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U.S. commando raid botched, reports say

A former top U.S. commander bolsters news accounts that the Special Operations mission went awry.

By PAUL de la GARZA

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 8, 2001


WASHINGTON -- Last month, hours after U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan raided a compound belonging to the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Pentagon characterized the mission as nearly flawless.

Not only did commando teams manage to gather intelligence during the Oct. 20 operation, the Pentagon said, but by literally taking the fight to the Taliban's front door, they demonstrated America's ability to strike freely inside Afghanistan. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that U.S. forces had suffered only two minor injuries during the parachute drops.

Since then, however, the official Pentagon version of the raid has come under attack. For at least two weeks, rumors have swirled both here and abroad that the mission was rough going for the Americans. The word in London was that the United States got a "bloody nose."

In recent days, the New Yorker magazine and the Guardian newspaper in London, citing unnamed sources, have portrayed the mission as a botch, rather than a success. That bad publicity has touched off some debate in Washington about the Pentagon's handling of the ground war.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, denies that anything went seriously wrong.

On Wednesday, however, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the U.S. European Command commander who directed the war in Kosovo, helped bolster the news accounts of a mission gone awry. Clark said British military sources told him during a visit to London eight or nine days ago that the United States indeed sustained 12 injuries as reported in the New Yorker.

The New Yorker said three people had suffered serious injuries; Clark said he heard two people had suffered serious injuries. The injuries were not life-threatening, he said.

U.S. forces, Clark said he was told, encountered "significant contact" with the Taliban.

Clark insisted that he believed Myers when he said that everything had gone according to plan.

Asked what his gut told him about the operation, Clark said, "Have you seen another one?"

"If it was such a success, we haven't done another one. That's how successful it was."

U.S. officials have stressed that the war against terrorism often will be fought in the shadows with no Pentagon acknowledgement.

The Pentagon has acknowledged that Special Operations forces are on the ground with the Northern Alliance, the main opposition group in Afghanistan.

In Tampa, the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, which is running the war in Afghanistan, referred a reporter with questions about the operation to an interview Gen. Tommy R. Franks gave ABC's This Week on Sunday.

Franks, the commander of the Central Command, specifically was asked about the accuracy of the article in the New Yorker, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh.

"I don't think it's right for me to talk about accuracy or not. I will say this, that I think . . . we are best-served when informed sources really are, really are informed," Franks said. "I will not characterize the Hersh report as either accurate or inaccurate."

Were 12 people wounded?

"It depends on how one defines wounds," Franks said. "We had young people, and I think we had some pretty good video of them who jumped in, who jumped in on one of these objectives with parachutes.

"We had a bunch of these . . . young people who, you know, had scratches and bumps and knots from rocks and all this sort of stuff. And so, it's probably accurate to say that maybe, maybe five or maybe 25 people were quote, "wounded.' We had no one wounded by enemy fire, and I think that probably is worthwhile noting."

If, indeed, something went wrong, the Pentagon may be holding back because of a feeling, even inside the Bush White House, that the war is not going well. Clark, for one, said he believed the Taliban was winning the propaganda war. That is why, he said, President Bush began a media offensive this week, addressing a counterterrorist conference in Poland by satellite, for example.

Today, for the first time since the air campaign got under way, Franks is scheduled to conduct the Pentagon news briefing.

While the Pentagon denies it, there have been rumblings that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is not entirely happy with the way Franks is prosecuting the war.

While Rumsfeld is pushing for creative thinking, Franks is seen as a traditional warrior. Rumsfeld reportedly is a big advocate of Special Operations.

In addition to Rumsfeld, Clark said Franks also has been getting direction from Vice President Dick Cheney on how to run the war.

"When you're a commander, you take a lot of s---," Clark said. "A lot of people on the sidelines think they can do better."

Speaking of Franks, Clark said, "I imagine he feels tremendous pressure."

The New Yorker quoted members of the super-secret Delta Force as saying that during the raid on Mullah Omar's compound, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

Instead of going in quietly, the attack "was initiated by sixteen AC-130 gunships, which poured thousands of rounds into the surrounding area but deliberatedly left the Mullah's house unscathed," Hersh wrote.

After coming out of the house, Hersh said, the Special Operations forces were ambushed.

"The Taliban were firing light arms and either R.P.G.'s -- rocket-propelled grenades -- or mortars. The chaos was terrifying."

Delta Force, Hersh wrote, found itself in a "tactical firefight and the Taliban had the advantage."

"The team immediately started taking casualties and evacuated."

Quoting a senior military official, Hersh said the ferocity of the Taliban response "scared the c--- out of everyone."

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