Pentagon defends Afghanistan attack

Officials deny reports of civilian casualties in missile strike near Khost

February 12, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. forces did not kill innocent Afghans in a missile attack last week, Pentagon officials said yesterday, brushing aside reports that the victims were civilians searching for scrap metal.

"There are no initial indications that these were innocent locals," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, citing weapons, ammunition, radios and documents found at the scene.

Pentagon officials had earlier said those killed on a mountain road outside the city of Khost on Feb. 4 were possible al-Qaida operatives, although Stufflebeem said their identities had not been determined.

"The indicators were there that there was something untoward that we needed to make go away," Stufflebeem said of the missile attack. "We're convinced it was an appropriate target."

The Washington Post quoted local villagers yesterday as saying that three men killed in the raid were peasants scrounging for scrap metal. And the governor of Khost province, Mohammed Ibrahim, told the newspaper that U.S. officials were not talking with him or local people about suspected enemy locations. "Their intelligence in this area is very weak," he said.

The Post article said the reporter was held at gunpoint by a U.S. soldier and prevented from heading to the site of the missile attack, as well as to a nearby village where the victims were said to live. The reporter quoted the soldier's commander as saying, "If you go further, you would be shot."

A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, told the Associated Press that the soldier's words to the reporter were: "For your own safety, we cannot let you go forward. You could be shot in a firefight."

CIA operation

The missile attack, which officials said was carried out by the CIA, again raises the question of whether faulty intelligence is leading to mistaken American military actions in Afghanistan. Three weeks ago, officials in Kandahar province said a U.S. special forces raid 120 miles to the north killed at least 15 anti-Taliban officials and led to the jailing of 27 others, including a local police chief. All 27 were released last week.

U.S. officials initially said the raid on two compounds targeted al-Qaida operatives but then said those found were Taliban. Local Afghan leaders told The Sun and other news organizations that the raid was the result of faulty intelligence and that two rival anti-Taliban groups were labeling each other al-Qaida.

After initially defending the raid, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged that innocent civilians had likely been killed.

An investigation of that attack is continuing, officials said. Part of that inquiry will look into claims by some of the 27 prisoners - reported yesterday by several news organizations - that they were kicked and beaten by U.S. soldiers after they were taken into custody, officials said. Some of those who were imprisoned told reporters they were treated so harshly that they were knocked unconscious and that others suffered fractured ribs.

`No evidence' of beatings

"We have no evidence that those sort of beatings took place," Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told reporters yesterday. "If anything has been done improperly, then we'll address it."

In another possible military error, the country's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, said last week that in December, U.S. forces mistakenly attacked a convoy that was heading from Khost to the capital city of Kabul for his inauguration, killing 12.

In the latest attack, the Pentagon said last week that those killed in the mountains outside Khost were suspected al-Qaida officials, possibly including Osama bin Laden. Stufflebeem said the group had been under sustained surveillance and was taking part in a meeting near their vehicles. "It is my understanding this was not a surprise, chance encounter, visually," he said.

A "small group" of people was killed and there was no indication of survivors, said Stufflebeem.

Despite the Pentagon's initial assertions, the reason for the supposed meeting as well as the identities of those killed is still not known, officials said. U.S. soldiers traveled to the area after the strike and collected evidence, including human remains, that will be sent to the United States for further examination.

The Pentagon had no direct role in the Feb. 4 missile attack, which was undertaken by CIA operatives using a Predator drone armed with a Hellfire missile, Stufflebeem said. While the Pentagon and the CIA are working closely together on the military campaign in Afghanistan, the CIA at times undertakes missions that do not require approval from top U.S. military leaders.

"The agency has objectives ... and operations that they answer to their bosses to," Stufflebeem said.

`No clear front'

Military analysts say that now that the Taliban have been removed from power, separating friend from foe in this country of easily shifting alliances is proving to be more difficult.

"There are no clear battlefields any more, no clear front. It has become a fluid battlefield," said William Arkin, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and an adjunct professor of the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies.

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