Deadly Incident in Afghanistan
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MARGARET WARNER: To help us unravel what went wrong yesterday, we turn to The Washington Post Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks; and from Kabul, Carlotta Gall, who has been covering Afghanistan for The New York Times.
Welcome to you both.
Tom Ricks, beginning with you, flesh out a little more for us what the various military sources you’re talking to think happened yesterday.
THOMAS RICKS, The Washington Post: They really don’t know. The basic facts are very few.
You had a B-52 in the area; you had an AC-130 special operations gun ship in the area. The B-52 was dropping bombs on caves. The AC-130 was there to provide air cover for a ground operation of U.S. and Afghan troops. The Pentagon said today about 300 to 400 troops were involved in that operation.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us about that second operation, this reconnaissance operation. What is it about this area of Afghanistan that they had two different operations going on at the same time?
THOMAS RICKS: This is really the Taliban heartland. It’s the mountains just north of Kandahar, about 70 to 100 miles north of Kandahar, in Oruzgan Province. It’s where Mullah Mohammed Omar, the deposed Taliban leader, comes from originally. The two villages that they were focusing on were one village that he had grown up in for a while, and another that he lived in later.
The oddity here is that, yesterday, the Pentagon was indicating it was probably a B-52 bomb — a 2,000-pound bomb — that missed.
Today, they’re indicating, no, it was more likely that it was somehow the AC-130 gunship. They’re saying that they observed — the troops on the ground observed the bomb hit and thought it hit in an uninhabited area. But they’re not really saying the AC-130 hit all the villagers, but they’re indicated that most likely.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, now, how would the AC-130 actually get engaged? There seemed to be a couple of different threads at today’s briefing, either that someone on the ground was directing it, or that… anyway, you explain it for us.
THOMAS RICKS: Yesterday we were being told that the AC-130 was orbiting overhead, as would be typical, to provide support if necessary.
The ground troops came under fire and, so, called on the AC-130 for support.
Today the Pentagon account was somewhat different. They were saying, no, what happened was that the ground troops were involved, the AC-130 thought it was coming under fire, they came under anti- aircraft fire, which implies heavy caliber weaponry, not just small arms like AK-47 machine guns, and that the AC-130 then fired back.
The Pentagon also said that the AC-130 fired over an area of several square miles, hitting four separate locations. One of those locations might have been where the wedding occurred. This is my supposition. The other ones may have been where actually fire was coming from. They might have hit all of them simultaneously.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, I was going to ask you that, do the military officials think the wedding firing scenario is plausible as the cause of fire that they considered hostile?
THOMAS RICKS: It’s certainly possible in the moment of confusion to have somebody saying, “we’re taking anti-aircraft fire from one or two locations. You know, hit those locations.” And for somebody to say, “oh, there’s a third one, let’s hit that one, too.” But the muzzle flashes from AK-47, light machine guns, would look very different even at night, I think, than antiaircraft fire from much heavier caliber weaponry.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Carlotta Gall, I wonder… I know you’re in Kabul. Have you been able to reach anybody by phone down near the area? What are they telling you?
CARLOTTA GALL, The New York Times: Yeah, we spoke this evening to a district chief from a neighboring… in the same province, Oruzgan Province.
He said that he’d actually been to the site today. And I spoke to him this evening about 6:00 local time. And he said he just, like an hour before… well, he had been there an hour before, and they were still pulling bodies from the rubble. He was saying it’s a very big deal; a lot of casualties. He puts the figure at 200 casualties.
Other people we’ve talked to, including the prime minister here in Kabul, said there were 140 – 40 dead and 100 wounded. So, it’s a sizable amount.
And the foreign minister also said that four villages were hit in what he called a “bombardment.” And the worst casualties were in one village where the wedding party was going on, and that’s where most of the people were killed, including, he said, a whole family, every single member of a 25-member family; every single member was killed.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us more about how the government is reacting to this. We did just run a quote from the Foreign Minister Abdullah being quite critical. How is the government handling this?
CARLOTTA GALL: This is very interesting because they came out today with a very strong statement.
They said that President Karzai had called the General McNeil, the commander of the coalition forces here in Afghanistan, to his office for an explanation. And he asked him to take much more care in ensuring that there were not so many civilian casualties and he advised them to check their intelligence more carefully. So it’s a very strong reaction from President Karzai and his government.
Up until now, they’ve always accepted the casualties as part of the war and as a necessity to continue attacking al-Qaida and Taliban remnants. So, this is the first time they’ve ever made a statement, and certainly the first time I’ve ever heard such strong statements coming out of the government.
MARGARET WARNER: And why do you think that is? Why do you think they’ve reacted that way this time?
CARLOTTA GALL: I think… I think that it’s a shocking occurrence. There are a lot of children wounded. We’re seeing pictures of them already in the hospital. We know that one man brought four children under five to U.S. forces, who then flew them to their own hospital in Kandahar. So, I think it’s a shocking moment.
And I know that it’s going to turn the population very angry.
We’ve already heard of an attack in Kandahar on a U.S. military convoy in the town in the south. I think he’s acting against what he thinks will be popular anger of this news.
MARGARET WARNER: The foreign minister also was quoted as saying that he thought an incident like this would be used to gin up opposition to their government. Is there a danger of that, or do they really feel their situation is that precarious?
CARLOTTA GALL: I think in the south, I’ve been down a lot in the south and there have been a lot of these raids and there’s been a fair amount of civilian casualties, and there’s definitely the enemies of the current government, and they still remain supporters of the Taliban, and fundamentalists. They, of course, use it. They say, “Look, Mr. Karzai brought in the American troops and now they’re killing us and they’re killing our people.”
So, of course, there are a lot of uneducated people in the villages who see this and will be turned by people against the government. So it’s not a real problem yet, but I think the potential is very much there.
MARGARET WARNER: Final quick question to you, Tom Ricks. Do you sense at the Pentagon today any thought that they may have to reexamine the, sort of, operating procedures in response to President Karzai?
THOMAS RICKS: I think publicly they won’t say anything about that, but I think privately yes, there will be a reexamination of not only the speed with which they reacted, but the intensity and the scope with which they reacted.
I think they will probably go back and look at it and say, “sure, you have a right to self- defense, but did you have to respond so overwhelmingly and perhaps even disproportionately?”
MARGARET WARNER: Tom Ricks, Carlotta Gall, thank you both.
THOMAS RICKS: Thank you.