Published on Wednesday, February 20, 2002 in the Boston Globe
Human Error Bred Horror in Afghan Villages
Misguided Bombs Killed Innocents
by John Donnelly
SHAHWALI KOT, Afghanistan - On a barren hilltop where a US special forces unit had unfurled an American flag and the future leader of Afghanistan was directing his troops, an American soldier called for a B-52 strike on a Taliban target. He gave the exact coordinates of his position and the position of the target.
Somehow, those coordinates were reversed by the pilot or the ground spotter, according to a US fighter pilot familiar with the episode, and the B-52 dropped a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb on the US and Afghan soldiers.
The friendly-fire accident on Dec. 5 - never previously reported in detail - killed three US special forces, including a Green Beret from Cheshire, Mass., and five anti-Taliban Afghan fighters. It also dealt the Pentagon a deadly lesson still reverberating today.
Immediately after that accident, US Central Command in Tampa forbade American special forces from revealing their exact position to US warplanes when calling in airstrikes, said the fighter pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Those coordinates had previously been given to pilots when it was not possible to spot the special forces units from the air, such as when clouds obscured the view.
But the pitched battle in and around Shahwali Kot, about 18 miles north of Kandahar, posed other difficult lessons for the US military as well, and will be studied by the Pentagon as it relates to the use of air power in close combat situations, according to two US defense officials, who asked not to be identified.
The study is necessary, the officials said, because nearly anything that could go wrong that night did.
During the 18- to 20-hour battle in the middle of the cluster of villages of Shahwali Kot, Argan Dab, and Sirband, US bombs also killed 35 civilians, also not previously disclosed, according to local Afghan commanders. Throughout Afghanistan, a Globe review has found that US bombardment almost certainly killed more than 1,000 innocents, although the deaths in these villages are unusual because of the apparent decision by US troops to bomb known civilian areas that were caught in the crossfire of battle.
Here, the number of civilian deaths was far greater than the killing of Taliban troops, the Afghan commanders said. They said the fighting killed only a handful of Taliban fighters, while an estimated 2,000 Taliban escaped toward Kandahar.
The fighting would last only two more days as US airstrikes and Afghan troops directed by three commanders - one was Hamid Karzai, now the country's interim leader, coming from Shahwali Kot - led to the rout of the Taliban in Kandahar on Dec. 7. But the commanders acknowledge that the fight here was a disaster.
''This was a fight between the Taliban and us, and we were mixed together,'' said Sadder Mohammed, a Karzai commander and now head of the district office in Shahwali Kot. ''The Americans couldn't differentiate between us or the civilians. ... It was a bad situation.''
One of the biggest problems was the lack of communication, Mohammed said. While US forces stayed next to Karzai, who was slightly cut on his face by shrapnel from the bomb that killed the Americans, they couldn't stay in touch with many of the Afghan commanders, he said. The commanders needed satellite phones to keep in touch with Karzai, he said.
For six weeks, the 5th US Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., had joined with Karzai and his troops. They were in the heart of the remote Uruzgan Province and planned for three weeks to take the capital of Tarin Kot, 70 miles north of Kandahar. Using a satellite phone, Karzai negotiated a surrender with local leaders and took over the city.
But soon after, the Taliban mounted a challenge to the city. The US special forces set up an observation spot outside the town.
Sergeant 1st Class Daniel Petithory, 32, the Cheshire resident, directed the air attack from the ground, according to US Captain Jason Amerine, the unit's commander.
''It's an art. And the guy I had at it was the best I had ever seen,'' Amerine told the Washington Post. ''They completely mauled that convoy.'' The airstrikes were later credited with possibly saving Karzai's life.
On Nov. 30, the Americans and anti-Taliban troops arrived in Shahwali Kot. The US troops, numbering between 35 and 40, set up in the tiny Basick Health Center, most of them sleeping on the floor of the vaccination room. Using telephone connections from a satellite dish positioned on the hill, the US troops hooked up their computers to the Internet, said Omar Shah, a local resident who helped the Americans.
In the hallway, one US special forces member put a bumper sticker on the wall, a reminder of why they had come: I [heart shape] NY.
Next door in a school, Karzai and a few American troops set up operations. An aide to Karzai acted as the translator for the Americans, who also spent many hours on the hill outside.
From the high point came the fateful call for an airstrike. One bomb hit the apex of the hill, leaving a crater only 30 yards from the health center; the Pentagon originally said it was 100 yards away. Another bomb hit the slope of the hill, 15 yards away, destroying four vehicles.
The carnage was grotesque, say witnesses. One body had severed legs. Other body parts were scattered. The other two American dead were Staff Sergeant Brian Cody Prosser, 28, of Frazier Park, Calif., and Master Sergeant Jefferson Donald Davis, 39, of Watauga, Tenn.
Seventeen US troops and more than 20 Afghan soldiers suffered wounds. Karzai, who had stepped outside just as the bombs hit, was cut on his ear and cheek from flying shrapnel, and then pushed inside.
''A helicopter landed and took all the Americans,'' said Habibullah, an Afghan soldier who uses one name. ''There was a lot of noise, a lot of crying and weeping.''
Hours later at the Pentagon, Rear Admiral John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the difficulties of the battle.
''Calling in airstrikes nearly simultaneously on your own position, on enemy forces that you're engaged in close proximity to, is a hazardous business and takes very fine control and cooordination and precision,'' he said.
He said nothing about wrong coordinates. Following the ban on giving those coordinates, US fighter pilots in the war theater were briefed on the accident.
''One of the lessons we took away from that incident is never, never give out the coordinates of your position,'' said the fighter pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ''It's OK to give your position as a cardinal direction and distance from a target, but not your actual position coordinates.''
A Central Command spokesman, Sergeant Major Richard Czizik, declined to comment on the issue. ''That deals with tactics, technical procedures, and operational matters. It's not something we would discuss,'' he said.
Omar Shah, the local resident who helped the Americans, said the Americans told him that four US troops died in the bombing. Czizik said three Defense Department soldiers were killed. Bill Harlow, spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency, said no CIA officer was killed in the Dec. 5 accident.
Elsewhere that night and the following day, other scenes of horror unfolded. In a camp of cuchis, or Afghan nomads, about a mile north of the Americans, 12 people from two families were killed by US bombs, said Mohammed, the Afghan commander.
Only one person survived that blast. The ground is still blackened from the attack, and shreds of their colorful clothing are spread over a 50-yard radius. Across the street, a mound contains body parts of the 12 dead.
In Shahwali, Mohammed said, the dead included three visitors from Tarin Kot and four residents. In neighboring Sirband, where shops along the main road were destroyed, three died. And in Argan Dab, another 13 were killed.
Malika, who uses one name, said a US missile hit her house in Argan Dab and killed five relatives and wounded six others. At Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, she was helping take care of her daughter, Maimona, 17, who had severe fractures in both legs; and her son, Roholha, 6, whose genitals were severed by shrapnel.
After the missile hit her house, she couldn't persuade a driver to take them to the hospital.
''He said, `I will not go because of the planes in the sky. We will be blown away by a blast.' The children were bleeding all night. I talked to God that night, and I said, `Kill me, not my son.'''
She continued, ''We were not Taliban. We don't know the Taliban. We were just sitting in our house, listening to the BBC Pashto service at 8:30 p.m. I just want to know if you can help my son. He's without a penis. My husband has two wives, but this is his only son.''
Malika's anguish from Dec. 5 is shared halfway around the world by another mother.
In Cheshire, Petithory's mother, Barbara, said in a telephone interview yesterday that unit commander Amerine wrote a letter to her and her husband, Louis, stating that their son did not call in the airstrikes that day.
''My husband carries that letter with him all the day,'' she said. ''Knowing he wasn't responsible for the airstrikes has put my mind at ease. But I'm not doing too well. I have moments of anxiety attacks, just knowing I will never see him again. It's a nightmare, it really is.''
And at the bomb site, where a black flag flies atop a tall pole, there is remembrance.
On Christmas Day, three US vehicles carrying American troops revisited the place of death. Omar Shah said he watched them trudge up the hill. There, he said, the US soldiers held a short ceremony.
They saluted the dead. Then they sang Christmas carols.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company