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Civilian casualties

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When Bad Information Kills People

This is what bad intelligence produces: a girl's dress, its embroidery stained dark red with blood, lying amid the rubble of a bombed-out building. Men wandering through the debris, gesturing to show where people were dancing when the bombs began to fall. And a U.S. special-forces soldier, who is said to have surveyed the scene and asked, "Why did we do this?"

It was a wedding party on a late December night. But from the air, it looked to the pilots like what their intelligence source had claimed: a gathering of al-Qaeda terrorists. Dozens of cars had converged on Qila-Niazi, a hamlet of 12 mud-walled homes in the shadow of a snowy ridge 80 miles southeast of Kabul. The women were gossiping and painting their hands red with henna. The men were in another room playing cards and dancing. Music drowned out the sounds of the U.S. warplanes overhead.

At 10:30 p.m., the first bombs struck the party; the assault lasted six hours. The next day, a team of special forces arrived in Qila-Niazi to inspect what was thought to have been a triumphant blow against Osama bin Laden's network. Instead it found the remains of the party. Out of 112 people, two women had survived. "When the U.S. soldiers saw the destruction, they were very sad," says Assaullah Falah, a tribal elder, as he leads a reporter through the wreckage.

Why did we do this? The question has echoed over the past two months as TIME and other publications have reported grim stories from Afghanistan that are at odds with Pentagon accounts of victorious strikes against the enemy. On Dec. 20, U.S. planes rocketed a convoy of tribal elders going to Kabul for the swearing-in ceremony of Afghan leader Hamid Karza and then chased the fleeing tribesmen into a village, killing 60, say locals. On Feb. 4, a Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile at a man who U.S. Central Command thought might be bin Laden. Villagers say the dead man was a scrap collector; the Pentagon says he was al-Qaeda. And on Jan. 24, special forces raided a compound in Uruzgan province, killing 16. Locals say the victims were not Taliban or al-Qaeda but supporters of Karzai.

Pentagon officials have conceded error only in the Jan. 24 case, grumbling that after 18,000 bombs and missiles have been dropped on Afghanistan--with a declared success rate of about 85%--no one should be surprised when innocents are hurt or killed. Army general Tommy Franks, who is running the war in Afghanistan, told TIME that civilian casualties "are probably on the low end of any we have ever seen in combat. We obviously could just bomb the heck out of the thing. But that's not the American way."

Precision munitions are worse than worthless if their targets are selected by dishonest men. Western diplomats and Afghan intelligence sources in Kabul say that until recently the special forces in eastern and southern Afghanistan have relied on untrustworthy informants who tricked the U.S. into sending in lethal air strikes on their tribal enemies. Both the Kabul-bound convoy and the Qila-Niazi wedding party, for example, were targeted by Pacha Khan, a former provincial governor, derided by one official as a "Pentagon-created warlord," who was using American munitions to take care of his own business, according to Afghan government sources and tribal elders in Gardez. Says tribal chieftain Saifullah Khan: "Pacha Khan would phone up the Americans, point out a village and say they are all al-Qaeda." Pacha Khan denies the charges. After the attack on the wedding party, Saifullah visited the local base of the special forces. "We told the soldiers that these are good people--don't bomb them." As proof of loyalty, Saifullah pledged hundreds of his men to help the special forces hunt down al-Qaeda and Taliban bands spotted in a mountain region known as Armat Zadran, near the Pakistan border. The message got across: Gardez townsfolk rebelled against Pacha Khan last month, ousting him as governor. American warplanes circled but did not intervene.

As the rate of U.S. bombing has declined, errors have dropped. With the remnants of al-Qaeda and Taliban on the run in eastern Afghanistan, the special forces have had a crash course in the complexities of local tribal feuds. U.S. soldiers are far more circumspect about calling in air strikes. "When we get information about Taliban or al-Qaeda, we check it three, maybe four times before we act," says Gardez governor Taj Mohammed Wardak. Americans are also training local militias to hunt al-Qaeda. In Gardez alone, the special forces have recruited more than 200 men, giving them better guns, warm clothes, food and $200 a month. (In all, Western diplomats in Kabul tell TIME, the Americans have more than 15,000 Afghan fighters on the payroll, mainly in the Jalalabad and Kandahar regions.)

U.S. special forces in Afghanistan are frustrated by the perception that they are killing civilians heedlessly; they insist many strikes have been called off because of concern over such deaths. And they refuse to talk to the press. Last week a TIME reporter spotted two of them at the gates of a Gardez hospital; others were out back, tinkering with a rusty generator. But the two soldiers bolted. By the weekend, U.S. forces were fighting al-Qaeda suspects near Gardez in the fiercest battle in months. One American was reported dead. Civilian casualties were unknown.



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Cover Date: March 11, 2002

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