WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged yesterday that a Special Forces raid on two compounds north of Kandahar last month killed 15 Afghans loyal to a provincial governor, rather than the Taliban or al-Qaida forces the U.S. believed were located there.
But Rumsfeld denied the raid was a mistake, saying that U.S. troops traveled to the area to verify intelligence reports of enemy activity. The Americans were fired upon by those inside one of the compounds, located in a remote stretch of Uruzgan province, and returned fire, he said.
"I think that is certainly no mistake," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon, providing the initial findings of a review conducted by the U.S. Central Command, which is overseeing the military campaign in Afghanistan.
"With respect to the people who fired on the American forces and then were killed, clearly in retrospect that's unfortunate," he said. "On the other hand, one cannot fault the people who fired back in self defense."
Besides killing at least 15 people, who Rumsfeld said have now been identified as aligned with Jan Mohammed, governor of Uruzgan province, the U.S. forces arrested 27 others at the second compound, who were released two weeks after the raid. Some of the 27 claimed U.S. forces beat them. Rumsfeld said there was no truth to the charges, saying that some resisted arrest and "may have been bruised" as they were taken into custody.
The Jan. 24 raid is one of at least three that Afghan officials said was based on faulty intelligence information provided by warlords hoping to settle scores with rivals.
Days after the January raid, Yusef Pashtun, a spokesman for Gul Argha Shirzai, the governor of Kandahar province, told reporters from The Sun and other news organizations that it resulted from "someone giving the wrong information to the Americans." The area is home to two rival anti-Taliban groups, "and each group is calling the other al-Qaida," Pashtun said.
A member of the Kandahar military council with close ties to the interim government of Hamid Karzai described the raid at the time as "an intelligence mistake."
But in the weeks before the raid, Rumsfeld said, there was "persuasive and compelling" intelligence information "that there was al-Qaida or Taliban activity there."
He said the information did not come from non-U.S. forces but rather was collected by Americans. Rather than call in an airstrike, the U.S. soldiers decided to verify the information with a nighttime operation at the compounds, and ended up arresting some at one compound and coming under fire at the other.
"My impression is they did their jobs, and it is a difficult situation that they're dealing with," Rumsfeld said, "and they're using good judgment throughout the process."
The defense secretary did not say whether the U.S. forces were dressed in U.S. military uniforms or identified themselves as Americans. Some of the U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan wear a mix of local civilian garb and military attire.
Army Col. Rick Thomas, a Central Command spokesman, said yesterday he had no information on either issue. But since the soldiers believed they were heading into enemy encampments and wanted to maintain an element of surprise, "I don't think they would have said, 'U.S. Special Forces at your front door.'"
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appearing with Rumsfeld yesterday, praised the U.S. intelligence operation in Afghanistan.
"The intelligence effort inside the country is absolutely superb," he said. "It's multi-agency ... it has contact with people that are out with the Afghans. ... We've got some really smart people that are not only doing the intelligence part but are also the operators. And they're the ones who make these judgments and come up with these recommendations."
But Afghan officials have complained that in two other instances, U.S. forces used information from rival warlords to launch two attacks they described as mistakes. The Pentagon says both were legitimate attacks and targeted either al-Qaida or Taliban forces.
In mid-December, U.S. warplanes attacked the northern Afghan town of Pol-e Khomri, killing forces loyal to Gen. Mohammed Fahim, a Northern Alliance commander and now the country's defense minister.
A week later, American bombs struck a convoy outside Khost, killing at least 12 people driving to the inaugural of interim leader Hamid Karzai, according to Afghan officials.
One Afghan official said a "sense of desperation" to find terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is leading to raids based on faulty intelligence.