the terrorists on the run ... and terrorist attacks on the rise.

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