Sunday, November 29, 2009

Come Back, Col. Horton

Someone said of Burke Horton that if you asked him the time of day, he'd tell you how to make a watch.

He was an engineer and inventor.  He was also a musician, tennis player and coach, hockey player and coach, retired military officer and an expert on small-force counter-insurgency tactics.

As an Air Force colonel working in military intelligence, he often gave President Eisenhower's daily intelligence briefing in the west wing of the White House. 

I've got to assume that in the enormous labyrinth of the world's largest armed force, there were a number of counterparts of Col. Burke Horton on Sept. 11, 2001.  I wonder if they were even consulted after the terrorist attacks that day.

I doubt it because our response was all wrong. Massive military force is useless against stateless terrorism, as Burke Horton knew full well. But the civilian leaders of our military, from George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld down through the ranks, were obsessed with Saddam Hussein and Iraq even as they ordered a token military effort to capture the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, somewhere in Afghanistan.

Staff members for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Democratic majority issued a report this week saying what we all knew, that bin Laden was vulnerable in December of 2001 in the Tora Bora area near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  Gearing up to attack Iraq, Rumsfeld pursued the fleeing terrorist leader with a force of a mere 100 troops through the rugged mountain terrain.  Of course he got away.

But the pertinent point in the report was buried: appropriate military power, "from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines," it said.

The point is important because it hints at what would have been a far more effective response to 9/11 than the purely military and essentially unilateral effort that we mounted.  Burke Horton would have designed something very different.

First, he would have assembled far more reliable intelligence.  The entire world was sympathetic to American sensibilities in the aftermath of the attacks.  Horton would have moved swiftly to use that empathy: he'd have tapped every national intelligence service to pool information about bin Laden and his whereabouts and his associates and his vulnerability.

Then he would have mounted a clandestine police action, employing elite military and intelligence units from around the world, supplemented by the very sniper teams and ultra mobile Marine divisions mentioned in the Senate report, especially including Arab-speaking experts in high-mountain maneuvering, to run down bin Laden and his band and bring them to justice.

The Bushhawks' obsession with Hussein and Iraq's enormous oil reserves blinded them to that option, if anyone even presented it to them. 

What Dr. Kidglove needs in his faltering administration is another Burke Horton.  When Burke was the tennis pro for my group of early bird tennis players at an indoor racquet club, not even a blizzard could keep him from unlocking the door to the club at precisely 5:30 a.m. every day.  "How the heck did you get here?" I asked during a record blizzard one February day.  He nodded to the corner of the office toward a pair of cross country skis.  "A successful operation requires two things," he said. "Provision for every exigency, and a strong will." Burke was 77 when he skied the six hilly miles to open the tennis club door.

Would that someone as steel-willed had this president's ear.


Michael Graham, a former Air Force counterintelligence officer, writes:

I knew a lot of guys like Col Horton, honorable old soldiers who just wouldn't tolerate the BS the Pentagon is slinging today.

Over the weekend, I read the entire Senate report on Tora Bora.  A friend of mine was there at the time and confirms that we could have had bin Laden.

But here's the problem:  If we had caught him, it would have destroyed the plan to pin 9-11 on Saddam, thus destroying the "reason" to invade Iraq.  Look how much money was made in that little adventure. 

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