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Friendly fire kills 3 GIs

5 Afghans also die; bomb falls just 100 yards from troops

Thursday, December 06, 2001

By Carol Morello and Vernon Loeb, The Washington Post

FORWARD MARINE BASE, Afghanistan -- Three U.S. Special Forces troops were killed and 20 injured in Afghanistan yesterday when a 2,000-pound "smart bomb" missed its Taliban target north of Kandahar and exploded within 100 yards of the American forces and a group of opposition fighters.

The Pentagon offered no immediate explanation for what caused the deadliest "friendly fire" incident of the war. It occurred at 10 a.m. in Afghanistan, or 12:30 a.m. EST, after a U.S. air controller on the ground called for an airstrike on Taliban troops to support an attack by Hamid Karzai's opposition forces, who were advancing on Kandahar from the north.

Karzai, a Pashtun opposition leader newly designated as head of the provisional government of Afghanistan, was slightly injured by the errant bomb, which also killed five Afghan opposition soldiers and injured 18 others.

Karzai's forces are one of two opposition groups attacking the last remaining concentration of Taliban forces in Kandahar, the militia's spiritual home in southern Afghanistan. "We're seeing reports of Taliban digging in, building or erecting defensive positions," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told reporters at the Pentagon.

At the same time, U.S. Marines, operating from this base within striking distance of Kandahar, positioned themselves to cut off roads and other likely paths for vehicles that Taliban and al-Qaida fighters might use in fleeing Kandahar, said Maj. James Parrington, a senior commanding officer here.

Parrington's statement was the clearest indication yet that U.S. ground troops might be about to engage in combat. Since the Marines landed at this desert airstrip on Nov. 25, they have conducted motorized and airborne reconnaissance patrols in an ever-expanding radius.

The Pentagon last night identified the three American soldiers killed in the friendly fire incident as Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis, 39, of Tennessee; Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Henry Petithory, 32, of Massachusetts; and Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser, 28, of California. All were from the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.

The dead and wounded from the errant bombing were evacuated yesterday and transported to the Marine base here. Seventeen of the 20 wounded U.S. soldiers were then flown to medical facilities outside of Afghanistan. Three others, who sustained minor injuries, remained at the base and were expected to return to duty soon.

Sixteen of the wounded Americans were Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces, and the remaining four were Air Force special operations controllers from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, based at Hurlburt Field, Fla., a senior military officer said.

Eight wounded Afghan fighters were airlifted to the USS Peleliu, and 10 others were airlifted to the USS Bataan, the Pentagon said last night. Both are amphibious assault ships in the Arabian Sea.

The deaths bring to four the number of Americans killed in action in Afghanistan. CIA paramilitary officer Johnny Micheal Spann died Nov. 25 during an uprising by Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan.

While the U.S. Central Command in Tampa is investigating what caused yesterday's friendly fire incident, a senior defense official at the Pentagon said that one theory gaining attention is that the coordinates of the Special Forces troops who called in the airstrike were mistakenly loaded into the satellite-guided bomb, instead of the coordinates for the Taliban forces they were attacking.

Another senior defense official noted that the Central Command has concluded preliminarily that just such an error led to the war's first "friendly fire" accident, on Nov. 26. That incident seriously wounded five U.S. servicemen when a bomb landed near a fort outside the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif during the prison uprising.

The satellite-guided bombs, called Joint Direct Attack Munitions, are directed at targets using signals from Global Positioning System satellites.

Unlike laser-guided bombs, satellite-guided munitions work in all weather conditions and can correct course for high winds in flight. But heavy winds close to the ground can carry them off target, as can defects in the bombs' tail fins.

The satellite-driven guidance systems can also be jammed by a sophisticated enemy, or inadvertently interrupted by other U.S. signals. The Taliban is not known to have jamming capability.

Absent such problems, the bombs are highly accurate, usually striking within about 40 feet of the coordinates they have been given. The U.S. military dropped 651 JDAMs during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo and Yugoslavia -- the first air campaign in which they were used -- and achieved a 96 percent accuracy rate.

But mistakes occur when the munitions are programmed with the wrong coordinates, as happened when JDAMs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war. According to U.S. officials, the CIA had provided the embassy's coordinates to a B-2 bomber, mistakenly believing the building housed a Serb military agency.

One special operations officer, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that "there were probably several factors" involved in yesterday's friendly fire incident, including "the fog of war in a knuckle-dragging gun fight."

"This was an in-close fight with the Taliban," the officer said, noting that one Special Forces soldier who was hit yesterday by bomb fragments had been shot through the shoulder on Tuesday during a battle with the Taliban.

A former Army special forces officer, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that combat forces often try to be as close as possible to air strikes called in on enemy positions "to capitalize on the shock factor of the bomb, if they're planning on assaulting the impact point. We don't know what the mission of that unit was. But if they were to follow up that air strike with an atack, they were doing their duty by being as close as possible."

At this Marine base, reporters and photographers were denied permission to watch or photograph the injured being transferred from helicopters to the base hospital or to C-130 airplanes.

Under military ground rules, reporters are not allowed to file stories that interfere with ongoing operations, but no ground rule prohibits reporting on casualties so long as it does not interfere with rescue efforts.

Marine spokesman Stewart Upton said the decision to prevent reporters from observing the casualties was made by Marine commanders at the air base here.

Upton later said that in the future, reporters will be allowed to observe the injured and wounded under certain guidelines, such as a prohibition on showing their faces.

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