Opinion: Another Great Escape

This is a story of two gut-wrenching escapes that crippled our grueling war against terror, perhaps irrevocably. I want to return soon to Latino-themed topics, but the significance of these critical events for our nation cannot go unnoted.

Perfectly executed and separated by almost 10 years, history will view the two escapes as bookends of our futile effort in Afghanistan. I’ll remind you about the first event in a minute, the second happened Monday near Kandahar when almost 500 captive Taliban fighters, including some hardened leaders, tunneled out of a maximum security facility right under the noses of their probably complicit Afghan guards.

Coming on the eve of the big pullback by U.S. and NATO forces planned for this summer, the jailbreak exposes once again the glaring weaknesses of our Afghan partners. They are corrupt and incompetent. Pray for success in the supposed secret peace talks between the shaky Karsai government in Kabul and Taliban leadership because there is almost no chance now of a military victory.

There, I’ve said it for the first time. We can’t win in Afghanistan.

Our magnificent Armed Forces have lately been kicking the crap out of the Taliban on the battlefield. I’ve seen these American warriors in action many times, most recently last year with the 6th Marines and the 101st Airborne Division. They are awe-inspiring.

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But for every insurgent they kill, another sneaks across the border from Pakistan to take his place. For every one we capture, the possibility of eventual escape looms large.

What passes for an Afghan national army and police force has been noteworthy lately for turncoats who blow up their fellow soldiers and ours on a distressingly regular basis.

What passes for our allied government is a motley, self-serving, opium-dealing collection of crooks, who blatantly rob their national bank and various aid projects of hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars. That our boys are fighting and dying for the Afghan Tammany Hall is heart-breaking.

If partisan war correspondents like me had the courage or insight to see it, the war in Afghanistan started unraveling almost immediately after it started with the first great escape; in Tora Bora. It was December 2001 and Osama bin Laden had just evacuated his base with his entire inner circle. As we cheered on live TV showing the world what American resolve looks like, our high-altitude bombers pounded the bunkers and caves of the architect of the 9/11 attacks. But even as they did, their target, our arch-enemy, snuck out the back door.

It should have been haunting, humiliating news but its impact on American self-esteem was muted by the prevailing we can do no wrong patriotism that followed the brutal attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center; and by the newness of war, always popular in the beginning. Buoyed by our counter-attack, no one wanted to view bin Laden’s escape as anything more than a temporary setback. We’ll get him. It is just a matter of time.

There was also the fact that it took years for historians and mainstream media even to believe our initial exclusive account that the terror mastermind had gotten away. It was just a surmise, they said, a thesis. After all, who even knew for sure that Osama was in Tora Bora to begin with?

History has since verified our account, but I’ve often wondered if the initial chase to catch him would have been more urgent if the story had appeared first in the New York Times or on CBS News?

We were blessed with two resources our competition did not have: our own VHF intercepts of Arab-speaking al Qaeda fighters, which our fabulous producer Akbar Shinwari translated for us; and Hasrat Ali, the local leader of what was then grandiosely called the Eastern Alliance, an ad hoc militia drawn from local Pashto tribes.

Like the rag-tag rebel army in Libya a decade later, the Alliance was frustrating to watch in action, retreating at the first sign of resistance. It was disheartening to see a single mortar round causing hundreds of fighters to run away in panic.

Because the fighting came in the midst of the month-long Ramadan holiday, they also refused to fight past sunset when they were allowed to break their mandatory day-long fast and eat.

Less than a year later, my crew and I re-traced the probable route bin Laden and his party traveled. It took us about half a day to walk into Pakistan from Tora Bora. The journey was easy and the direction obvious.

You’ve heard the refrain on countless talk shows: how could a caravan led by a 6-foot-five inch Arab on kidney dialysis, traveling with his extended family, walk out from under the noses of the world’s most formidable military? It was easy. We had no troops on the ground and the United States will endure the consequences for years to come.

There are effective actions we can take to ensure that terrorists never set up camp in Afghanistan again with drones and other punishing weapons. With bin Laden’s enduring freedom, assuming he still lives, and this week’s flashy Kandahar escape caper, it is time to bring the boys home.

Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino. 

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