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The U.S. Bomb That Nearly Killed Karzai

Afghanistan: Target finder's error cost about 28 lives in 'friendly fire.'

March 27, 2002|JOHN HENDREN and MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SHOWALI KOWT, Afghanistan — The blast rocked the hilltop, scattering American and Afghan dead and wounded in a morning haze of blood and smoke. Some of the men thought the ground beneath them had been raked by Taliban mortar fire.

Yet only one thing in the Afghanistan war could convulse the earth with such force.

"As I was flying in the air, I knew," Green Beret Capt. Jason Amerine recalled. "We were hit by our own bomb."

One of the most celebrated bombs in the U.S. arsenal, a satellite-guided 2,000-pound explosive, had detonated on a huddle of Green Berets and allied Afghans. The "friendly fire" incident became one of the most publicized in the Afghan war and almost killed the man the Green Berets were assigned to protect: Hamid Karzai, who later that day was named the country's interim prime minister.

Defense Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that a U.S. target finder on the ground mistakenly gave his own coordinates to a B-52 bomber pilot overhead. The bomb plunged unerringly along its deadly trajectory.

The U.S. military is still studying the Dec. 5 event. But interviews with local Afghan officials and U.S. military sources strongly suggest that the number of casualties was far greater than the Pentagon disclosed at the time. The explosion killed three Green Berets and about 25 of their Afghan allies, four times as many Afghans as initially reported. Local fighters counted nearly 80 casualties. Even today, questions linger about the total number of dead and wounded. Afghan fighters insist that some Americans were unaccounted for the next day and that a CIA agent might have been killed. CIA officials deny the report.

Today, the bomb's crater remains in the dirt and rock, about 6 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep, on the crest of the hill where the Americans and Afghans had been meeting, as the battle waned, to plan their next mission.

"That's the blood of the Americans," Dr. Syed Mir Ahmad Shah, the manager of a nearby clinic, said recently as he climbed the barren hill where the massive bomb struck. He pointed out dark patches among the rocks.

"That's another one. That's another one."

Battle at Village Commenced Dec. 3

The battle of Showali Kowt began Dec. 3. The northern two-thirds of the country had already been wrested from Taliban control, and Amerine and the 11 other men in his team were escorting Karzai and his band of fighters southward.

Karzai was eager to take Showali Kowt, 10 miles from the Taliban's final stronghold of Kandahar.

After a series of firefights, the coalition forces seized the village, sending the Taliban fleeing south across a bridge over a small river.

The Taliban retook the village in a raid that night. But the Americans marked the enemy's location with infrared pointers, visible only to an AC-130 gunship pilot in night-vision goggles overhead. The aircraft's 105-millimeter cannons and artillery fire strafed the ground, driving the Taliban back across the bridge.

On Dec. 4, the coalition decided to take the bridge to isolate the enemy.

As Amerine moved toward it with about 60 men, a second contingent gave covering fire. A hundred yards short of a hilltop Taliban observation post, Amerine's men took machine gun fire from Taliban troops entrenched in orchards near the riverbank.

"We were pinned down pretty well," Amerine recalled last week in an interview at the 5th Special Forces Group headquarters in Ft. Campbell, Ky. "You poke your head up, get down and dirt would kick up around you."

When fire raked the trench line that protected them, one Green Beret stood and raised a finger in a universal rebuke, drawing laughs from his Afghan allies. Then he declared, "Let's go," and led a charge that captured the observation post.

Some of the Taliban began to retreat in four-wheel-drive trucks. The Americans called in airstrikes that destroyed about 25 vehicles. The coalition forces inflicted dozens of casualties, while taking almost none.

As the fighting waned that night, the atmosphere among the Americans in Showali Kowt grew festive. They had fought for 48 hours with little food and no sleep, but now a second 12-member team of Green Berets had arrived, and a supply drop had brought care packages.

The Americans had made the clinic their headquarters. "It really was kind of like Christmas," Amerine said. "So everybody was reading letters, sharing food with one another. Sharing it with the [Afghans]."

They congratulated Karzai on the advance word that he would be the nation's new interim leader, a decision that would be announced in Germany the next day. Taliban surrender overtures had begun in Kandahar. It meant that Karzai would be headed for Kabul, the Afghan capital, and with the Taliban's demise apparent, the Americans' mission was all but over. They got their first night's sleep in three days.

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