How Bin-Laden First Escaped

Bruce Anderson says that American fear of casualties almost certainly stopped the SAS from killing Osama bin Laden

EARLY last month, a distinguished American went to see a British regiment. After more than 30 years at the centre of events, Henry Kissinger has an excuse for being blase about such excursions. Yet there was none of that on this occasion. The helicopter was fog-bound and it is a long journey to Hereford by road, but Dr Kissinger’s hosts at the SAS’s Stirling Lines HQ were delighted by his obvious enthusiasm. In turn, he was `tremendously impressed’ by their `high motivation and professionalism’.

The visit was not confined to pleasantries at senior level. The Doctor had a lively meeting with 70 SAS men of all ranks. The regiment is much the least hierarchical outfit in the British army; the respect due to rank has to be earned, and constantly re-earned. As the men are used to speaking their minds to their own officers, they naturally extend the same courtesy to everyone else. Nor are they big on ‘Sirs’. Dr Kissinger was addressed as ‘Boss’ or `Boss Kissinger’, which amused him. Indeed, his unstuffiness and evident enthusiasm for vigorous debate impressed a group of men who pride themselves on being hard to impress. `Good bloke, that,’ said a sergeant afterwards: probably the most complimentary remark he had ever made about someone of his own sex.

Boss Kissinger rapidly realised that he would have to defend his country. He was talking to men with a grievance, who believed that American generals had let bin Laden escape. Some of Dr Kissinger’s audience had just come back from Afghanistan. They had taken part in the attack on the cave complex at Tora Bora, where two squadrons of the SAS went into action: a significant proportion of its total strength. Fully manned, a squadron has 64 men; not since the second world war have so many SAS men fought in the same engagement.

It is to be hoped that someone will eventually write an account of the battle of Tora Bora, for it was a feat of arms; an epic of skill and courage, even by the standards of the SAS.

And not only British skill and courage. The SAS was fighting alongside Delta Force, the US army’s special forces, and though the Brits did not think that the Yanks were quite their equal, our men were impressed by their men. Delta Force is not the same as the SAS. Much larger, its nearest British equivalent would be the SAS, merged with 3 (commando) brigade and 16 (air assault) brigade. As a result of Afghanistan, there are now pressures in the Pentagon to create an innercore special force on British lines. Donald Rumsfeld’s enthusiasm for the SAS goes beyond tributes at press conferences; he wants one of his own.

But the SAS was happy enough with Delta Force. It was the American high command which let their own men down, and everyone else. The SAS and Delta Force won a victory for the West. The American generals then ensured that the full fruits of victory could not be harvested.

By the end of the battle, the SAS was certain that it knew where bin Laden was: in a mountain valley, where he could have been trapped. The men of the SAS would have been happy to move in for the kill, dividing themselves into beaters and guns. Going round the side, the guns would have positioned themselves at the head of the valley to cut off bin Laden’s retreat. The beaters would then have swept up the glen. If such a drive had taken place, the SAS is convinced that bin Laden would not have escaped. It would have been happy to fight alongside Delta Force and would have been glad of the assistance of American ground-attack aircraft. But it would also have been confident that it could finish the job on its own.

It did not get the chance. The SAS was under overall US command, and the American generals faltered. Understandably enough, they wanted Delta Force to be in at the death, they would have preferred it if bin Laden had fallen to an American bullet. So would Delta Force; every bit as much as the SAS, its men were raring to go. It was their commanders who held them back.

Being in at such a death involves the risk of death. It seems unlikely that bin Laden could have been bagged without casualties. The men on the ground did not quail at that prospect; the generals on the radio did. They wanted Delta Force to kill bin Laden; they were not prepared to allow their men to be killed in the process. They would not even allow USAF ground-attack aircraft to operate below 12,000 feet. As far as the SAS could tell, their hope was that the ragged– trousered militants of the Northern Alliance would do most of the dangerous stuff – and take most of the casualties – while Delta Force came in for the coup de grace. Nor were the American generals willing to allow the SAS to win the glory which they were denying to American troops.

So strategy was sabotaged by schizoid irresolution. There followed hours of fiffing and faffing, while gold coins were helicoptered in, to encourage the Northern Alliance. The USA is the greatest military power in the history of the planet, spending well over $300 billion a year on defence, yet everything was paralysed because it would not allow its fighting men to fight. While the generals agonised about bodybags, bin Laden was escaping.

Henry Kissinger tried to put all this in context. He told the SAS that in his first five weeks as National Security Adviser, the US lost at least 400 lives every week in Vietnam, and that was only a small percentage of the total casualties. The scars of those losses in a lost war take a long time to heal.

Naturally, Henry Kissinger was only prepared to explain the American generals’ mindset, not to criticise it. There are reports that Secretary Rumsfeld is less restrained, and that he has made his dissatisfaction clear. But if Dr Kissinger is right, Mr Rumsfeld will have to do more than that. The SAS formed the firm impression that in Dr Kissinger’s view, Iraq will be the next big target; that it is no longer a question of whether, but when.

If so, it is time for the Americans to discard fantasies about toppling Saddam by airpower plus local surrogates: Northern Kurds, Southern Shia, et al. If the US wants to get Saddam, it will have to go in and get him, with a full-scale invasion. But are the generals who hung back at Tora Bora the right men to invade Iraq?

When Charles Guthrie was Chief of our General Staff, he had a simple principle when choosing generals. His reading of military history had taught him that the generals who rise to the top during long periods of peace are rarely fitted to fight a war. So he was determined to promote men whose temperament was not that of a peacetime soldier, and to ensure that all the key commands in the British army were held by warriors.

It is now time for Donald Rumsfeld to retire a number of his Vietnamised, risk– averse generals, and to replace them with warriors. After all, he will shortly have a war to fight.