Reports today have confirmed that a branch of the Islamic State has seized Tora Bora, once the stronghold of the iconic founder and leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. The terrorists of al-Qaeda used this remote and forbidding mountain fortress, honeycombed with caves and tunnels, as protection against airstrikes and ground assault in the weeks after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Tora Bora was part of bin Laden’s strategy to lure the United States into a war in Afghanistan, where he believed the superpower could be brought low—much as the Soviet Red Army had been bloodied in its ten-year struggle in the “Graveyard of Empires.”
The first part of the strategy was a resounding success. At a cost of just over a half million dollars and the lives of 19 terrorists, the “planes operation” on September 11, 2001, succeeded in toppling the World Trade Center and striking the Pentagon, killing thousands of civilian and military personnel and making al-Qaeda a household name across the world. President George W. Bush and his administration responded by demanding that the government of Afghanistan, ruled by the Taliban, give up bin Laden to face trial in the United States. The Taliban refused, a decision that led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan a month later. So far al Qaeda’s strategy was working perfectly.
There was one major defect in bin Laden’s thinking: The United States could bring to bear an amount of firepower in Afghanistan and secure a degree of international support for the war that was unimaginable in the mind of the terrorist leader. Soon CIA operatives and U.S. Special Forces teams were embedded in indigenous rebel Northern Alliance formations, calling in devastating airstrikes on Taliban targets. The Taliban quickly cracked, its adherents streaming eastward towards the border and the relative safety of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda operatives also retreated, but held up short of the border in their base at Tora Bora. Here was an opportunity to achieve the goal for which U.S. forces had been dispatched—the destruction of al-Qaeda and the killing or capture of its leader, Osama bin Laden. Regrettably, U.S. military commanders failed to understand their mission and commit U.S. conventional forces to the battle. Instead, U.S. and allied Special Operations forces called in heavy airstrikes on the tunnel and cave complexes, while local Afghan militia slowly pushed forward into the mountains. Despite the vast amount of aerial firepower expended, the fighting between December 6-17 was inconclusive. The result was the escape of al-Qaeda into Pakistan, where Osama bin-Laden would direct terrorist operations for another ten years before being killed by a SEAL team raid in May 2011.
In the years since 2001, Afghan forces abandoned Tora Bora as having no strategic value. The Taliban occupied the area, only to be displaced this week by fighters from the Islamic State. We are now back to the future, with a new global terrorist group ensconced in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border and the Taliban slowly regaining control or contesting of major parts of Afghanistan. Whether U.S. and coalition leaders can design a strategy to destroy ISIS, defeat the Taliban, and stabilize Afghanistan remains to be seen. The history of the last decade and a half in the “Graveyard of Empires” does not engender much hope.