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Tuesday, 2 July, 2002, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
Pentagon's changing message inspires distrust
Victims at Kandahar hospital
The wounded were taken to Kandahar hospital

There is a long history to bombing blunders - and one lesson the military authorities around the world never seem to learn is the importance of avoiding dogmatic descriptions of what they think happened.

These often turn out to be untrue or just half the truth and the aims of the overall campaign are submerged in a welter of claim and counterclaim.

The public relations battle is an essential component of war.

The latest disputed bombing in Afghanistan already shows the classic signs.

'Errant' bomb

On the one hand, there are the local people, talking to the media or their own government officials.

In this case, the story is that there was a wedding at which there some celebratory firing and then an attack out of the night.

But take a look at what the Pentagon web site has been saying about it.

"An unknown number of Afghan civilians reportedly are casualties following a coalition air patrol's response to hostile ground fire, a Pentagon spokesman said."

It went on: "US Air Force B-52 and AC 130 aircraft struck several ground targets, including anti-aircraft sites that were engaging the aircraft, US Central Command officials said."

The Pentagon admitted that one bomb was an "errant."

But then said: "It's unclear whether those casualties were the result of our errant bomb or from falling anti-aircraft artillery."

Wrong claims

Note how certain the Pentagon is about the origin of this bombing - aircraft fired upon.

And yet there are plenty of examples from previous campaigns that such certainty often gives way to doubt and then yields place to new facts.

The initial account after all is usually based on what a pilot says and the assumptions a pilot make can be wrong.

This was a phenomenon in World War II when pilot claims of hits, honestly made, had to be revised later.

Even if the Pentagon account is substantiated by the inquiries which will take place, an acknowledgement of the possibility of there being a different explanation might be wise.

Indeed, in a later briefing at the Pentagon, the US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned reporters with the words: "These incidents, when they occur, take some time to sort out." He said that an investigating team was on the site.

Soldiers killed

The incident also makes it harder for the US and its Afghan allies to justify the operations still going on in Afghanistan.

These are designed to counter any attempt by the Taleban to reassert control in any area.

Such operations depend on local co-operation.

There was an incident in Afghanistan itself not long ago when four Canadian soldiers were killed from the air.

The first official story was also that a legitimate target had been attacked. Only later was an error admitted.

Kosovo convoy

During the Kosovo war, a convoy was bombed.

At first, it was stated firmly that it had been a military convoy.

However, reporters taken to the scene by the Serbs said that it had been a convoy of tractors carrying people going home.

It turned out that the pilots were flying too high to identify the vehicles which to them looked like trucks.

It took a long time for the truth to emerge. Even after a Pentagon official in Washington had accepted that a mistake had been made, Nato officials in Brussels were sticking by the old story for hours afterwards.

The mistake the military spokespeople often make is to believe that honesty is not the best policy.

It is often the other way round, especially in modern campaigns in which the effect of the conduct of the war on public opinion can be crucial in sustaining support for it - or ending it.

The BBC's Ian Pannell
"This isn't the first time civillians have been killed or injured by mistake"
The BBC's Nick Springate
"The US say they were just doing their job, they are very sorry for any fatalities"
Afghan government official Josef Noristani
"We hope this is not repeated in the future"

Key stories

European probe


See also:

20 Jun 02 | South Asia
12 Feb 02 | South Asia
06 Feb 02 | South Asia
23 Dec 01 | South Asia
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