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Tuesday, 2 July, 2002, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Bombing that went wrong
The AC-130 gunship
The AC-130 pulverise targets with considerable accuracy
The BBC's defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus

The US air attack in southern Afghanistan, which reports suggest has caused significant civilian loss of life, was initially explained by the Pentagon as having been due to an errant bomb.

Now that story has changed and cannon fire from an AC-130 has been blamed.

But the attack once again highlights the fact that US military operations in Afghanistan are continuing, even if they have tended to fade from the headlines.

B-52 bomber in Afghanistan
As part of the operation a B-52 dropped bombs on a cave complex
Accidental civilian deaths are sadly an inevitable product of modern warfare.

Military planners have a duty to try to avoid them wherever possible, or to ensure that so-called collateral damage is reduced to the lowest levels, however precise the munitions used.

The key questions here relate to the weapons used in this attack, the exact circumstances in which they were employed and, probably, the intelligence upon which the operation was conceived.

The US military authorities say they were engaged in an operation in Uruzgan province, attacking the suspected hiding places of fugitive Taleban leaders.

Conflicting reports

The US military says that its aircraft came under fire during the operation and responded by attacking several targets on the ground, including anti-aircraft artillery sites that were engaging the aircraft.

Afghan reports suggest that on the contrary, what the Americans mistook for anti-aircraft fire was actually the firing of rounds into the air to celebrate a wedding.

As part of the operation a B-52 bomber dropped seven 2,000-pound bombs on a cave complex. Initially, the Americans indicated that it might have been one of these that may have cause the civilian casualties.

US troops in Afghanistan
At what point will the Pentagon declare its Afghan operations over
The weapons dropped by the B-52 were GBU-31s - also known as Joint Attack Munitions or JDAMS.

This is essentially a conventional bomb that has been fitted with a special kit to guide the bomb to the co-ordinates of its chosen target using Global Positioning Satellites for reference.

It is usually highly accurate and capable of hitting within a dozen metres of an intended target. And, unlike laser-guided systems, it does not depend upon the weather.

But, after further investigation the Pentagon has changed its mind. It now believes that it may have been canon-fire from a Special Operations Forces' AC-130 that caused the civilian casualties.

Targets

The AC-130 gunship is a conversion of a Hercules transport aircraft.

It is a relatively slow-flying heavily armed ground-attack aircraft mounting a variety of guns and fire control systems that enable it to pulverise targets with considerable accuracy.

It is typically used to support Special Operations Forces on the ground.

It has to be said that the basic facts of this case still seem unclear. And much more information is needed before a judgement can be made.

Child injured in the bombing
The bombing resulted in a significant number of civilian casualties
Did the US aircraft actually come under fire? If not, how did they confuse celebratory small-arms fire with anti-aircraft gunnery? How well did they identify the targets attacked by the AC-130 guns?

This operation illustrates that US efforts to find Taleban and al-Qaeda leaders are far from over, though in recent weeks they seem to have had only limited success. Many experts believe that key figures have fled across the border into the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan.

But this operation raises a difficult but important question about diminishing returns. The Americans reckon that their forces will be in Afghanistan for at least a further year or so. But are the on-going US operations - especially if there are civilian casualties - tending to produce more negative rather than positive results?

Are ordinary people who may not necessarily be hard-core supporters of the Taleban being alienated? Is their tentative support for the new Afghan leadership being undermined?

I put this question about diminishing returns to the overall US commander General Tommy Franks when he visited London a few weeks ago.

He, of course, insisted that US forces still had plenty of work to do.

But he acknowledged afterwards that it was a good question - one that must surely be on the minds of US commanders and political leaders.

At what point will the Pentagon declare its Afghan operations over? It's hard to say.


Key stories

European probe

Background

IN DEPTH
See also:

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