Reviewed by Amb. (ret.) Michael W. Cotter, Publisher, American Diplomacy and by Dr. John W, Handley, Vice President, American Diplomacy
102 Days of War: How Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda & The Taliban Survived 2001, by Yaniv Barzilai, Potomac Books, 2013, Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-61234-533-8, pp. 129, $17.06 Hardcover (Amazon), $13.99 E-Book (Kindle/Nook)
From time to time, the Editors of our journal come across a new book that we believe merits a look from both a traditional diplomatic perspective as well as from the point of view of the military, intelligence or academic professional. This is one such volume.
102 Days of War is a concise summary of the very first phase of the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, from approximately September 11 to December 22, 2001. It includes a background chapter covering the period from the withdrawal of Soviet forces in December 1979 through the growth of Al Qaeda influence in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, and an epilogue describing the April 2011 raid that finally succeeded in seizing and killing Osama Bin Laden.
The book analyzes the political and military decision-making process that led up to the military effort to neutralize Al Qaeda, and the military operation itself. The author calls the former the “strategy” and the latter the “tactics.” This review will assess the author’s analysis of the strategy; a companion piece will assess the tactics.
The author, Yaniv Barzilai, now a Foreign Service officer in the Department of State, does a fine job covering this tumultuous period in American history. His analysis of the political decision-making process focuses largely on President George W. Bush, his National Security staff under Condoleeza Rice, and the civilian leadership in the Department of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld. The president and his senior advisors clearly and understandably felt themselves under immense pressure to react quickly and assertively to the attack. The result was much confusion. Barzilai accurately, if a bit harshly, tracks the confusion and its implications. Essentially, he argues, the administration was unable to define the purpose of the response: whether to expel Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, destroy that organization, or defeat the Taliban for refusing to hand Osama Bin Laden over to U.S. justice. The lack of a defined goal led in the end to the failure to catch Bin Laden.
In describing the lead up to and initial weeks of the military response, Barzilai provides an extensive discussion of the contrast between the CIA and the military. The former, with extensive experience working with the Afghan Mujahedeen during the effort to expel the Soviets, had the ability to react quickly. The military, still saddled with Cold War operational plans and having just been exposed to Secretary Rumsfeld’s insistence on transforming it radically, was caught flat-footed. The CIA, still searching for a new raison d’etre after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, was only too happy to take up the challenge.
Beyond its value in providing an easily digestible timeline of events during this period, 102 Days of War will be of great value for those wishing to analyze the time and the events in more detail. While Barzilai succeeded in interviewing many of the key figures (including Condoleeza Rice, JCS Chairman Richard Myers, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, CIA DCI John McLaughlin; DOD Under Secretary Douglas Feith) who shed some new light on the critical decisions, he relies very heavily on already published accounts such as books by principals and news reporting. No doubt in coming years more books will study these events and Barzilai’s extensive footnotes and bibliography will prove invaluable to those authors.
Not to detract from the value of this slim volume, but a couple of quibbles do come to mind. Surprisingly coming from a State Department officer, albeit a relatively new one, the role of the State Department in the policy process is largely ignored. Granted, even at this early date in the Bush Administration the State Department was largely overshadowed by Defense led by Secretary Rumsfeld. Barzilai does note at one point Secretary Colin Powell’s prescient observation that, as Barzilai puts it: “…supporting minority ethnic factions to take over the country’s capital might alienate the majority Pashtuns, resulting in long-term difficulties.” He makes the point that the CIA had the most familiarity with Afghanistan and its ethnic divisions, but fails to add that this was due in part to the fact that many experienced Afghan hands in the Foreign Service had been prematurely retired during a “rightsizing” effort under the Clinton Administration.
In his criticism of the difficulty the administration faced in defining policy objectives, Barzilai could have at least devoted a few paragraphs, if not a chapter, to the fact that the Bush Administration had been in office such a short period of time. The nature of U.S. politics in recent decades means that new administrations often take a year or longer to have key people in place. This phenomenon is even more evident when the transition involves a transfer of power to the former opposition party, in which case most of the former key people have left and the new ones have limited or dated experience with their portfolios. Certainly this was the case when George W. Bush replaced Bill Clinton. The attack on the Twin Towers occurred before NSC Advisor Rice had solidified her role and installed and sorted out the responsibilities of her staff and before the president had established the pecking order among his cabinet officials.
Correcting those omissions will provide an opportunity to what will no doubt be a long list of future historians analyzing these critical months and weeks.
Finally, in his unstinting criticism of the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora, Barzilai is perhaps excessively critical of President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld. In part this is justified by the fact that they, and the people close to them, claim to have been “engaged” in the decision-making process. That may have been the case, but expecting a new president to be making tactical decisions on, as opposed to giving the green light to, such an operation is unrealistic. Perhaps the criticism is more valid in the case of Secretary Rumsfeld, who certainly was “engaged” in the minutia of Afghan military operations from the start.
For a very young man, Yaniv Barzilai is already a highly accomplished U.S. diplomat. He previously worked for the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the US State Department and for the Special Representative for Somalia at the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. He also worked as a desk office in the State Department’s Office of Afghanistan Affairs.
This reviewer, along with Mike Cotter, my colleague from American Diplomacy Publishers, met Yaniv Barzilai in February 2014 at UNC Chapel Hill when he gave a short presentation on his 102 Days of War and answered questions from approximately 30 students and academia. Yaniv’s book describes in some detail both the early days of the Bush administration during the transition from Clinton’s Democratic Party administration to Bush’s Republican Party administration, and the actual 102 days from the book’s title starts with the attack on the New York World Trade Center’s twin towers. It concludes with the termination of military operations in the Tora Bora mountain range and the failure to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden at that time. I found Mr. Barzilai wonderfully engaging, clear, responsive, and articulate. His book is certainly well written and probably as well researched as it could be considering the limitations any author would find in accessing information that, in large part, still remains classified. He has livened his pages with out-takes from interviews of some of the more important civilian and military decision-makers within the George W. Bush administration, including Rice, Hadley, and Khalilzad, all with the NSC at the time of the 9/11 attack; DOD’s Feith; DOS’s Armitage; Special Representative Dobbins; and CIA’s McLaughlin, Berntsen, and Scheuer. To get the military perspective, Yaniv interviewed JCS Chairman General Meyers, 5th Special Forces Group Commander Colonel Mulholland, Task Force 58 Commander BG Mattis, as well as the “unidentified for security reasons” commander of the Army special operations team at Tora Bora, referred to as “Dalton Fury.”
This review has been divided into two aspects: political and military. Mike Cotter reviewed the political elements while I look at the military. From the start it appears no one within DOD had any clear idea of how to respond to Bin Laden and his protectors, Afghanistan’s Taliban, after 9/11. No suitable “operational” plan existed at General Tommy Franks’ CENTCOM headquarters, so Rumsfeld told Franks to develop one. The four-phase ambiguous plan, offered some 18 days after the attack, provided (1) for a buildup of forces in the area, (2) for SOF teams to work with local opposition to direct precision aerial attacks, (3) for the U.S. to have sufficient forces in Afghanistan to continue operations against Al Qaeda elements in other countries, and (4) to give the post-war nation-building and humanitarian missions to coalition partners. When Franks briefed the four service chiefs he rejected their suggestions and criticisms and walked out of the meeting– so much for improving an already limited and flawed plan!
As Yaniv clearly states, by this time the U.S. military leadership, including Franks, had become so adverse to risking the lives of service personnel they were willing to sacrifice operational success for force protection. For this reason, the U.S. military delayed even considering the deployment of SOF teams until 3 October when Uzbekistan finally agreed to allow the U.S .to use Karshi Khanabad (K2) for staging and combat search-and-rescue (CSAR). A CIA team, operating without CSAR, contingency plans, or air cover, entered northern Afghanistan on 26 September. Due to the CSAR concern and bad weather, the first SOF team did not enter Afghanistan until 20 October. This delay speaks volumes about the military’s risk avoidance policy and Franks’ inability to plan for the kind of fast, mobile war Rumsfeld envisioned.
Air power was another huge problem for Franks’ plan. The U.S. had the aircraft and ordinance but few viable targets. The use of air power against stationary Taliban targets proved indecisive and futile. Air power came into effective play only after the SOF teams and the CIA teams, working together, managed to convince the USAF to switch from stationary targets to front-line Taliban and Al Qaeda targets attempting to either engage the resistance forces or to defend Taliban strong-points.
The author describes the existence of a rather large disconnect between the allied effort (U.S. and Afghan resistance fighters) on the ground and the military strategists (Franks and company) back at CENTCOM HQ. By 12 November, the Northern Alliance under Khan was poised to take Kabul, while CENTCOM wanted the Northern Alliance to stop and wait for UN and other Alliance forces from other regions to join in capturing the Taliban capital. Khan did not wait and marched into a nearly deserted city with 2,000 troops. The Pashtun commander, Sayyaf, entered the capital from the south with 500 troops. Operations now swung to the east concentrating on Mazar-i-Sharif, but for reasons not entirely clear (and still classified), the Bush administration allowed Pakistan to fly two aircraft on repeated sorties over several nights into Kunduz purportedly to transport Pakistani ISI personnel to safety. In all probability these flights brought hundreds of high, medium, and even low-level Taliban and Al Qaeda personnel out of harms way. Kunduz and eastern Afghanistan fell on 24 November.
The last chapter addresses the U.S. and allied December operations to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden and the hundreds if not thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives hiding in the Tora Bora mountain range. The fact that Bin Laden and numerous hostile forces managed to slip over the border into Pakistan demonstrates the tactical failure of the military plan. The small number of SOF personnel, some 93, supported by dubious, at best, resistance fighters from regions other than the Northern Alliance, were ordered to allow the Afghans to take the lead in the operation. These factors, plus the failure by both Pakistan and the U.S. to secure the border, all contributed to a colossal operational failure. As the author points out, the failure was both strategic and tactical. Strategically, Franks did not direct that sufficient forces be used to seal the border. The myth that the border could not be sealed was just that, a myth. The Tora Bora mountain range is only six miles long and sufficient elements from the 10th Mountain Division, sitting at K2, could have been mobilized for this blocking action. Additionally the U.S. Marines had 1,200 personnel at Kandahar. Movement of a small portion of either of these two units, a battalion or so, in all probability would have accomplished the job.
This is a very compelling book on military achievement and failure, the former was possible through the coordination of CIA and SOF teams working with local Afghan resistance leaders, while the latter can be attributable to both military and political leadership removed from the fray. Since Mike addressed the political aspects my comments reflect only on military operations.
I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in political-military affairs as a cautionary tale from which one can draw many lessons of what-not-to-do. I think the author would have been helped had he offered his definition of strategy and tactics. I was sometimes confused when he discussed strategy that I thought clearly tactical and tactics I viewed as strategy. The U.S. military uses a rather simple definition: strategy is the art and science of moving personnel and logistics TO the battlefield, while tactics is the art and science of moving these same resources ON the battlefield. All in all, it is a well-written and insightful book. I hope someone will more fully investigate the Pakistani sorties into Kunduz. That operation deserves its own book.