If Atef’s death appeared to demonstrate the power and reach of the U.S., the months following seemed to highlight its limitations. In February 2002, four months after the fall of Kabul, U.S. officials acknowledged that they had killed or captured only one senior al Qaeda figure—Atef, and perhaps that was a lucky accident—and seven far less prominent leaders. The failure to capture bin Laden or any members of his inner circle led some officials and analysts to begin to question the US strategy.

The U.S. was still fighting a conventional war against an unconventional foe. The Pentagon’s tactics had been strikingly effective in defeating the Taliban on the battlefield, but were much less effective in identifying senior leaders or eliminating al Qaeda as a movement. “The inability to neutralize the core leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban in the first six months…is clearly the war on terrorism’s single biggest failure,” wrote Rohan Gunaratna, a consultant to the United Nations on terrorism. William Arkin, a military consultant to Human Rights Watch and instructor at the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Airpower Studies, likewise said that in the first two weeks of bombing less than 10 percent of strikes directly targeted al Qaeda because the campaign was set up more akin to fighting Iraq or Russia. Detractors complained that Special Forces frequently arrived too late in areas where al Qaeda fighters had been hiding, and that the reliance on local Afghan allies probably allowed bin Laden and other senior leaders to escape through Tora Bora. Moreover, the CIA and other members of the IC still knew relatively little about the identities and roles of key individuals in the organization—information that could only be gathered through human or technical means, and not by killing them outright.

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