WASHINGTON - The U.S. military could have captured or killed Osama bin Laden in 2001 if it had launched a concerted attack on his hideout in Afghanistan, according to a report prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The report, written by staff working for the Democratic majority on the committee, said the al Qaeda leader's escape was a lost opportunity that altered the course of the war and paved the way for insurgencies in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.
"Removing the al Qaeda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat," the report said.
"But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide."
U.S. soldiers and Afghan militia forces launched a large-scale assault on the Tora Bora mountains in 2001 in pursuit of bin Laden, believed to be hiding in the region with supporters after the Taliban government was removed from power.
U.S. military leaders allowed Afghan militiamen to spearhead the assault and bin Laden managed to escape.
The report said U.S. commanders rejected requests for more troops to launch a rapid assault in the area, relying instead on air strikes and the Afghan militias to lead the attack and Pakistan's Frontier Corps to seal off escape routes.
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"The vast array of American 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 report was especially critical of military leaders under former President George W. Bush, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top military commander, retired General Tommy Franks.
Democratic Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the committee, has argued the Bush administration missed a chance to get bin Laden and his top lieutenants in Tora Bora just months after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election to Bush.
The report was issued just days before President Barack Obama was expected to announce the United States would send about 30,000 more troops to secure population centers and train Afghan security forces.
There are about 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 allied soldiers in Afghanistan.
(Writing by Paul Simao, Editing by Andrew Dobbie)