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Tora Bora, The Turning Point In 'The Longest War'

In the nearly 10 years since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and entered bitter debates over interrogation techniques and renditions. This decade has also seen the spread of terrorist networks linked to al-Qaida around the globe.

In The Longest War, Peter Bergen gives a comprehensive account of the development of al-Qaida and the U.S. response to the terrorist organization. He talks about the strategic missteps made by both sides.

Bergen says he believes the single most important battle in the conflict came in December 2001, when bin Laden and al-Qaida fled from their bases in Afghanistan to their mountain retreat in Tora Bora.

"I assembled accounts of the battle from both al-Qaida's perspective and also CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and some of the Afghan warlords who were there on the ground," Bergen tells NPR's Neal Conan.

Bergen says he learned from the Special Forces' official history of the battle that during the period of Dec. 9 to Dec. 14, 2001, "multiple sources of intelligence placed bin Laden at the battlefield."

And that's the last time, says Bergen, that "we really knew where he was."

Bin Laden chose Tora Bora for a reason, he says.

"He knew this area like the back of his hand," says Bergen. "He'd been visiting this area on and off for 15 years, he built roads in the mountains -- he knew this place intimately."

So it was no accident that "he fled there, and then staged one of history's great disappearing acts from Tora Bora," he says.

Following the battle at Tora Bora, "the hard core of al-Qaida lived to fight another day," Bergen says.

Could something have been done at the Battle of Tora Bora that would have turned it into a decisive victory for the U.S.? Bergen thinks it's possible.

"Certainly, the CIA on-scene commander in Afghanistan requested more troops on the ground. Certainly, the U.S. Special Forces Delta commander on the ground ... requested more soldiers, and that never happened."

There were a variety of reasons that the requests for more troops went unfulfilled.

"It was a concern that more American boots on the ground would annoy our local Afghan allies," and there were concerns about search and rescue, and about helicopters, Bergen says.

"But the point is, that this was never tested," he says. "The most significant battle in the war on terror was left up to 70 U.S. Special Forces, some CIA guys, a handful of British special boat service operators, and thousands of our not particularly effective Afghan allies."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.