By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; 4:34 AM
DELARAM, AFGHANISTAN -- Using a Predator drone, the U.S. military this week fired a Hellfire missile into a crowd of suspected insurgents in Helmand province, killing 13 people and wounding three, military officials said Tuesday. It was one of two such attacks by unmanned aircraft on the same day.
Since taking over as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has cautioned his troops against relying on aircraft to bomb targets unless there is a clear insurgent threat, as such bombings have killed civilians and inflamed anti-American sentiment among Afghans. Still, the use of Predator and Reaper drones to fire missiles, while not as frequent as in Pakistan, is increasingly common in Afghanistan, according to U.S. military officials.
"Not unusual at all," said Maj. Dale Highberger, the second in command of the Marine infantry battalion that has just opened a major operation in the Bar Now Zad area of Helmand province. "We use those more and more all the time as they become available."
The attack that targeted a crowd of suspected insurgents occurred about 4 a.m. Monday, a couple of hours after two Marine companies dropped in by helicopter in Bar Now Zad, a Taliban-controlled area to the northwest of Now Zad, where about 1,000 Marines entered last month to try to wrest the town from insurgents. The Marine arrival early Monday -- intended to capture or kill Taliban leaders operating there, as well as those who had fled the earlier operation -- came as a surprise to the insurgents, according to Highberger.
"We caught them sleeping," he said. "We caught them with their pants down."
But the Taliban responded, in groups of up to 50 people, using hit-and-run attacks with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The fighting prompted Marine reinforcements to be flown in from the battalion headquarters in Delaram.
While searching the villages, Marines found stockpiles of homemade explosives, ammunition and what one officer described as a Taliban "torture" cell.
Sporadic fighting continued Tuesday, but by Wednesday the operation was nearing completion. Marines said they had accomplished their goals and that residents had asked them to build a patrol base and stay in the area.
Three Marines were shot and killed, and at least one other Marine was wounded, military officials said.
When military surveillance officials spotted a group of Afghans carrying guns outside what was thought to be a Taliban safe house, they called in the Hellfire missile. Highberger said that 11 of the 13 people killed were confirmed Taliban members and that the two others were known associates. In the Bar Now Zad operation, the Marines have killed 20 or fewer suspected insurgents, according to one Marine officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the operation was ongoing.
The other Hellfire missile strike occurred Monday in the Nad Ali district of Helmand, killing three suspected insurgents carrying weapons, according to a U.S. military statement.
The CIA has made heavy use of remote-controlled aircraft to pursue Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where American ground troops are not allowed to operate. The bombings have angered Pakistani politicians and residents, who consider the attacks a violation of sovereignty, but U.S. officials defend their effectiveness. In August, a drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud. His death, in turn, was cited as the motivation for the recent suicide bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan by a Jordanian double agent.
In Afghanistan, military officials said, the drones are regularly used during big operations when the aircraft are available.
"It has pinpoint precision, and it limits collateral damage," the Marine officer said about the use of drones. "The other good thing is you can't see it or hear it."