An Interview with Yaniv Barzilai

SAIS alumnus Yaniv Barzilai, a foreign service officer at the United States Department of State, discusses his recent book, 102 Days of War - How Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001.

Interview by Alex Augustine, Stephanie Han, Meghan Kleinsteiber, Rachel Ostrow, and Bartholomew Thanhauser.

What was your inspiration for writing this book?

I wrote the book because I think that it is vital to examine what really happened in 2001. Looking back, the outcomes of the U.S. military campaign that fall and winter have shaped America’s role in the world and its military engagements abroad for more than a decade, and will continue to shape the course of history for at least another decade to come. It is a very legitimate question to ask whether al Qaeda could have survived had everyone at Tora Bora been killed or captured. This story is not just about mistakes, but it’s about bravery, service, ingenuity, sacrifice, and fortitude. The lessons in this book are not just for the President, Secretary of Defense, or military commanders. At its core, this is a case study in decision making under the most extreme of circumstances.

What was your research process for the book? How did you go about your analysis?

The book began with a relatively simple question: how did Osama bin Laden escape when the United States located him to within 10 meters on December 10, 2001? As I searched for an answer in the existing literature on the subject, I found the available answers incomplete and unsatisfactory. Most of the narratives either placed the blame squarely on others or ignored the roles of policy and leadership. I began to dig deeper: I read all the official military histories and I examined each memoir from officials at every level of government. What emerged from these accounts was a somewhat clearer narrative, but the only way to answer the remaining questions was to interview individuals with first-hand knowledge of what occurred. I did my best to interview officials at every level and from every part of the national security apparatus, including the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the White House. I believe that putting all those pieces together has provided the most clarity of any account yet. Nevertheless, my book is by no means comprehensive; rather, it is part of a much longer historical investigation of one of the most important 100 days in modern American history, and time will put my narrative to the test.

How did you get involved in researching the Tora Bora operation? How closely did you work/ were you able to work with military officials or veterans in researching the operation? Was he able to get a hold of any pertinent Operation Orders (OPORDS) or Fragmentary Orders (FRAGOS) regarding the mission or do they remain classified?

The Battle of Tora Bora was the original focus of my book, but I quickly realized that to truly understand what occurred, I had to go back further, because ultimately it was a series of events starting on the afternoon of September 11 that put America on the path to failure at Tora Bora. The tactical and operational details of the campaign were already detailed in some official histories and books like Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton.

I also interviewed individuals from the Defense Department and U.S. military to gain clarity into the decision-making behind the operations in Afghanistan. Some of those interviews included Douglas Feith, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General James Mattis, the commander of Task Force 58; Lieutenant General John Mulholland, the commander of the 5th Special Forces Group; and “Dalton Fury,” the top Army special operations commander at Tora Bora and the author of Kill bin Laden: a Delta Force Commander’s Account of the Hunt for the World’s Most Wanted Man.

Unfortunately, I was not able to acquire any of the operations orders, although the individuals listed above did shed some light on some of those documents. Almost every relevant government document about Tora Bora and the 2001 campaign remains classified. Nevertheless, the conclusive answers to many of the questions in my book lie somewhere in the DoD, CIA, and NSC archives.

What does your book add to the conversation about Tora Bora?

102 Days of War brings a deeper understanding of the successes and failures at the start of America’s longest war. Much has been written about the operational failure of outsourcing the bulk of the warfighting to a ragtag and untrustworthy coalition of Afghan rebels and absent Pakistani border guards. Less known is how White House and Pentagon policy decisions and leadership failures, combined with duplicitous Pakistani actions, ensured that America’s enemies would survive 2001. Finally, 102 Days of War provides unprecedented, on the record, first-hand accounts from U.S. officials at every level of the war effort.

What lessons do you hope policy makers and strategists will learn from this account, especially as it applies to the current situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

As an historian at heart I need to provide a disclaimer that drawing lessons from history to apply to future scenarios is dangerous because context is everything. However, with that cautionary note in mind, I think that there is a lot that leaders can learn.

First, clarity of mission, precision of objectives, and a unified understanding of what’s at stake are vital to a successful war effort. Muddled objectives inevitably lead to a muddled outcome. As Clausewitz so poignantly said, “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so— without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter is its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail.”

Second, civilian leaders must treat military advice as just that – advice. They must be cautious and exercise good judgment on when to intervene, but when an issue is vitally important for the nation, civilian scrutiny is necessary. Unfortunately, that was not the perspective at the time. As Doug Feith wrote in his memoir, “The suggestion that the President should have told Franks which forces— U.S. or foreign—to use for a particular cordon mission reflects a bizarre conception of the relationship between a President and a wartime military commander. It is hard to imagine any President overriding his general’s judgment and ordering him to use American forces to “go kill” bin Laden. A president who would do that needs a new commander.” Feith’s analysis exemplifies the failure of America’s leaders in their duty of supreme command.

Finally, opportunities to decimate your enemy in one fell swoop are few and far between. When they arise, do everything in your power to take advantage of your enemy’s extraordinary miscalculation. No matter how bold or courageous or skilled the Americans were at Tora Bora, four CIA officers or 93 special operations forces cannot be considered a complete effort.

In your recent article for The Daily Beast, you wrote, “the largest mistake made by President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was their failure to examine and intervene in the affairs of the military. Throughout the Battle of Tora Bora, neither the president nor the secretary of defense was directly engaged in the most important operation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.” How, if at all, did the missed opportunity of Tora Bora affect President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld’s subsequent management of the war in Afghanistan? After Tora Bora, did they become more engaged in the day-to-day management of the war? From a historical perspective, was Bush significantly less engaged in the management of a war than his predecessors?  

That is a great question, and unfortunately I am not an expert on the history of civil-military relations during the Bush presidency. It is clear that during the Battle of Tora Bora, President Bush was not engaged in the management of the war at critical point in the campaign. Nevertheless, President Bush grew into his role as commander in chief. In 2006, as the violence in Iraq reached unprecedented levels, President Bush demonstrated much more effective leadership in his decision to surge forces into Iraq. His military subordinates continued to advocate for a policy of transition and withdrawal, but President Bush examined the war in detail and overruled their advice. It was a courageous decision, but more importantly it was the right one, and it saved America’s war in Iraq from complete failure.

Within the broader history of modern civil-military relations in the United States, President Bush was following the conventional wisdom that has informed the way most presidents interacted have handled their military subordinates. According to Samuel Huntington’s “normal” theory of civil-military relations, military officers are professional tacticians who plan and manage military operations, and civilian leaders should only provide strategic guidance and then allow the military to determine how to best achieve those goals through the application of force. However, as SAIS professor Eliot Cohen argues in his book Supreme Command, civilian leaders should engage in an unequal dialogue with the military at all levels when necessary by questioning, probing, and if needed overruling the advice of their military subordinates. This alternative approach to civil-military relations is closely linked to the successful wartime leadership of Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion, among many others.

Ultimately, it is hard to place President Bush’s level of engagement in comparison to his predecessors because his leadership exemplified both spectrums during the course of his presidency. I personally cannot think of an occasion when a president did not engage in an issue of such enormous national importance, but I am certain that better-informed historians could provide comparable instances in American history.

In that same article for The Daily Beast, you also wrote, “the top three civilians at the Department of Defense discouraged concentrating on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. To them, Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network in Afghanistan were not the primary targets but merely actors in a much broader global conflict aimed to prevent terrorist attacks by whomever and wherever they arose.” Why, at that time, did the DoD view al Qaeda as “merely actors”? What other major threats and terrorist groups concerned the US in that crucial week of December 10-16, 2001? When do you think the US made the transition from viewing al Qaeda as mere actors to primary targets in the War on Terror?

This is a critical point. Right after 9/11, the President convened his national security team to determine the scope of the war. Then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice began the meeting by briefing the NSC on three basic options. The first identified al Qaeda as the only enemy, under the assumption that the Taliban would yield to U.S. demands. The second assumed that the Taliban would be uncooperative and placed both al Qaeda and the Taliban in American crosshairs. The third option focused on a broad campaign against terrorism worldwide, including operations to “eliminate the Iraq threat.”

Ultimately, the Bush administration decided on the broader global war on terror and announced that decision on September 20, 2001. That decision was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the threat and the task at hand. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to let the DoD leaders’ words speak for themselves. As I write in the book,

“Years later in his memoir, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld recalled, ‘The justification for our military operations in Afghanistan was not the capture or killing of one person. Our country’s primary purpose was to try to prevent terrorists from attacking us again. There was far more to the threat posed by Islamist extremism than one man.’ Under Secretary of Defense Feith explained the policy implications in more detail:

‘We took bin Laden seriously, but we believed that the purposes of U.S. military action after 9/11 went beyond striking at the perpetrators. We felt compelled to choose a more ambitious strategic goal—to prevent further attacks that would kill Americans and compromise our security. And our immediate objectives were to disrupt terrorist operations and generate pressure on terrorism’s state supporters. We had little faith—and not enough high-quality evidence—that even successful attacks on the few targets we could identify in Afghanistan would seriously obstruct terrorist operations in the near term.’

While Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz ‘warned against focusing narrowly on al Qaeda and Afghanistan,’ Rumsfeld instructed his civilian and military subordinates, ‘Don’t over-elevate the importance of al Qaida.’”

You’ve called the failure to prevent the escape of al Qaeda and the Taliban into Pakistan “a catastrophic blunder that allowed America’s enemies to survive 2001.” At that time–when the US chose to send only forty additional Army special operators to Tora Bora–were there dissenting voices in the US government advocating a more aggressive focus on al Qaeda?

The fact that the U.S. officials on the ground continuously requested American reinforcements represents one of the most disturbing aspects of the Battle of Tora Bora. On December 3, 2001, Gary Berntsen, the top CIA officer in Northeast Afghanistan, requested 800 Rangers to seal off the exit from Tora Bora. At around the same time, General Jim Mattis, who commanded 1,200 Marines at Camp Rhino near Kandahar, requested to move to Tora Bora in order to prevent bin Laden’s escape. These requests were not isolated incidents, and certainly made it at least partially up the chain of command before being denied. The 40 Army special operators were sent instead as a response to these requests.

To what extent has the Obama administration learned from the mistakes of the Bush administration in the handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and specifically the failure to act at Tora Bora?

I cannot speculate on whether the Obama administration studied and learned from what occurred at Tora Bora. But I can say that, in contrast to President Bush’s failure at Tora Bora, President Obama demonstrated successful wartime leadership when he was faced with his opportunity to kill Bin Laden.

The circumstances that President Bush confronted during the Battle of Tora Bora were considerably different from those that President Obama faced in the run-up to the Abbottabad raid. In 2001 Bush led a nation and a government in shock and unexpectedly thrust into war. The president and his national security team were forced to respond to a set of events for which they were vastly unprepared. In contrast, the Abbottabad operation was planned during a stable and routine time of the Obama presidency. Furthermore, time favored President Obama. Unlike the situation at Tora Bora in 2001, when events necessitated a rapid response, Obama had the time to proceed through a deliberate and composed decision-making process.

Despite these differences, presidential leadership and civil-military relations likely played a salient—if not decisive—role in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Unlike President Bush, who remained aloof during the Battle of Tora Bora and deferred responsibility to Secretary Rumsfeld and his military subordinates, President Obama engaged in U.S. government efforts to kill bin Laden at all levels. In a rare instance of a president imposing tactics and specifying operational details, Obama ordered the military to deploy four additional helicopters to provide support in case the operation went awry.

President Obama’s directives would prove prescient. The first helicopter crashed in bin Laden’s yard as it attempted to descend on the compound. After the crash, the lone operable Black Hawk at Abbottabad could not have transported twice its capacity in troops back to their base in Afghanistan in one trip. Therefore, without reinforcements, the SEALs on the ground in Abbottabad had no way to extricate themselves from the perilous situation without additional helicopters. In the end, the support helicopters turned out to be essential to the completion of the mission and the safety of the American troops.

It is too early to draw any broad conclusions since so little evidence exists. Future historical scholarship with better sources and a more complete understanding of the internal White House deliberations will test the previous claims. Nevertheless, no better explanation exists for why President Obama succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden and why President Bush failed.

Yaniv Barzilai is a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State and the author of 102 Days of War – How Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001.

The views expressed in this interview are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of the State Department or the U.S. Government. 

The SAIS Review
The SAIS Review