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For Marines of Camp Pendleton, death of bin Laden is end of unfinished business

May 1, 2011 |  9:31 pm

For the Marines from Camp Pendleton who served in Afghanistan in 2001, the death of Osama bin Laden brings a kind of completion to some agonizingly unfinished business.

In early December 2001, weeks after the Taliban had been toppled from control in Afghanistan, Marines from Camp Pendleton, and Camp Lejeune, were at the Kandahar airport loading onto helicopters to go to the mountains of Tora Bora to hunt down bin Laden in his lair.

Then-Brig. Gen. James Mattis, who had led the Camp Pendleton force into Afghanistan, was ready to lead his Marines on a cave to cave search to either capture or kill the Al Qaeda leader.

Even as Marines were loading onto the helicopters, and darkness was descending on the airport, the order came from higher authority, probably all the way from the White House: Stand down. The Afghan forces were to take the lead in getting bin Laden.

But the Afghans, for reasons never fully explained, were not able to find bin Laden. By early 2002, when the U.S.military launched Operation Anaconda, bin Laden had disappeared.

In 2005, veteran Middle East correspondent Mary Anne Weaver, in an article called "Lost at Tora Bora," wrote in the New York Times magazine about the Bush Administration's refusal to let the Marines go to Tora Bora.

Mattis, she wrote, "argued strongly" for permission to send up to 4,000 "grunts" to Tora Bora to seal off escape routes, in tandem with other U.S. forces.

"The general was turned down," Weaver wrote. "An American intelligence official told me that the Bush administration later concluded that the refusal of CentCom [U.S. Central Command] to dispatch the Marines -- along with their failure to commit U.S. ground forces to Afghanistan generally -- was the gravest error of the war."

Mattis later led the Marines in the assault on Baghdad to bring down Saddam Hussein in 2003. He is now a four-star general.

His job? Commanding general of the U.S. Central Command.

An enlisted Marine from Camp Pendleton who was at Kandahar that night and has since left the Marine Corps said Sunday night that the refusal of higher authority to unleash the Marines "has gnawed on my gut for a decade, and I'm not alone in that. Thank God we finally got the s.o.b.

"I only wish I could have been there and killed him myself."


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