You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Battle for Tora Bora

How we nearly caught Osama bin Laden

AFP/Getty Images

Four days before the fall of Kabul in November 2001, Osama bin Laden was still in town. The Al Qaeda leader’s movements before and after September 11 are difficult to trace precisely, but, just prior to the attacks, we know that he appeared in Kandahar and urged his followers to evacuate to safer locations in anticipation of U.S. retaliation. Then, on November 8, he was in Kabul, despite the fact that U.S. forces and their Afghan allies were closing in on the city. That morning, while eating a meal of meat and olives, he gave an interview to Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who was writing his biography. He defended the attacks on New York and Washington, saying, “America and its allies are massacring us in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq. The Muslims have the right to attack America in reprisal.” Six months later, when I met Mir in Pakistan, he told me that the Al Qaeda leader had, on that day, appeared to be in remarkably good spirits.

Kabul fell on November 12, and bin Laden, along with other Al Qaeda leaders, fled to Jalalabad, a compact city in eastern Afghanistan surrounded by lush fruit groves. (He was quite familiar with the area, having maintained a compound in a Jalalabad suburb in the 1990s.) Tracking bin Laden closely was Gary Berntsen, a bear-sized CIA officer with a pronounced Long Island accent, who arrived in Kabul on the day it fell. Berntsen had been serving in Latin America on September 11 when he was yanked to run the CIA’s fast-moving ground operations in Afghanistan. It was a perfect job for an operative with a distinctly independent and aggressive style.

By November 14, Berntsen was receiving a stream of intelligence reports from the Northern Alliance that the Al Qaeda leader was in Jalalabad, giving pep talks to an ever-growing caravan of fighters. Berntsen dispatched an eight-man CIA team to the city. To provide them with local guides, he made contact with Hazarat Ali—an Afghan commander, longtime opponent of the Taliban, and nose-picking semi-illiterate. Ali sent three teenaged fighters to escort the U.S. team into Jalalabad, which was now crawling with fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

But bin Laden wasn’t in Jalalabad for long. Following the fall of Kabul, Jalalabad descended into chaos; no one was in charge for at least a week. Abdullah Tabarak, a Moroccan who is alleged to be one of bin Laden’s bodyguards, reportedly told interrogators that, during the month of Ramadan, which began on November 17, bin Laden and his top deputy, Egyptian surgeon Ayman Al Zawahiri, left Jalalabad and headed about 30 miles south. Their destination was Tora Bora, a series of mountain caves near the Pakistani border. Berntsen’s team remained one step behind them, for now.

Tora Bora was not yet a familiar name to many Americans. But what would unfold there over the subsequent days remains, eight years later, the single most consequential battle of the war on terrorism. Presented with an opportunity to kill or capture Al Qaeda’s top leadership just three months after September 11, the United States was instead outmaneuvered by bin Laden, who slipped into Pakistan, largely disappeared from U.S. radar, and slowly began rebuilding his organization.

What really happened at Tora Bora? Not long after the battle ended, the answer to that question would become extremely clouded. Americans perceived the Afghan war as a stunning victory, and the failure at Tora Bora seemed like an unfortunate footnote to an otherwise upbeat story. By 2004, with George W. Bush locked in a tough reelection battle, some U.S. officials were even asserting, inaccurately, that bin Laden himself may not have been present at the battle.

The real history of Tora Bora is far more disturbing. Having reconstructed the battle—based on interviews with the top American ground commander, three Afghan commanders, and three CIA officials; accounts by Al Qaeda eyewitnesses that were subsequently published on jihadist websites; recollections of captured survivors who were later questioned by interrogators or reporters; an official history of the Afghan war by the U.S. Special Operations Command; an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and visits to the battle sites themselves—I am convinced that Tora Bora constitutes one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history. It is worth revisiting now not just in the interest of historical accuracy, but also because the story contains valuable lessons as we renew our push against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was no accident that bin Laden had chosen to retreat to Tora Bora. He knew the place well. Huthaifa Azzam, a Jordanian who was close to bin Laden during the anti-Soviet jihad, when both were crossing back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan, recalls that, in 1987, the Al Qaeda leader used bulldozers from his family’s construction company to build a road through the mountains. The aim was to allow for the movement of his Arab fighters from his base at Jaji, near the Pakistani border, to Jalalabad, then occupied by the Soviets. Bin Laden spent more than six months building the road.

That year, bin Laden engaged Soviet forces in a battle at Jaji. He joined about 50 other Arab fighters in managing to hold off a much larger group of Soviet soldiers. Jaji received considerable attention in the Arab world, and, for the first time, bin Laden was widely seen not as a mere financier of jihad but also as a successful military commander. After a week, bin Laden was forced to retreat from Jaji. But the battle was arguably a resounding victory for the future Al Qaeda leader, as he burnished his image—and lived to fight another day.

During the years leading up to September 11, bin Laden maintained a mountain retreat in a settlement near Tora Bora called Milawa—a three-hour drive up a narrow mud-and-stone road from Jalalabad. The buildings that made up the settlement were strung across ridges that, in winter, lay far above the snow line, commanding striking views of the expanses below. They included a series of scattered lookout posts, a bakery, and bin Laden’s two-bedroom house, all built of the baked mud and stone that typifies Afghan villages. Next to the house was a rudimentary swimming pool. Spread in front of it was a broad field—today scarred by massive bomb craters—where Al Qaeda members cultivated crops. From bin Laden’s home, all he could see was his own fiefdom; the nearest village was thousands of feet below and out of sight.

In the winter of 1996, the Al Qaeda leader took Abdel Bari Atwan, a Palestinian journalist based in London, on a walking tour of a frigid Tora Bora. “I really feel secure in the mountains,” he told Atwan. “I really enjoy my life when I’m here.” Bin Laden sat for photos with Atwan in the Tora Bora caves. He surely understood that the setting would have a certain resonance in the Muslim world, since it was in a mountain cave that the Prophet Muhammad first received the revelations of the Koran.

According to his son, Omar, bin Laden would routinely hike from Tora Bora into neighboring Pakistan on walks that could take anywhere between seven and fourteen hours. “My brothers and I all loathed these grueling treks that seemed the most pleasant of outings to our father,” Omar bin Laden later recalled. Bin Laden told his sons they had to memorize every rock on the routes to Pakistan. “We never know when war will strike,” he instructed them. “We must know our way out of the mountains.”

Now bin Laden had chosen Tora Bora as the place for his climactic confrontation with the United States. Fouad Al Rabia—a Kuwait Airways engineer, then in his mid-forties, who was in Afghanistan on something of a religious vacation—was with Al Qaeda when the group retreated from Jalalabad to Tora Bora. “Simply being out on the street was an invitation to be killed,” he later told officials at Guantánamo. “We walked from there to the baseline edge of the mountains. ... This was an escape route to get out of the country, because it is the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. That was the only way to get out.”

At least five Guantánamo detainees have given eyewitness accounts of bin Laden’s presence at Tora Bora. Typical of this group is Sulaiman Al Nahdi, a 27-year-old Yemeni who explained that he saw bin Laden “in a valley that was downward of the mountains,” where he “talked about the jihad for approximately one hour,” after which Ayman Al Zawahiri “made a few comments.” Similarly, Khaled Qasim, a 24-year-old Yemeni, was in the mountains in November 2001 when he saw bin Laden. The Al Qaeda leader, Qasim recalled, “was passing by and just said ‘hi’ and went on his way.”

Khalid Al Hubayshi, a Saudi explosives expert, was in the Tora Bora trenches as the Al Qaeda leader prepared for his showdown with the United States. Bin Laden, Hubayshi told The Washington Post, “was convinced” that American soldiers would land in the mountains. “We spent five weeks like that, manning our positions in case the Americans landed,” he recalled.

As bin Laden set about preparing for a U.S. maneuver that never came, Gary Berntsen’s team remained on his trail. Several days after arriving in Jalalabad, the group moved into a schoolhouse in the foothills near Tora Bora, which they used as a base. Berntsen’s sources on the ground continued to tell him that bin Laden was in the area.

At the end of November, the team of eight decided to split into two groups of four, one of which would head farther into the mountains with ten Afghan fighters as guides. The team’s members included an Air Force combat controller who specialized in calling in airstrikes, and they took with them a laser capable of “painting” targets with a signal that U.S. bombers could then lock onto. The expedition was delayed when a poorly packed RPG carried on a mule blew up, killing two of the Afghan guides. Finally, the group reached a mountaintop from which it could see several hundred of bin Laden’s men arrayed below. For the following 56 hours straight, the team called in airstrikes from all of the bombers available in theater.

Berntsen had not asked anyone for permission to begin the battle of Tora Bora. About 24 hours after the airstrikes had begun, Berntsen’s supervisor, Hank Crumpton, head of counterterrorism special operations at the CIA, called him and asked, “Are you conducting a battle in Tora Bora?” Not quite knowing what his boss’s reaction might be, Berntsen simply said, “Yes.” Crumpton replied, “Congratulations! Good job!”

As the fighting got underway, bin Laden initially sought to project an easy confidence to his men. Abu Bakr, a Kuwaiti who was at Tora Bora, said that, early in the battle, he saw bin Laden at the checkpoint he was manning. The Al Qaeda leader sat with some of his foot soldiers for half an hour, drinking a cup of tea and telling them, “Don’t worry. Don’t lose your morale, and fight strong. I’m here. I’m always asking about you guys.”

But, despite Al Qaeda’s arsenal of rockets, tanks, machine guns, and artillery, its position was becoming perilous. At altitudes of up to 14,000 feet above sea level, Tora Bora’s thin air provides a tough environment at any time of year—and, in December, temperatures drop to well below zero at night. As the battle raged in the mountains, snow was falling steadily. What’s more, it was Ramadan, and the ultra-religious members of Al Qaeda were likely observing the fast from dawn to dusk. Meanwhile, U.S. bombs rained down on the snow-covered peaks unceasingly, preventing sleep. Between December 4 and 7 alone, U.S. bombers dropped 700,000 pounds of ordnance on the mountains.

Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi, a Yemeni doctor who was treating the Al Qaeda wounded, believed that the situation was growing untenable. “I was out of medicine and I had a lot of casualties,” Batarfi later told the Associated Press. “I did a hand amputation by a knife, and I did a finger amputation with scissors.” Batarfi said he personally told bin Laden that, if they did not leave Tora Bora soon, “no one would stay alive” under the U.S. bombardment. But the Al Qaeda leader seemed mainly preoccupied with his own escape. “He did not prepare himself for Tora Bora,” Batarfi said, “and, to be frank, he didn’t care about anyone but himself.”

Bin Laden recounted his experiences at Tora Bora on an audiotape that aired on Al Jazeera in 2003. He recalled that, on the morning of December 3, heavy U.S. bombing began around the clock, with B-52s dropping some 20 to 30 bombs each. “American forces were bombing us by smart bombs that weigh thousands of pounds and bombs that penetrate caves,” bin Laden said.

On December 9, a U.S. plane dropped an immense BLU-82 bomb on Al Qaeda’s positions. Known as a Daisy Cutter, the 15,000-pound bomb was used in the Gulf war to clear minefields. Berntsen remembers that the Daisy Cutter was followed by a wave of additional U.S. airstrikes. “We came right in behind it with B-52s,” he says. “Like three or four of them. ... Each of them has twenty-five five-hundred-pounders, so everything goes in there. Killed a lot of people. A lot of bad guys.” That night, Al Qaeda member Abu Jaafar Al Kuwaiti and others “were awakened to the sound of massive and terrorizing explosions very near to us.” The following day, he later recounted on an Al Qaeda website, he “received the horrifying news” that the “trench of Sheik Osama had been destroyed.”

But bin Laden was not dead. A subsequent account on an Al Qaeda website offered an explanation of how he saved himself: Bin Laden had dreamed about a scorpion descending into one of the trenches that his men had dug, so he evacuated his trench. A day or so later, it was destroyed by a bomb.

The United States appeared to have Al Qaeda on the ropes. But, on the U.S. side, all was not well. A dispute was raging among officials about how to conduct the battle. By late November, Crumpton—a soft-spoken Georgian widely regarded as one of the most effective CIA officers of his generation—feared that bin Laden might try to escape Tora Bora. He explained this to Bush and Cheney personally at the White House and presented satellite imagery showing that the Pakistani military did not have its side of the border covered. CIA Director George Tenet remembers Bush asking Crumpton if the Pakistanis had enough troops to seal the border. “No, sir,” the CIA veteran replied. “No one has enough troops to prevent any possibility of escape in a region like that.” Still, Crumpton thought the United States should try—and that meant more troops would be required.

Back in Kabul, Berntsen was thinking along the same lines. On the evening of December 3, one member of his team, a former Delta Force operator who had gone deep into Tora Bora, came to the Afghan capital to brief Berntsen about the lay of the land. He told Berntsen that taking out Al Qaeda’s hard core would require 800 Rangers, elite soldiers who had gone through the Army’s most rigorous physical training. That night, Berntsen sent a lengthy message to CIA headquarters asking for 800 Rangers to assault the complex of caves where bin Laden and his lieutenants were believed to be hiding, and to block their escape routes. Crumpton says, “I remember the message. I remember talking not only to Gary every day, but to some of his men who were at Tora Bora. Directly. And their request could not have been more direct, more clear, more certain: that we needed U.S. troops there. More men on the ground.”

That bin Laden was at Tora Bora was not, by this point, a secret. The New York Times had reported it on November 25. Four days later, when asked by ABC News whether the Al Qaeda leader was at Tora Bora, Dick Cheney said, “I think he’s probably in that general area.”

Meanwhile, the additional forces that Crumpton and Berntsen were requesting were certainly available. There were around 2,000 U.S. troops in or near the Afghan theater at the time. At the U.S. airbase known as K2 in Uzbekistan were stationed some 1,000 soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, whose specialty is fighting in harsh terrain. Hundreds of those soldiers had already deployed to Bagram Air Force Base, 40 miles north of Kabul. In addition, 1,200 Marines were stationed at Forward Operating Base Rhino, near Kandahar, from the last week of November onward. Brigadier General James Mattis, the commander of the Marines in the Afghan theater, reportedly asked to send his men into Tora Bora, but his request was turned down. In the end, there were more journalists—about 100, according to Nic Robertson of CNN and Susan Glasser of The Washington Post, who both covered the battle—in and around Tora Bora than there were Western soldiers.

Yet, when Crumpton called General Tommy Franks to ask for more troops, Franks pushed back. The general, who had overall control of the Tora Bora operation, pointed out that the light-footprint approach—U.S. reliance on local proxies—had already succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban, and he argued that it would take time to get more U.S. troops to Tora Bora.

The U.S. force was to remain tiny throughout the battle. On December 7, on-the-ground responsibility for Tora Bora passed from Berntsen to a 37-year-old major in the elite and secretive Delta Force, who would later write a memoir using the pen name Dalton Fury. Under Fury’s command during the battle were 40 Delta operators from the “black” Special Forces, 14 Green Berets from the less secretive “white” Special Forces, six CIA operatives, a few Air Force specialists, including signals operators, and a dozen British commandos from the elite Special Boat Service. They were joined by three main Afghan commanders: Hajji Zaman Gamsharik, who had been living in exile in the comfortable environs of Dijon, France, before he returned to Afghanistan as the Taliban fell; Hajji Zahir, the 27-year-old son of a Jalalabad warlord; and Ali, the commander who had been helping Berntsen. The Afghan commanders disliked each other more than they did Al Qaeda. “For the most important mission to date in the global war on terror,” Fury later wrote, “our nation was relying on a fractious bunch of AK-47-toting lawless bandits and tribal thugs who were not bound by any recognized rules of warfare.”

Why was the Pentagon so unwilling to send more troops? Recently, I asked Franks to comment on his decision. He reiterated his preference for a light footprint and his concern about the time it would take to put additional troops on the ground. He also said that he could not be sure that bin Laden was at Tora Bora because of “conflicting intelligence” that alternately placed him in Kashmir, around Kandahar, and near the Afghan-Iranian border.

Lt. General Michael DeLong, Franks’s top deputy, recalled in his 2004 memoir that the Pentagon did not want to put many American soldiers on the ground because of a concern that they would be treated like antibodies by the locals. “The mountains of Tora Bora are situated deep in territory controlled by tribes hostile to the United States and any outsiders,” he wrote. “The reality is if we put our troops in there we would inevitably end up fighting Afghan villagers—creating bad will at a sensitive time—which was the last thing we wanted to do.”

There may also have been a reluctance to send soldiers into harm’s way. The Pentagon’s risk aversion is now hard to recall following the years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and the thousands of American soldiers who have died—but it was quite real. In the most recent U.S. war—the 1999 conflict in Kosovo—not a single American had been killed in combat. And, at that point in the Afghan war, more journalists had died than American soldiers. Fury says that the 14 Green Berets who were on the ground at Tora Bora from the “white” Special Forces were told to “stay well short of even the foothills,” some four kilometers from any action—“pretty much out of harm’s way.” The Green Berets did call in airstrikes but were not allowed to engage in firefights with Al Qaeda because of concerns that the battle would turn into a “meat grinder.”

Then there was Iraq. In late November, Donald Rumsfeld told Franks that Bush “wants us to look for options in Iraq.” Rumsfeld instructed the general to “dust off” the Pentagon’s blueprint for an Iraq invasion and brief him in a week’s time. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers would later write, “I realized that one week was not giving Tom and his staff much time to sharpen” the plan. Franks points out in his autobiography that his staff was already working seven days a week, 16-plus hours a day, as the Tora Bora battle was reaching its climax. Although Franks doesn’t say so, it is impossible not to wonder if the labor-intensive planning ordered by his boss for another major war was a distraction from the one he was already fighting.

Franks briefed Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon officials about the war plan for Iraq on December 4. But both men agreed that the plan needed work. Rumsfeld gave Franks and his staff eight days to revise it. “Well, General,” he told Franks, “you have a lot of work ahead of you. Today is Tuesday. Let’s get together again next Wednesday.”

On December 10, American signals-intelligence operators picked up an important intercept from Tora Bora: “Father [bin Laden] is trying to break through the siege line.” This was then communicated to the Delta operators on the ground. Around 4 p.m. that same day, Afghan soldiers said they had bin Laden in their sights, according to the official U.S. military history of the battle. Later that evening, Fury received a new piece of signals intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts. The information was so precise that it appeared to pinpoint the Al Qaeda leader’s location to within ten meters. At the time, Fury was in the schoolhouse that he had been using as a base. About 15 minutes later, he received another bit of intelligence—somewhat less precise—placing bin Laden two kilometers from the first location. To this day, Fury doesn’t know which information was more recent and therefore more accurate, but he drove into the foothills and got to within about 1,900 meters of the first location.

Fury now found himself in a quandary. This was almost certainly the closest to bin Laden’s position U.S. forces had ever been, but, at the same time, three of his men were pinned down in a ferocious firefight with some Al Qaeda foot soldiers. And, as dusk fell, Fury’s key Afghan ally, Hazarat Ali, had retreated from the battlefield back home to break his Ramadan fast. Fury was under explicit orders not to take the lead in the battle and only to act in a supporting role for the hundreds of Afghans in Hazarat Ali’s ragtag army. Now, he had no Afghan allies to guide him at night into the craggy moonscape of upper Tora Bora. Fury reluctantly made the decision to bail on that night’s mission.

Muhammad Musa, who commanded 600 Afghan soldiers at Tora Bora, later said that he was not impressed by the U.S. forces on the ground. “[They] were not involved in the fighting,” he said. “There were six American soldiers with us, U.S. Special Forces. They coordinated the air strikes. ... My personal view is, if they had blocked the way out to Pakistan, Al Qaeda would not have had a way to escape. The Americans were my guests here, but they didn’t know about fighting.”

In fact, the five dozen or so Americans on the ground at Tora Bora fought well. There were just far too few of them to cordon off a huge, mountainous area and prevent Al Qaeda from escaping into Pakistan.

December 12 and 13 were eventful days. December 12 was when Franks briefed Rumsfeld on the revised war plans for Iraq. December 13 was the day that Pakistani militants attacked the Indian parliament, raising the possibility of war between two nuclear-armed states. India moved hundreds of thousands of soldiers to its border with Pakistan. “We had to respond,” Pakistani Minister of the Interior Moinuddin Haider told me. “All our armed forces went to combat that situation, and we also moved to the borders.” Suddenly, Pakistan’s attention was diverted away from sealing its northwestern border against an Al Qaeda escape.

As it turned out, December 12 and 13 also marked the defining moment in the battle of Tora Bora. Hajji Zaman, one of the Afghan warlords allied with the United States, had opened negotiations with members of Al Qaeda for a surrender agreement. “They talked on the radio with Hajji Zaman,” an Afghan frontline commander told me, “saying they were ready to surrender at 4 p.m. Commander Zaman told the other commanders and the Americans about this. Then Al Qaeda said, ‘We need to have a meeting with our guys. Will you wait until 8 a.m. tomorrow?’ So we agreed to this.”

News of the cease-fire did not sit well with the group of 20 Delta operators who, by December 12, had made their way deeper into Tora Bora, to an area near bin Laden’s now-destroyed two-room house. In Kabul, Berntsen went ballistic when he heard about the proposed surrender. “Essentially I used the f-word. ... I was screaming at them on the phone. And telling them, ‘No cease-fire. No negotiation. We continue airstrikes.’”

As Fury remembers it, U.S. forces only observed the cease-fire for about two hours on December 12—resuming bombing around 5 p.m. that day. At some point during the episode, an American pilot protested the proposed surrender by drawing a giant “8” in the sky, followed by the word “ON.” Zaman’s deadline of 8 a.m. came and went on December 13 without any of the militants inside Tora Bora surrendering.

That afternoon, American signals operators picked up bin Laden speaking to his followers. Fury kept a careful log of these communications in his notebook, which he would type up at the end of every day and pass up his chain of command. “The time is now,” bin Laden said. “Arm your women and children against the infidel!” Following several hours of high-intensity bombing, the Al Qaeda leader spoke again. Fury paraphrases: “Our prayers have not been answered. Times are dire. We didn’t receive support from the apostate nations who call themselves our Muslim brothers.” Bin Laden apologized to his men for having involved them in the fight and gave them permission to surrender.

Khalid Al Hubayshi, one of the Saudis holed up in Tora Bora, says that bin Laden’s aides instructed the hundreds of mostly Arab fighters who remained alive in the mountainous complex to head to Pakistan and turn themselves in to their embassies. Al Hubayshi is still angry about the behavior of the Al Qaeda leader: “We had been ready to lay down our lives for him, and he couldn’t make the effort to speak to us personally,” he told journalist Robert Lacey.

The following day, on December 14, bin Laden’s voice was again picked up by American signals operators, but, according to the interpreter who was translating for the Delta team, it sounded more like a pre-recorded sermon than a live transmission. It appeared that bin Laden had already left the battlefield area. He had likely used the cover of Al Qaeda’s “surrender” to begin his retreat.

Abdullah Tabarak, the Moroccan who was allegedly one of bin Laden’s bodyguards, says that the top leaders of Al Qaeda separated as they made their escape to Pakistan. Ayman Al Zawahiri left the mountainous redoubt with Uthman, one of bin Laden’s eleven sons. Osama fled with another of his sons, 18-year-old Muhammad, accompanied by his guards. Tabarak continued to use bin Laden’s satellite phone as the Al Qaeda leader escaped, on the reasonable assumption that it was being monitored by U.S. intelligence.

By December 17, the battle of Tora Bora was over. Fury estimated that there were some 220 dead militants and 52 captured fighters—mostly Arabs, as well as a dozen Afghans, and a sprinkling of Chechens and Pakistanis. Around 20 of the captured prisoners were paraded for the cameras of the international press. They were a bedraggled, scrawny lot who did not look much like the fearsome warriors everyone assumed them to be.

Ten days later, a videotape surfaced of bin Laden. He appeared to be visibly aged and contemplating his own death. “I am just a poor slave of God,” he said. “If I live or die, the war will continue.” During the 34-minute video, he did not move his entire left side.

Tora Bora would return, briefly, to the forefront of American politics in 2004. With just over a month to go before election day, John Kerry attacked President Bush for failing to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora. Franks, who had by this point retired from the military (and who would go on to join the boards of Bank of America and Chuck E. Cheese’s), retorted several weeks later with a New York Times op-ed, writing, “We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora.” Cheney weighed in the same day, calling Kerry’s criticisms “absolute garbage.” On October 27, Bush said Kerry’s remarks about the battle were part of a “pattern of saying anything it takes to get elected.”

Kerry remains furious about Tora Bora today. “They declared Osama bin Laden the world’s number-one criminal, and went out boldly proclaiming, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ and talking about the dangers of Al Qaeda,” he told me recently. “And when they had an opportunity to completely, not only decapitate it, but probably to leave it with the minuscule, last portion of its tail, they never showed up.” His anger is justified. Bin Laden was clearly at Tora Bora, and sending so few troops was indeed a major failure. It’s a lesson that bears remembering today as the United States continues to pursue Islamist militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan: In the hunt for members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, there is simply no substitute for boots on the ground. Afghan proxies, Pakistani soldiers, drones—these are not unimportant tools in the war on terrorism. But they are not effective substitutes for U.S. troops. If we want to kill bin Laden and Zawahiri—and other top Al Qaeda leaders—we are probably going to have to do it ourselves.

The major participants in the battle of Tora Bora have long since moved on with their lives—Fury and Berntsen both retired and wrote books; Crumpton left the CIA and became the Bush State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism—yet the sense that something went very wrong in late 2001 has not left them. Fury is haunted by the moment on December 10 when bin Laden may have been less than 2,000 meters away. In his memoir, he wrote that the incident “still bothers me. In some ways, I can’t suppress the feeling of somehow letting down our nation at a critical time.” Earlier this month, he elaborated: “It’s a tough stigma to live with and one I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

As for bin Laden: If his 1987 escape at Jaji created his mythic persona, then his 2001 escape from Tora Bora helped to cement it. While he no longer presides over Al Qaeda as directly as he once did, there can be little doubt that he remains its general guide—and that he played a key role in rejuvenating the organization after 2001. Still, in 2005, the CIA shuttered Alec Station, the unit that had been tasked with hunting bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s other top leaders for the previous decade. The analysts and officers were reassigned to other missions. Today, most informed observers believe bin Laden is in or near Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province on the Afghan border, perhaps in Bajaur or Chitral. But the fact is, as a longtime American intelligence analyst puts it, “there is very limited collection on him personally.” That’s spook-speak for a blunt truth: We haven’t a clue where he is.

The Al Qaeda leader, who is now nearing his fifty-third birthday, has released several audio recordings in recent years, but the last time he was seen on video was in September 2007. In the course of a long statement that touched on everything from the Kennedy assassination to taxes, he taunted the United States for “being the greatest economic power and possessing the most powerful and up-to-date military arsenal,” yet failing to stop the September 11 attacks. His once-graying beard had been dyed jet black. He looked healthy and rested and confident, like a man who had been granted a new lease on life and was planning to make the most of it.