Rumsfeld denies U.S. misled by faulty Afghan intelligence

Defense secretary says attacks are very precise with fewest civilians lost

July 23, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed suggestions yesterday that faulty intelligence in Afghanistan has led American warplanes to mistakenly bomb civilians, saying that while such deaths are inevitable in war, the U.S.-led military campaign has been more precise than any in history.

At a Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld also said Pakistan has arrested several members of the al-Qaida terrorist organization within the past two weeks and at least one might be a senior leader, possibly a financial official.

"I believe it is correct that some additional detainees have been taken," Rumsfeld told reporters, though there has yet to be any confirmation that a senior leader is among them. "You know, it's hard to know in near-real time after someone's picked up what they are. There's so much lying and disinformation and alias."

The defense secretary said he has no sense whether al-Qaida's leader, Osama bin Laden, is alive or dead. And while the effort to find him will continue, Rumsfeld said, "it's not a war against one person."

There has not been a "complete victory" in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld acknowledged, though there have been some successes: "The Taliban's gone. The [Hamid] Karzai government's in. Not bad."

Rumsfeld confirmed that U.S. soldiers are providing security protection for President Hamid Karzai in the wake of the recent assassination of an Afghan vice president. Such protection might last weeks or several months, Rumsfeld said, adding that it was necessary to maintain a stable government.

"But clearly, it is important for that country that the outcome of the loya jirga not be negated by violence," said Rumsfeld, referring to the national council that installed Karzai as the head of government.

Rumsfeld took issue with a news report that blamed incorrect information given to Americans by Afghan sources for civilian deaths in some U.S. bombing raids. In 11 bombing raids where civilians were killed, faulty intelligence was used, according to the New York Times report, which said that in some cases Afghan warlords were trying to eliminate rivals by telling the Americans that their rivals were members of al-Qaida.

But Rumsfeld said, "I know of no instance where that's happened." The defense secretary said, "The only common thread, I would say, is that [in] every war in history, innocent people have been killed ... and it is a tragedy when that happens."

Earlier this month, U.S. planes attacked suspected al-Qaida sites in the southern province of Oruzgan, killing at least 54 civilians at a wedding party.

"We had people on the ground for a prolonged period that were there with eyes on targets and saw anti-aircraft and targeted those, and it was not some rival warlord turning U.S. forces against one of their rival warlord enemies," Rumsfeld said. "So if a mistake was made, a mistake was made, but it was made with our people on the ground with eyes on the target."

The attack is still under investigation by a team that includes U.S. military officers and representatives of the Afghan government.

Rumsfeld said the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan is now relying more on ground searches of caves and other possible hiding places for al-Qaida forces. But he said the bombing strikes against al-Qaida and Taliban forces were more precise and caused fewer civilian casualties than in past wars.

"I think there's probably no question but that the air campaign has had greater precision and less collateral damage probably than any air campaign in history," he said.

The attack on the wedding party deeply angered Afghan government officials and led them to renew calls for greater coordination with the Americans before any raids on suspected al-Qaida sites are initiated.

Afghan officials have complained for months that Americans have at times used faulty intelligence for both air and ground raids. But U.S. military officials have said they use multiple sources before mounting an attack and take great care not to kill civilians.

In January, American Special Forces troops attacked two compounds in Oruzgan province, killing 15 and arresting 27. Initially the Pentagon said they were al-Qaida sites, then Taliban.

But a spokesman for Gul Argha Shirzai, the governor of Kandahar province, told reporters from The Sun and other news organizations that the attacks resulted from "someone giving the wrong information to the Americans." The area is home to two rival anti-Taliban groups, "and each group is calling the other al-Qaida," he said.

Finally, two weeks later defense officials said those killed and captured were not enemies but local government forces. At the time, Rumsfeld also denied that the attacks were the result of faulty intelligence. He said U.S. forces went to the area to verify those reports, were fired upon and justifiably returned fire.

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