‘Friendly fire’ long a problem in Afghan war

By ROBERT H. REID | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 10, 2014

Technological advancements have sharply reduced the risk of "friendly fire" incidents, but they haven’t succeeded in completely lifting the fog of war.

Here are some examples of notable "friendly fire" incidents in Afghanistan since the war erupted in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in the United States:

Karzai’s narrow escape

During the early months of the Afghan war, Afghanistan’s future president, Hamid Karzai, slipped into the country with hundreds of followers and a team of U.S. special operators to organize resistance against the Taliban in the south. As his forces approached Kandahar, Karzai’s followers came under strong Taliban attack. Following three days of fighting, Karzai’s special forces escorts called in U.S. airstrikes. Due to confusion over the coordinates, one jet dropped ordnance so close to Karzai’s position that three U.S. special operators were killed and Karzai was injured. Nevertheless, Karzai’s fighters held their position and eventually negotiated a Taliban withdrawal from Kandahar.

Operation Anaconda

Three months after the Taliban fled Kabul, U.S. and allied forces launched Operation Anaconda against insurgents regrouping in the Shah-i-Kot Valley of Paktia province south of Kabul near the Pakistan border. At the time it was the largest allied ground operation of the war, designed to trap a large insurgent force by seizing high ground above militant-held villages in the valley below. But the operation ran into problems from the start. As a convoy of Afghan and U.S. special operators moved into position, the failure of an internal navigation system confused the crew of an AC-130 gunship, which opened fire against what it mistakenly thought was the enemy. The leader of the convoy, Chief Warrant Officer Stanley Harriman, was killed and several U.S. and Afghan troopers were wounded. The misfire was among a number of problems that plagued the 17-day battle, which ended with Taliban and al-Qaida fighters fleeing to Pakistan after suffering heavy losses. Eight Americans were killed in action and 82 wounded.

Canadians under fire

On April 18, 2002, a U.S. F-16 jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on Canadian troops of the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry during a night firing exercise at Tarnak Farms near Kandahar, thinking they were the enemy. Four Canadians were killed and eight others wounded. The attack severely strained relations between the U.S. and Canada, which blamed the American crew for the deaths. After a lengthy investigation, the pilot pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and was forced to retire. The four Canadians killed received posthumous U.S. medals.

Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman became a national hero when he gave up a $3.6 million NFL contract to join the Army after 9/11. On April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed in a firefight in Khost province. The military initially reported he died in an ambush by Taliban forces and the command recommended him for a Silver Star, even though documents released later indicated the brass was aware of doubts about the official version. An Army Special Operations Command investigation later established that he died when two U.S. units opened fire on each other and no hostile forces were involved. His family has complained for years that the full story of his death was never revealed.

Kunduz airstrike

On the night of Sept. 3, 2009, Taliban fighters hijacked two fuel trucks near the northern city of Kunduz. The German commander feared the vehicles might be used as truck bombs against his forces nearby and called for an airstrike. U.S Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles reported large crowds had gathered around the trucks but German intelligence reportedly believed all were combatants. Many turned out to be civilians invited by the Taliban to loot fuel from the vehicles. The jets truck at 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 4, unleashing huge fireballs that incinerated as many as 140 people, including about 100 civilians according to German investigators. The attack came at a time when Karzai was complaining bitterly about civilian deaths due to combat operations and was strongly criticized within the U.S.-led coalition and in Germany, where public support for the war was shaky. Three senior German civilian defense officials resigned weeks later. The German commander was replaced but was promoted to brigadier general three years later.

Twitter: @rhreid

The death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004 is perhaps the best-known "friendly fire" incident of the Afghan war.


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