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Military Mistakes in Afghanistan?

February 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The Pentagon’s search- and-destroy hunt for what remains of Afghanistan’s al-Qaida network, has focused repeatedly on the eastern mountain region of Zawar Kili.

Located just inside the Pakistani border, Zawar is among the suspected hideouts for Osama bin Laden’s remaining loyalists.

A week ago, an unmanned CIA surveillance plane fired a missile that killed several men in the region. But today’s Washington Post said the plane hit the wrong people and quoted local residents’ insisting that the attack killed “peasants gathering scrap metal,” not bin laden or his lieutenants.

U.S. Military officials in Afghanistan will not confirm the reports.

U.S. MILITARY SPOKESMAN: I can say that the forces have found significant evidence that will be turned in for analysis. I can also say that the mission has gone extremely well. It was conducted in harsh terrain, under difficult weather conditions and is proceeding on schedule.

GWEN IFILL: Later today at the Pentagon, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said the investigation into the attack is continuing.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: The anecdotal reports of what I hear of what has been recovered from that site to date include things like weapons and ammunition, include things like communications systems, or at least things that would give you the impression that there may have been communication devices, documents in English having to do, like, with applications for credit cards, possibly, or maybe for airline schedules.

So, the intelligence that was garnered to be able to facilitate the strike, the initial indications afterwards would seem to say that these are not peasant people up there farming.

GWEN IFILL: The Post article also says that a Post reporter on the scene was stopped and held at gunpoint by a U.S. Military commander.

“This is an ongoing military operation,” the officer is reported as saying. “If you go further, you will be shot.” Stufflebeem also would not confirm or deny the substance of that report.

REPORTER: Are officers actually authorized to threaten the use of deadly force against reporters under that circumstance?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: To believe that a U.S. American serviceman would knowingly threaten– especially with deadly force– another American is hard for me to accept.

I also have to put myself on the ground of that military commander of that particular exploitation, and if someone presents himself and… There’s no way for us to know, but he may not know that that was a “Washington Post” reporter. He just may know that somebody wants access into the site and he’s denying it.

GWEN IFILL: U.S. forces have been linked to, or accused of, several battlefield mistakes in recent weeks. Late last month in the village of Uruzgan north of Kandahar, a U.S. raid killed 21 Afghan soldiers.

But local officials said the soldiers were allies working with the United States, not enemies. The CIA is reportedly paying reparations to their families. After that raid, the Americans took 27 prisoners. Four of those men, released them last week, now say they were beaten by the Americans soldiers. Again, Pentagon officials won’t comment until a formal investigation is completed.

Also in question: A U.S. attack near Gardez, killing what local witnesses say were people attending a wedding celebration, and a deadly missile attack on a convoy near Khost. The interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai says the victims were on their way to his inauguration. Pentagon officials say the targets were legitimate, the attacks successful.

But Rear Admiral Stufflebeem said the Afghan war has entered a more difficult phase.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: It is more difficult to develop targets now than it was, certainly, in the beginning where the targets were just so openly visible. The Taliban has vanished. Al-Qaida have vanished.

We are constantly– and I do mean constantly– chasing reports from all over the country as to a pocket of al-Qaida here, a sighting of Taliban there. And we are working exceptionally hard– I think it’s fair to use the big “e” word in that case. It’s a shadow war. These are shadowy people who don’t want to be found.

REPORTER: How do you sort that out? How do you sort it out? How do you know you’re not being played off of one warlord?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: Because you don’t ever rely on that one piece of information anymore. If that one guy is going to tell you one thing, “thank you very much. I appreciate having that information.” I’m going to go to others. I’m going to try to keep building this thing until I get a mosaic, if I can put it together, and look for other indicators.

GWEN IFILL: And, Stufflebeem said, there is still no sign of bin laden, dead or alive.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: It’s impossible to answer the question. I understand the desire to want to know what we know about Osama bin Laden, but we don’t know.

The best thing to say about Osama bin Laden is that there is not yet enough indicators that tell us that he has died to believe that he is dead and, therefore, we make an assumption that he is alive and we don’t know where he is. But we are looking for him and would intend to find him.

GWEN IFILL: Investigations, he said again, continue.