WASHINGTON - A one-ton precision-guided bomb dropped by a U.S. Air Force B-52 went astray in Afghanistan yesterday, killing three U.S. special operations soldiers and wounding 20 others, Pentagon officials said.
Five anti-Taliban rebels also were killed and about 20 hurt, including Hamed Karzai, who was picked yesterday as the country's interim leader by Afghan delegates meeting in Germany. Karzai suffered slight wounds and returned to his troops, officials said.
Pentagon officials said it was not clear what caused the "friendly fire" incident. But the accident starkly illustrated the perils that U.S. forces face in calling in airstrikes when near enemy positions. The target was an emplacement of Taliban troops several miles from the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
The errant bomb produced the highest number of casualties so far in the 2-month-old war. There had been only one U.S. combat death - a CIA officer killed last week.
Killed yesterday were Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis, 39, of Watauga, Tenn.; Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Petithory, 32, of Cheshire, Mass.; and Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser, 28, of California. All were part of the Army's 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it would likely take several days to determine the cause of the accident.
But he noted that the kind of precisely targeted air attacks being used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan leave little room for error.
"Calling in airstrikes on enemy forces you're engaged in close proximity to is a hazardous business and takes very fine control and coordination and precision," he said. "This is one of the potentially most hazardous type of missions we use as a military tactic."
Similar incident last week
The bombing comes a week after five U.S. special-operations soldiers were injured in a friendly fire incident outside the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. A 500-pound precision-guided weapon from a Navy F/A-18 Hornet missed its target.
In both instances, the weapon used was known as a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). The bomb, which uses a satellite navigation system to zero in on coordinates, was first used in Kosovo in 1999.
In yesterday's incident, and in the one last week, the coordinates were provided by specially trained U.S. forces on the ground, who were threatened by Taliban forces and called in close air support. The aircrew typed in the coordinates supplied by the U.S. ground forces.
Though there is no official report on the incident outside Mazar-e Sharif, a Pentagon official said the cause was apparently not a mechanical problem but rather a human error that led to a mix-up in coordinates.
A Pentagon official said that several thousand JDAMs have been used in Afghanistan, along with an even greater number of 500-pound gravity bombs. The JDAM has been "an awesome weapon, without any problems we're aware of," the official said.
Still, the friendly fire incidents in Afghanistan point up the dangers of calling in close air support.
A military combat pilot who requested anonymity said the JDAMs require "very, very precise coordinates," down to a box of about 10 feet by 10 feet. It is possible, this officer said, that a precise set of coordinates was not provided or was not keyed in properly.
"The weapons, if they're functioning properly, tend to go precisely where they're aimed," he said.
`Totally new warfare area'
The pilot noted that the U.S. military is involved in a "totally new warfare area," where forces on the ground call in close air support, delivered by high-flying bombers using huge guided bombs. In the recent past, close air support was provided by low-flying attack aircraft using smaller bombs.
"This is a very complex thing," he said. "There's going to be a learning curve."
The accident also demonstrates the pitfalls of relying almost exclusively on warplanes to defeat the Taliban regime and the terrorist al-Qaida network.
Only a few hundred U.S. special operations troops are in Afghanistan, along with about 1,200 Marines southwest of Kandahar. Nearly all the fighting on the ground has been carried out by anti-Taliban Afghan forces - about 15,000 Northern Alliance fighters and thousands more anti-Taliban Pashtun rebels in the south.
The JDAM bomb landed about 100 yards from the U.S. and Afghan troops, Stufflebeem said. It is not clear, he said, how far away the targeted Taliban troops were.
"A 2,000-pound bomb is a devastating weapon," Stufflebeem said. "As a pilot, when I would drop a 2,000-pound weapon, I wanted at least 4,000 feet of separation from that weapon when it went off."
The wounded Americans and Afghans were evacuated to the Marine airstrip southwest of Kandahar by helicopter-borne U.S. forces from Pakistan.
No details were available on the injuries to the U.S. troops or the Afghan rebels, officials said.
Rebels fight on