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Ground Assault in Afghanistan

March 6, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Today’s Pentagon reports of American progress in the tough campaign in eastern Afghanistan followed a day of heavy bombardment from the air, and assault from the ground. American and allied troops cleared out one evacuated building at a time, reportedly moving within 50 feet of al-Qaida fighters in some instances. One allied soldier predicted victory in “a couple of days.” Another said this is now the “final push.” At the same time, commanders on the scene said the opposition has added several hundred reinforcements, and is offering stiffer-than-expected resistance.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials faced continued questions about conflicting reports over an American battlefield casualty over the weekend. On Sunday night U.S. Time, Petty Officer Neil Roberts, a Navy Seal, was on board a transport helicopter like this when it took on heavy fire. After it landed and then abruptly took off, Roberts was missing. Hours later, a second group of Special Forces landed and retrieved his body, but six more Americans died in the ensuing firefight. The Roberts incident was captured on video by an unmanned U.S. surveillance plane, and watched in real time on the ground. One officer who saw the tape said Roberts was dragged away by al-Qaida fighters.

MAJ. GEN. FRANK HAGENBECK, Commander, Operation Anaconda: I will assure you that there is no question that he had been captured by the al-Qaida. We knew precisely where he was. At the conclusion, when we extracted all our forces, we bought home the body of that young sailor. And I will tell you that from all indications, the al-Qaida executed him.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the Pentagon, General Tommy Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it is not clear yet exactly clear how Roberts died.

REPORTER: You did not see the tape of the incident where the… where petty officer Roberts fell out of the helicopter, right?


REPORTER: A couple of days ago, you said that he fell out, but you didn’t mention that he was dragged away by enemy forces and executed.


REPORTER: Did you not know that at the time?

GENERAL TOMMY FRANKS: To be very honest with you, I know of… I have been told of the report. No, I did not know that at that time. And to be very honest with you, I don’t… I don’t know that for myself yet. I have spoken with people who in fact were on that mission, as I said on Monday, and the view that I got was… I think there are a variety of possibilities of the way this occurred. On Monday, what I knew, and what I still know, is that the petty officer in fact fell out of the aircraft. Whether he had been wounded before he fell out of the aircraft, whether he was wounded when he was on the ground, or whether the case, as has been pointed out, I’m told, in the media took place, I’m not sure yet.

DONALD RUMSFELD: We’re getting reports back from people. And as the general says, they’re first reports or second reports. And we know that history is replete with instances where the first or second reports are wrong. It was announced that there were nine dead Americans. It turns out there were eight. And it seems to me that people have to develop the ability to absorb these kinds of reports in the press, reports from the podium, with an understanding that they’re going to be calibrated, they’re inevitably going to be calibrated as a day or two or 48 hours goes by and additional perspectives come in.

SPENCER MICHELS: Franks said that watching the video from the scene is not as clear as, in his words, “reviewing Monday night football videotape.”

GENERAL TOMMY FRANKS: There will be a lot of views on this particular incident, and that is not speculation. I will tell you that I have talked to three, maybe four people who were either present or have reviewed the result of this, and it would probably not surprise you that each of the three or four has a different view of what happened.

DONALD RUMSFELD: What’s important about this is that the United States of America did not decide to withdraw and leave the field. It decided… those forces decided to go in, bring a helicopter in, get the body, get the wounded and get them to safety.

SPENCER MICHELS: Reporters asked if there were similarities to the military debacle in Somalia in 1993.

REPORTER: I wonder if there was any concern about mentioning the video of the sailor falling and being dragged away by al-Qaida because of concerns that the American people might start being more aghast at the deaths of Americans.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Other than very brave people being involved, this has nothing to do with Mogadishu. And the individual who was killed, his body has been retrieved, and so too have the wounded. And I don’t see any comparison.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rumsfeld and General Franks said the 300 new reinforcements to the American- led coalition are part of the original plan, not a response to surprises on the battlefield.