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Military Campaign

Jim Lehrer talks with three military experts about the recent U.S. casualties from "friendly fire" and future plans to attack al-Qaida's underground network in the White Mountains near Tora Bora.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    On the military situation in Afghanistan now from Michael Vickers, former CIA and Special Forces office now Director of Strategic Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute; John Pike, founding director of globalsecurity.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization which analyses military and security issues; and Mark Thompson, Time magazine's National Security correspondent.

    Mark, first on this "friendly fire" accident, is there any late word on what might have happened, what went wrong?

  • MARK THOMPSON:

    I think, Jim, what's obvious is that this bomb was so big, and so close to the folks who died, that it wasn't merely the fact that it isn't a super precise munition.

    I mean with the satellite guidance system, it's a near precision munition, and pilots like to be two-thirds of a mile away from this thing when it goes off. And these poor soldiers were 100 yards, 100 meters away. So there plainly was a going mistake, either in plunging in the door nationals in the airplane, or the air controller calling them in, or perhaps the soldiers on the ground weren't where they thought they were.

    Those are the three options, and right now at this point in time, none seems to be any more true than the others.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    John Pike, is it unusual, I won't load the question, is it unusual to use a B-52 for this kind of close air support bombing?

  • JOHN PIKE:

    Well, it's certainly without historic, recent historic precedent. Normally when you think of close air support you think of an A-Fighter or an A-10 swooping in dropping bombs.

    Certainly one question I hope we would have answered over the next several days is exactly why they were using a B-52 rather than say having a gunship available, whether they had close air support that was already assigned for this particular unit or whether the B-52 was the only thing that was available.

    Having said that, the joint direct attack munition is a highly accurate munition, and in principal most of them ought to land on the targets that they're directed at. Of course the problem is that it's precise, not perfect. And certainly you can't exclude the possibility simply of random mechanical failure here.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sure. It's called a "smart" bomb for a good reason, right, Mike?

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    That's right, it will generally land, 99 percent of the time within one to two meters of where you want it to, taking fix degrees the satellites that are overhead, the global positioning satellites.

    Of course it may land precisely at a target where you didn't intent it because you transposed the coordinate or the target was something else like the Chinese embassy in the Kosovo war.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    That was a B-52 that dropped —

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    — same bomb.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But who made the decision to call this, to use this particular bomb from this particular plane, how does that happen?

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    Well, this is one of the great success stories of this war is really using the satellite-guided bombs in a front-line roll.

    It's carpet-bombing basically by precision, it's what broke the Taliban in the north using the string of these joint direct attack munitions on Taliban positions where every bomb really counts.

    As far as who called it, according to reports, the Special Forces forward air controllers on the ground that directed the strike.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mark, on the Tora Bora fighting, where they believe Osama bin Laden is in this cave network, what do they really believe about that at this point, about Osama bin Laden and his location, et cetera?

  • MARK THOMPSON:

    Well, as Rumsfeld always says, it's like going for a chicken, you don't know you've got it until it in your hands, and in this case we can't even see the chicken, so it's even more complicated than that.

    We've got some 1,500 Afghan forces at the lower levels of this mountain complex, moving up. They are beginning now to go into some of those lower caves. Reports from the scene indicate, though, that the al-Qaida who are there have basically abandoned the lower level caves and are moving up into higher areas.

    So, the Afghans who are chasing them will have to keep going up, and we may be in for a dramatic finish near the summit of this mountain.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What will it take, John Pike, to actually, let's assume that Osama bin Laden and the leadership of the al-Qaida are in these caves. What will it actually take to get them out of there, or to seal them in there, or to finish them off one way or another in these caves?

  • JOHN PIKE:

    There are two different issues there, one of them is finishing them off and the other one is knowing that you finished them off, and there's the dilemma.

    If you're talking about finishing them off, in principle you can simply locate the tunnel entrances, use a precision munition to collapse the tunnel entrance, and figure that they're going to be trapped in there for eternity.

    The problem of course is that you don't know who–if anyone–is inside these collapsed tunnels, versus in some other part of the country, versus in Pakistan or Somalia or pick your favorite part of the globe. So that's the challenge of figuring out who you've actually managed to get.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Why don't we know that?

  • JOHN PIKE:

    Well…

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Why don't we know who's —

  • JOHN PIKE:

    There's still a lot of uncertainty as to how many al-Qaida troops there were in Afghanistan to begin with. Apart from the top couple of dozen personalities, I think they still don't know the names of all these people.

    It's still unclear how many of these combatants are in the Jalalabad area versus down around Kandahar. There are thousands of these combatants in pockets all around the country.

    It's a large country, there are a lot of people who are trying to get out, they're widely went scattered. And really we only have troops on the ground in very mall areas right now.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, Mike Vickers, you're familiar with this cave network. What do you think it's going to take to get this thing wrapped up in terms of the caves? I will rephrase my question to find out whether they're there or not, and if they are, get them out — get it resolved one way or another.

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    A number of senior al-Qaida leaders have been struck by air power, the number 3 official, Mohammed Atef in Kabul confirmed dead and two other unconfirmed reports — the number 4 official of Kuwaiti — Abu Gayev –and, maybe the number 2 man injured Zawahiri. And then ten more subordinate officials as well.

    But as John said, we really don't know who some of them are. Some of these are unconfirmed reports. The Afghan opposition I think around Jalalabad will really be the ultimate means of getting these guys and they'll go into the caves.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Is that your understanding too, Mark, that it will be opposition forces, it will not be U.S. Marines or U.S. Special Forces who will actually go into these caves when it's all said and done?

  • MARK THOMPSON:

    If the Afghan gets him they get $25 million. If an American gets them he gets a pat on the back from his commander.

    So I think the incentive is on the Afghan side; they know the terrain, they know the caves, and you know, the Northern Alliance's senior commander was killed allegedly at the urging of Osama bin Laden, shortly before Sept. 11.

    Those people are very angry at Osama bin Laden, and they really want to go after him, so I think it will be them who will do the dirty deed.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Another subject, Mark, beginning with you is the question of civilian casualties.

    We just talked about the U.S. casualties, and there have been reports from time to time about Taliban casualties and about opposition forces casualties. But the Pentagon has thus far refused to discuss civilian casualties in Afghanistan. How do you read that?

  • MARK THOMPSON:

    I think it goes back to Vietnam where we were preoccupied with body count. You may remember in the Gulf War we still don't have a U.S. government estimate of how many Iraqis were killed, be they civilian or military. I think they are averse, almost allergic to discussing this topic.

    There were reports over the weekend that three villages south of, in the area of Tora Bora were bombed and lots of civilians were killed, and the Pentagon is saying, listen, our imagery shows that we weren't within 20 miles of any of these villages, yet reporters have gone to the villages and seeing them blown apart and they don't look like they were blown apart with mortars which is what the bad guys.

    So there's some explaining to be done. I think they're generally averse to Afghan casualties or as we saw today, or indeed as we saw today in the friendly fire case, reporting on the American casualties.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What's your reading of it, John?

  • JOHN PIKE:

    I think that all of that is true. But on top of that, Secretary Rumsfeld did address this question, and pointed out, for instance, the difficulty that we've had in understanding how many people were killed at the World Trade Center, the estimate today is about half what it was six weeks ago.

    Over the last half century everybody thought that there were 50,000 American who had been killed in the Vietnam War. Somebody did a little research, in the Korean War, turned out there were 30,000 killed, and there had just been an accounting error there.

    Figuring all how many people were killed in combat has always been difficult, even when it on our side.

    And in a situation where imagery isn't going to allow you to count bodies, when it's in an area that's not under your control, I think that the Pentagon is correct in saying that it would be very difficult for them to make estimates of it. But they are clearly averse to depicting this as being a war on the Afghan people.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What would you add or subtract from that Mike Vickers?

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    Well, I think there are two kinds of civilian casualties, one the errant bombs, like some villages around Jalalabad may have been struck accidentally. And then also –

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Just like our people were –

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    Precisely. We have more casualties through friendly fire right now than we do through combat, and then, second, where civilians are co-mingled with military targets, where al-Qaida or Taliban leaders, for example, bring their families in and then do military communications from there, and that adds to the civilian death toll as well.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Mark, finally, just on the military situation on the ground, the Marines are being reported, the 1,300 Marines are down on the ground near Kandahar, 40 miles from Kandahar, supposedly, are beginning to move out now. What are they doing?

  • MARK THOMPSON:

    They're surrounding Kandahar. They're not going to go into Kandahar. They're going to let the local militias come in from the North and the South and their job basically is to insure that the Taliban in Kandahar cannot be reinforced nor can they escape. So I mean they are now sort of the personification of a noose, they are encircling the city.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    How do you read the fact, Mark Vickers, that they're not meeting any thus far, nobody has taken a shot at anybody in that area yet, any Marines at least?

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    Well, they're in a pretty remote location. Now they are starting to do some patrolling, but the air base where they are is some distance from Kandahar, and of course we have air superiority over the area, so it would be quite difficult for someone to approach them.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sure, and we should not expect, John Pike, the Marines to be involved in any overt attack on Kandahar if it ever comes to that.

  • JOHN PIKE:

    That's certainly the conventional wisdom right now. At the same time you had these Special Operations units that were out with the local opposition groups, and I assume that the Marines are going to be operating in conjunction with Special Operations. So I think we'll have to stay-tuned for future developments.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Okay. Before we go, Mark, on a non-related matter, the American Airlines pilot who had been a Navy pilot, there was a front-page story in The Washington Post this morning saying he was not going to be allowed to be buried in Arlington Cemetery the way his family wanted. Now suddenly he will be. What happened?

  • MARK THOMPSON:

    Apparently there was a compromise the family struck before today and the Pentagon took pains to detail the fact that indeed he will be allowed to be buried alongside with his father, in Arlington Cemetery, just not in a plot of his own. That was the compromise that the family was happy with. So I mean real estate is at a premium in that cemetery, they've got very strict rules.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And end of story?

  • MARK THOMPSON:

    I think so. I think for now it is.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Okay. Thank you all three very much.

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