I still don't understand why this story doesn't get more coverage.
In late November 2001, Bin Laden fled to Tora Bora as the Taliban regime collapsed around him. Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance and Kandahar was under seige. November 16th, British and US forces landed at Bagram Airbase north of Kabul - less than one hundred miles from Tora Bora - and met no resistance. By November 18th, Afghan warlords were preparing for a showdown with over 1,000 Al Qaeda fighters at Tora Bora. To most Americans watching at home, it seemed for the first time that we might really get Osama.
Yet on November 21st, according to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack, President Bush asked Don Rumsfeld to have General Franks start working on war plans for a new enemy - Iraq. Rumsfeld immediately sent orders to Franks and told him to get to work planning for Iraq - despite the fact that as CENTCOM commander, Franks' reponsibilities include both Afghanistan and Iraq. Frank's assistant couldn't believe it. He said, "You got to be shitting me. We're only kind of busy on some other things right now. Are you sure?" When Franks received the news, he asked, "Goddamn, what the fuck are they talking about?" The same day, Bush gave a speech at Fort Campbell. He said that Afghanistan was "just the beginning" of the war on terror.
On November 25th, the New York Times published a report that Bin Laden had been spotted at Tora Bora. The same day, in an interview with Newsweek President Bush declared, "I think Saddam is up to no good." On November 26th, Bin Laden addressed hundreds of his fighters at the Tora Bora complex. The same day, Christian Science Monitor published an article which claimed the search for Bin Laden had started to focus on the mountains of Tora Bora. The Bush administration must have known that the hunt for Bin Laden had reached a critical phase. Just two months earlier, Bush had said that Osama Bin Laden was "Wanted, Dead or Alive." Still, they focused on Iraq.
According to Bob Woodward's book, Rumsfeld flew to CENTCOM headquarters on November 27th for a progress report from Franks on the war plans for Iraq, not Afghanistan. Rumsfeld asked Franks to put a team together that could think outside the box about this problem - Iraq. That same day, NBC News reported that Bin Laden was believed to be hiding in Tora Bora. On November 29th, Dick Cheney told ABC's Primetime Live that he thought Osama might be in Tora Bora. "I think he was equipped to go to ground there," Mr. Cheney said. "He's got what he believes to be a fairly secure facility. He's got caves underground; it's an area he's familiar with."
After the fact, many sources agree that by the first day of December 2001, Bin Laden had left Tora Bora. He escaped the world's most powerful military machine by simply walking through the mountains across the border into Pakistan. That same day, December 1st, Rumsfeld issued more orders for Franks to think outside the box about Iraq. The Pentagon even ordered Franks to report on the war plans for Iraq in person at the Pentagon three days later, December 4th. All of this is detailed in Plan of Attack.
By December 10th, Pakistani troops arrived to help secure the Afghan-Pakistani border. Afghan commanders later complained that the US had not paid enough attention to securing the border until it was too late. Now, thanks to Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack - now in paperback - we know why they were not paying more attention. They were busy rushing to plan for war in Iraq! The facts are widely acknowledged. Plan of Attack is even on the Bush campaign's suggested reading list. What has not been acknowledged is that Bush's focus on Iraq in November 2001 distracted CENTCOM at a critical moment, and actually helped Bin Laden escape.