Military imprecision

One year on, Brendan O'Neill counts down the Top 10 errors of the war on terror.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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It is exactly one year since US forces launched the Afghan war. Brendan O’Neill counts down the Top 10 errors of the war on terror.

10) Losing bin Laden

‘We’ve got bin Laden surrounded’ said a US military official in November 2001, as American bombers closed in on Tora Bora in south-eastern Afghanistan. But somehow bin Laden and other ‘high-ranking al-Qaeda officials’ managed to escape – ‘in broad daylight and in full view of US forces’, according to one report.

In January 2002, New Yorker magazine reported that ‘a US-approved evacuation of Pakistani military officers and intelligence advisers last November “slipped out of control” and a number of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters joined the exodus’ – or, as one US official put it, ‘Dirt got through the screen’. Is that how bin Laden got out – under the noses of US forces that couldn’t tell one ‘towel-head’ from another?

9) Killing bin Laden (not)

Following January’s embarrassing revelations about Tora Bora, US officials had some good news in early February 2002. They claimed that US forces had killed a ‘prominent al-Qaeda leader’, who was ‘tall, with a beard’ and was ‘being treated with deference by those around him’. ‘It would be nice if [it] was Osama bin Laden’, said one US official. ‘But we don’t know at this stage.’

In fact it was Daraz Khan, a tall Afghan peasant with a beard. Khan and two friends were killed by American bombs as they gathered scrap metal near the south-eastern city of Khost. Some now speculate whether the ‘deference’ that US officials claimed was being dished out to the ‘tall man with a beard’ was in fact simply his peasant friends ‘bending down to pick up pieces of metal’….

8) Doing Afghans’ dirty work

Usually it is big Western armies like the American, British and French that get proxy armies to do their dirty work for them. This time, Afghan warlords exploited the US military’s lack of intelligence to settle old scores and get rid of long-standing enemies.

In December 2001, Afghan warlord and governor of the Paktia province Bacha Khan allegedly ‘tricked US commanders into bombing a convoy of tribal leaders travelling to his inauguration by telling the Americans that the vehicles carried Taliban leaders’. In February 2002, US forces and their Afghan allies killed 16 alleged al-Qaeda members in a house in southern Afghanistan – though Afghan officials later claimed that ‘the Americans were fed false information from a local warlord hoping to help his side in a power struggle’. ‘The Americans should look before they leap’, advised one Afghan commander.

7) Blowing up friendly weapons

After two months of ‘hanging around and getting bored’, Britain’s Royal Marines celebrated their first big success in Afghanistan in mid-May 2002: they found and destroyed a ‘massive al-Qaeda arms dump’, boasting of how they had created the ‘biggest controlled explosion since World War II’ by blowing up ‘four caves full of enemy ammunition’.

Three days later, it was revealed that the arms didn’t belong to al-Qaeda at all, but to a ‘friendly Afghan warlord’. ‘Arms blown up by marines were mine’, said a headline in the Daily Telegraph, reporting that ‘thirty lorry loads of supposed terrorist arms destroyed by the Royal Marines in Afghanistan probably belonged to a coalition ally’. ‘Effectively’, said one report, ‘the Royal Marines are blowing up their own guns’.

6) Seen through at Camp X-Ray

Despite the initial difficulty in determining the status of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba (were they ‘ordinary prisoners’, ‘prisoners of war’, ‘detainees’, ‘internees’ or ‘unlawful combatants’?), everyone agreed that Camp X-Ray would squeeze important intelligence out of al-Qaeda and Taliban members.

But in April 2002, reports claimed that ‘the questioning of al-Qaeda prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay has descended into farce’, with ‘inexperienced interrogators routinely outwitted by detainees’. With most army interrogators and Middle Eastern linguists in Afghanistan, Camp X-Ray has relied on young, underqualified and inexperienced interrogators, who the prisoners ‘actually laugh at’, according to one report. ‘The detainee is in full control’, said one linguist. ‘He’s chained up, but he’s having fun.’

And according to recent reports, there are ‘no high-ranking al-Qaeda members’ at Camp X-Ray, just bin Laden’s and Muhammad Omar’s foot soldiers. ‘It is very limited what these people can tell us’, admitted one US official.

5) Don’t mention Shah-i-Kot

As Operation Anaconda in the Shah-i-Kot region in east Afghanistan came to an end in mid-March 2002, US General Tommy Franks said it had been ‘an unqualified and absolute success’.

Except for the lack of dead al-Qaeda fighters: US officials claimed that 800 had been killed, but only about 20 bodies were found. Then there were Afghan allies’ claims that Anaconda had been ‘terribly organised’, and that US forces ‘went ahead without making trenches, without reinforcing their positions; and then they were cut off and they retreated really’. There were also the locals’ claims that most al-Qaeda and Taliban members had left the region before the bombing started, raising the possibility that Anaconda’s 3250 bombs had been dropped on largely vacated territory, allowing the enemy to ‘escape further, while the US military focused on a red herring zone’.

4) Three weddings, many funerals

On 1 July 2002, an American bomb ‘went astray’ in southern Afghanistan killing about 30 civilians at a wedding party. In early May 2002, Australian troops allegedly came under fire from al-Qaeda forces, and called in American bombers to launch an attack – but according to an Afghan press agency, the men ‘engaged’ by the Australian troops and later bombed by US forces in fact ‘belonged to a wedding party, whose traditional AK-47 firing celebrations had been mistaken for offensive fire’. On 29 December 2001, a wedding in eastern Afghanistan was bombed and 62 civilians killed, many of whom were ‘vapourised’, according to the UK Guardian. The lesson? While the war drags on, don’t get hitched in Afghanistan.

3) Dogs of war

In early 2002, a US marine sentry feared that his camp in southern Afghanistan was coming under attack from al-Qaeda fighters after he heard suspicious noises, so he opened fire. Neighbouring American bunkers were startled by the gunfire and they too started shooting. As the marines moved to their forward positions, one was hit by a bullet in the leg and was later awarded a Purple Heart for bravery. What had started this little clash?

‘The next day patrols went to check the perimeter for al-Qaeda casualties. Instead they found a dead dog. Later it appeared that the single American casualty had been hit by a ricochet fired by his own side. There never had been an al-Qaeda raid. The gun battle was started by an Afghan mongrel….’

2) Almost killing Karzai

In early December 2001, US officials announced that a B-52 bomber had accidentally dropped a bomb on US soldiers, killing three American special forces and five Afghan allies. ‘I, along with the rest of America, grieve for the loss of life in Afghanistan’, said President Bush in a special statement in the Oval Office.

Four months later, in March 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported the ‘untold story’ of the ‘B-52 incident’. The paper revealed that in fact 25 Afghan allies, not five, had been killed by the stray bomb and that many Afghans had been injured – including one Hamid Karzai, who was ‘bloodied by flying glass that penetrated his face and head’. Where were the US special forces, the Afghan allies and Hamid Karzai going when the B-52 accidentally bombed them? To the ceremony that would install Karzai as Afghanistan’s interim prime minister.

1) Chasing shadows

‘We will stop chasing shadows’, said a US military spokesman in January 2002, claiming that America would put a ‘clear focus on capturing bin Laden’. ‘I truly am not that concerned about [bin Laden], I know he is on the run’, said President Bush in March 2002. ‘The goal has never been to get bin Laden’, said General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in April 2002. ‘I don’t have a particular name affixed to what I’m going up against’, said US lieutenant-general Dan McNeill in June 2002. ‘We are fighting a shadowy enemy dwelling in dark corners of the Earth’, said President Bush in July 2002. Does that mean the US will be chasing shadows…?

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

War against what?

The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot

When nation-building destroys

In pursuit of the unknowable

Why the marines messed up

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