By CNN Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy
Editor's note: This is the third of a five-part series on key moments from U.S. combat in Afghanistan. Part 1 and Part 2 were published earlier this week; parts 4 and 5 will be published later this week.
Four months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden was the world's most wanted man, and many thought he was hiding in some of the most remote, impenetrable mountains in the world.
But the battle of Tora Bora, fought in those mountains, holds one of the mysteries of the 10-year war in Afghanistan that may never be solved: did the United States miss a chance to kill bin Laden and cripple al Qaeda nearly 10 years sooner than his actual death earlier this year?
This much is clear: In late November 2001, al Qaeda fighters had fled to the mountains in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border as U.S. forces with their Northern Alliance allies who opposed the Taliban government worked to thwart the Taliban and its terrorist cohorts.
CNN's Tim Lister, now an executive producer with the network, went to Tora Bora to cover the newest front in the Afghan War. Few if any other Western journalists were there when he arrived. "We were the first people there; this would have been about November the 28th or 29th (of 2001), I think."
Lister and the crew found themselves living in primitive conditions.
"At night we were living basically in a goat shed, a bunch of CNN people, must have been about 12 of us at one point," Lister said.
By the time they arrived, the United States was already attacking enemy positions with the full arsenal of Air Force bombers. "They would very often arrive at dawn and there'd be this tremendous reverberating sound of explosions coming out of the mountains. But they just pounded the al Qaeda hideouts up in the mountains."
"And this little goat shed would shake at night with the echo of the explosions. It sounded grotesque almost," Lister remembers.
But Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the agency's paramilitary operation in Tora Bora, was convinced that air attacks alone wouldn't get the number one target, Osama bin Laden.
"We needed U.S. soldiers on the ground!" Berntsen wrote in his 2005 book "Jawbreaker."
"I'd sent my request for 800 U.S. Army Rangers and was still waiting for a response. I repeated to anyone at headquarters who would listen: We need Rangers now!"
He was convinced bin Laden was in those mountains and trying to escape. "The opportunity to get bin Laden and his men is slipping away!!" he wrote about his battle to get U.S. ground forces into Tora Bora.
Gen. Tommy Franks, then the commander of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, disputed Berntsen's claim. In a 2004 opinion article in the the New York Times, he wrote, "We don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001."
There were ground forces in the area, but, Lister recalls, they were mujahedeen from the Northern Alliance. He says the local fighters were poorly equipped and unmotivated. "It was December 10, thousand feet up, snow in the mountains - they were wearing flip flops," Lister said.
"Their heart wasn't in it. It was Ramadan, they would come down the mountain at the end of the day exhausted and the hashish smoking would begin. And they weren't exactly wholehearted in their commitment to the cause."
About this time then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked to Pentagon reporters about whether bin Laden was in Tora Bora. "We think he's there. We don't know if he's there. We're trying to find him. And when we find him, we will announce it," Rumsfeld said on December 13, 2001.
One reason many people think bin Laden was in Tora Bora was that they heard him on the radio. Several al Qaeda fighters were captured carrying unscrambled radios. A report by the Senate Foreign Relations released in 2009 spells out what U.S. Special Forces heard on one of those radios. "Bin Laden's voice was often picked up, along with frequent comments about the presence of the man referred to by his followers as 'the sheikh.'"
CNN also used one of those radios. "(CNN Correspondent) Ben Wedeman, who was also there, a fluent Arab speaker, started to use one of those radios, where he actually gets to talk to the al Qaeda people up in the hills. I don't think they realized they were talking to a CNN correspondent, but Ben's talking to them about where 'the sheikh' is and they were responding," Lister said.
Many people, including Berntsen, believe that bin Laden slipped out of the Tora Bora mountains, probably into Pakistan.
Rumsfeld said at the time that was a distinct possibility. "It is a porous border. It's a long border. It's a very complicated area to try to seal, and there's just simply no way you can put a perfect cork in the bottle."
CNN, which had been the first news organization into Tora Bora, was also one of the last to leave. It had become a risk to stay. "What pushed us in the direction of leaving was when the Al Jazeera guy came to tell us that there had been a bounty offered by al Qaeda and the Taliban to any locals who could take CNN out," Lister said.
Before they left, Lister and some other CNN journalists climbed into the mountains to see where the al Qaeda fighters had been.
"We went up into the caves, and I remember standing inside a cave on boxes and boxes of Chinese-made ammunition. With rockets propped up against the side of the caves," Lister said.
He said the wholesale bombing that bin Laden apparently survived had reshaped the mountains. "A lot of the trees had been cut off, sheared off at about 3 foot off the ground by cluster munitions and the AC 130 heavy guns. It was a scene of extraordinary, almost First World War-like destruction once we got up into the hills."
Just getting out of the mountains was nearly impossible.
"So impenetrable were these ravines, we actually ran around in circles and ended up at the exact same cave where we had been a couple of hours previously. And we had a local guide," Lister said.
After the battle of Tora Bora was over and it was clear bin Laden was still alive, Rumsfeld insisted there was no way to know for sure if bin Laden was there. In April 2002 Rumsfeld said of bin Laden. "I knew of, nor do I know today of, any evidence that we - he was in Tora Bora at the time, or that he left Tora Bora at the time."
But in 2005, the Pentagon itself, perhaps unintentionally, contradicted Rumsfeld and Franks. In a legal document aimed at keeping an al Qaeda suspect in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an unnamed Pentagon official wrote that the prisoner "assisted in the escape of Usama Bin Laden from Tora Bora."
Now that bin Laden is dead, it may never be known for certain where he was during the battle of Tora Bora.
As for the war itself, Tora Bora was just the opening salvo of what would become America's longest war. CNN's Lister said, "I don't think that any of us who were at Tora Bora at the end of 2001 would have expected 10 years down the road, that if anything the Northern Alliance and their successors, the Western community, would be on their back foot the way it is at the moment."